Alcohol Abuse Treatment and Recovery

Addiction to alcohol (also referred to as alcohol dependency and alcoholism) is one of the most common forms of drug addiction in the United States (and in many other nations, too).

Alcoholism is an addiction with a simple definition (a chronic disease in which the body becomes dependent upon alcohol), complex causes, and effects that can range from destructive to deadly.

We’ve all seen how people act when they’ve had too much to drink. Their speech slurs, they lose their inhibitions, their coordination fails, and they often say or do things they later regret.

Though these short-term effects can be embarrassing or socially awkward, the long-term effects can be devastating.

    • Alcohol attacks virtually every major organ of the body, such as the heart, liver and brain.
    • Alcoholics often suffer irreversible liver damage, including life-threatening conditions such as cirrhosis, liver cancer, and alcoholic hepatitis.
    • Alcohol raises blood pressure, damages the heart and causes problems in the gastro-intestinal system, such as cancers of the throat and stomach, and stomach ulcers.
    • Alcohol causes men to become sexually impotent, and is a risk factor for breast cancer in women.
    • Pregnant women who drink alcohol risk giving birth to babies with deformities and mental disabilities.

The Difference Between Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism

Though the terms “alcohol abuse” and “alcoholism” are associated, it is important to understand the clear line of demarcation between abusing alcohol and being addicted to alcohol. To put this as succinctly as possible, alcohol abuse is a behavior, while alcoholism is a disease.

Many people are able to drink alcohol in moderate amounts without becoming addicted to or dependent upon this drug. Some people are even able to engage in alcohol abuse (for example, binge drinking or drinking past the point of intoxication) without developing alcoholism.

Alcohol abuse is clearly not a healthy behavior. It can lead to a number of negative outcomes, including sickness (such as alcohol poisoning), developmental disorders (in children of mothers who drink while pregnant), injuries and death (for example, auto accidents caused by drivers who were operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol).

However, alcohol abuse is not the same as alcoholism.

Alcoholism, addiction to alcohol, and alcohol dependence are all terms that are used to describe the chronic condition in which a person’s body becomes dependent upon alcohol. Some people who abuse alcohol may be able to stop — alcoholics cannot.

Warning Signs & Symptoms of Alcoholism

The following are among the more common symptoms of alcoholism:

        • Becoming obsessed with alcohol — for example, feeling compelled to drink, constantly thinking about drinking, and continually planning when and where to drink
        • Being unable to limit or control the amount or frequency of one’s drinking
        • Being unable to stop drinking once one begins (in other words, being incapable of having “just one drink” or drinking socially in small amounts)
        • Binge drinking (for men, having five or more alcohol drinks in one session; for women, having three or more drinks in one session) on  a regular basis
        • Drinking alone, drinking in secret, and hiding or lying about the amount and frequency of one’s drinking
        • Developing tolerance to alcohol (which means that a person needs to drink increasingly large amounts of alcohol in order to experience the same “high” or rush that previously resulted from less alcohol)
        • Experiencing negative outcomes directly related to one’s drinking — including lost or failed relationships, employment or financial problems, and legal consequences
        • Continuing to drink alcohol even after experiencing these negative outcomes
        • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms – often painful physical experiences such as cramping, shaking, becoming nauseous, and sweating profusely — when unable to have a drink.
        • Having “black outs” — which means being incapable of what one said or did when drinking
        • Losing interest in activities and hobbies and other experiences (including spending time with friends and loved ones) that once brought great pleasure
        • Hiding alcohol around the house, office, or even in the car in order to never be far away from alcohol when the urge to drink becomes too strong to resist

Stages of Alcohol Addiction

Many medical and addiction experts agree that alcoholism (alcohol addiction) is a disease; but it is still a matter of debate amongst others. The good folks at Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) say that alcoholism is “powerful, cunning and baffling” and that is a sentiment almost everyone can agree on. Those labels often apply because alcoholism does not follow a clearly-defined course for most people. Some people are addicted the first time they drink alcohol; others drink socially for years before losing control.

Alcoholism in the beginning stages often finds the drinker using alcohol regularly to self-medicate or to escape from negative feelings – anxiety, depression, etc.  They may find themselves thinking about drinking incessantly and are not interested in gatherings or restaurants where alcohol is not served.  In these early stages family members may not realize their loved one is alcoholic; almost surely the alcoholic is in denial about it. Increased tolerance is the next step to addiction; the drinker needs more and more liquor to achieve the effects a couple of drinks once produced. Some can drink a great deal and appear sober; they walk, talk and speak normally. As tolerance increases, however, there is usually a rapid decline in their ability to function normally.

As alcoholics move into middle- stage addiction very often the desire and need (cravings) are intense and difficult to ignore.  The alcoholic continues to consume even larger amounts and may begin drinking earlier in the day. Their old rules go out the window – while once they “drank after 5pm” they may now start at noon or earlier. There is little the alcoholic can do at this stage to control their drinking. Most, however, will try to control their drinking over and over again; if they are truly alcoholic they are doomed to fail.  Tolerance now decreases and they reach intoxication much more quickly.  If they do decrease the amount of alcohol consumed they may be subject to withdrawal symptoms.  Drinking more, getting drunk faster and starting earlier in the day greatly affects relationships and may cost the alcoholic their job.  Family members begin to recognize the problem and may speak to the addict, but often they are so deep in denial, not much is accomplished. It is not unusual for extreme hangovers, stomach problems and blackouts to be regular occurrences now.

Alcoholics in end-stage addiction are suffering dire consequences due to their obsession with drinking; alcohol comes before family, friends, work, church, character and everything else that once mattered.  At this stage, one can say the alcoholic is spiritually, morally and physically bankrupt. Due to loss of work and money spent on drinking, many are financially bankrupt as well.  Many will suffer from malnutrition because they eat almost nothing; what they do manage to eat they usually vomit out of their systems.  Alcohol affects each organ differently and is known to have major (often life-threatening) consequences on the liver. Many alcoholics die from cirrhosis of the live and liver failure.

Unless the alcoholic stops drinking, the only options left may be hospitalization, incarceration or death.  Drunk driving kills far too many people and the drunk driver may be incarcerated for long periods of time. Mental and physical deterioration (hallucinations, dementia and tremors as well many other things) can result in hospitalization.  Death can come in a number of ways: one can be killed while driving drunk; poor judgment can lead to alcoholics engaging in violence and they can die because their bodies just finally shut down.

Because alcohol is legal in the U.S.A., alcoholics are the largest group of “addicts” by far.  Legality and the fact that drinking is seen as acceptable both can lead to the increase of alcoholism.

How can recovery take place?

Many millions of people around the globe achieve sobriety – it is not unusual to meet alcoholics who have not had a drop of liquor in 30 years or more. What’s more these people are happy and productive; active alcoholics may not believe it is possible to be happy without drinking but millions have proven them wrong. Recovery is an ongoing process and usually is best achieved by group participation.  Many alcoholics recover by following the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.  Many others take part in treatment (in-patient or out-patient) programs which are offered virtually everywhere across this country and around the world.

More than one-third of U.S. adults with alcoholism that began more than one year ago are still in recovery, according to an article in the current issue of addiction . These individuals show no symptoms of either alcohol dependence or alcohol abuse and either abstain or drink at levels below those known to increase relapse risk. The analysis is based on data from the 2001-2002 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC), a project of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

“Results from the latest NESARC analysis strengthen previous reports that many persons can and do recover from alcoholism,” said NIAAA Director Ting-Kai Li, M.D.

Lead author Deborah Dawson, Ph.D. and her colleagues in the Laboratory of Biometry and Epidemiology in NIAAA’s intramural research program released the latest NESARC analysis in an article entitled “Recovery From DSM-IV Alcohol Dependence: United States, 2001-2002.” Based on a representative sample of 43,000 U.S. adults aged 18 years and older, the NESARC is the largest survey ever conducted of the co-occurrence of alcohol and drug use disorders and related psychiatric conditions.

The recovery analysis is based on a subgroup of 4,422 adults who met the clinical criteria for alcohol dependence that began more than one year before the 2001-2002 survey. These individuals were primarily middle-aged, non-Hispanic white males. Sixty percent had attended or completed college. More than half had experienced the onset of alcohol dependence between the ages of 18 and 24, and only 25.5 percent had ever received treatment for their alcohol problems.

Dr. Dawson and her colleagues found that the likelihood of abstinent recovery increased over time and with age and was higher among women, individuals who were, and persons who had experienced a greater number of dependence symptoms.

When the authors compared their results with findings from the earlier 1991-1992 National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey (NLAES), they noted a trend during the past decade toward less rapid remission (that is, the absence of alcohol abuse or dependence symptoms) in persons previously dependent. “There are no obvious explanations for why this might be the case. Data from Wave 2 of the NESARC should provide valuable information to address this issue,” they said. The NESARC is a longitudinal study now entering the first stage of followup that should shed light on pathways to recovery.

What do you need to recover?

A desire to stop drinking – that’s it. You don’t have to understand alcoholism or even admit you are addicted – you may not be convinced you are. If your life is a mess (unmanageable) and you think drinking is the reason why, you may want to seriously consider stopping the insanity (the drinking). You CAN do it, millions of others have; take that first step — ask for help and you will be on the road to recovery.

Alcohol Abuse Treatment

In cases where alcoholism is even suspected, it is best to consult with a physician, addiction specialist, therapist, or other expert who can diagnose the condition and recommend treatment options.

When alcoholics try to quit on their own, they experience strong withdrawal symptoms as well as intense cravings for alcohol. For alcoholics, symptoms can be very severe and even life threatening. Their bodies are chemically dependent upon alcohol. They need professional treatment to recover from the disease of alcoholism.

Doctors diagnose alcoholism the same way they do other chronic diseases, such as arthritis or diabetes. The medical definition of alcoholism is printed in the book doctors use to make their diagnoses, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, published by the American Psychiatric Association.

Depending upon a number of factors, including the individual’s age, the nature and severity of the alcoholism, and the presence of any co-occurring conditions, the optimal treatment for an alcoholic may include outpatient therapy, participation in a 12-Step support group, partial hospitalization, or residential treatment.

With a day treatment program, clients come to the center from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and return to their home at night. Residential programs require that you live on the premises 24-hours a day while you are in treatment. The idea is that you have to spend at least a month or more in intense, full-time therapy to acquire the necessary change of direction and life skills you need to avoid relapses and remain sober.

Follow-up Care — Once you return home, you enter the third phase, or follow-up care, which usually includes continuing counseling and attendance at local support meetings.

Alcohol recovery treatment can look like an intimidating process — but effective treatment programs are staffed by highly trained supportive professionals whose jobs are focused on helping you achieve the success you deserve in order to live the life you desire.

Treatment for alcoholism may include the following therapies and techniques:


A number of promising new drugs have proved effective at helping recovering alcoholics every step of the way – from detoxification to follow-up care.

The recovery rate for alcoholism is about the same as that of other chronic diseases, such as diabetes and arthritis. Success depends upon how closely you follow the advice of your medical professionals.