by Sena Christian
Alcoholism was once viewed with reproach—its sufferers considered people who lacked sufficient willpower to simply stop drinking—but as the medical community has come to realize that the disease is complicated, treatment is evolving to exclude judgment and include compassion and more comprehensive steps for recovery.
“In the past there was a sense that addiction was a character flaw, so there was a moral aspect to it,” says Vera Abreu, a marriage and family therapist at Dignity Health. Now alcohol addiction is understood as being influenced by genetic, psychological, social and environmental factors.
WHEN AND WHY TO WORRYAccording to the National Library of Medicine, 3 out of 10 people in the U.S. consume alcohol at a level that puts them at risk for alcoholism. When drinking in social settings spirals out of control and the person doesn’t know when to stop, there may be a problem. Drinking may also turn into a way to unwind or deal with anxiety or depression—instead of using healthy coping mechanisms. “The alcohol becomes like the master,” Abreu says, “so, typically, the person starts to hide the alcohol intake—they go in the garage to drink, or to the bar where they don’t know anyone. The person starts having more withdrawal symptoms when not drinking.”
Heavy use can increase the likelihood of stroke, liver disease and certain cancers, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Across the country, nearly 85,000 people die from alcohol-related diseases annually, making it the third leading preventable cause of death.
EARLY ONSETDr. Angela Chanter treats adolescents struggling with substance abuse. She says the age of onset—meaning when someone first tastes alcohol—is 11-13 years old. “The first warning sign [of alcoholism] is age,” says Chanter, clinical director and co-founder of Full Circle Adolescent Family Program in Roseville, which recently merged with Community Recovery Resources. Other red flags include poor grades, new friends, extreme fatigue and defensiveness, or the child quitting activities that once brought them joy coupled with spending the night at a friend’s house more often.
Teens with lots of unsupervised time or uninvolved parents are also at greater risk. Chanter suggests parents set curfews and use a breathalyzer to occasionally test their children. An expert should be involved the first time a child is caught drinking without the parent’s permission, she says. “If your child did heroin once, you’d intervene immediately,” Chanter says. “It’s the same idea.”
A HELPING HANDIn terms of adults, Abreu advises first letting the alcoholic know their drinking is a problem. Be factual and withhold judgment, stating only what you observe; for example, “I’ve noticed you’re missing more work.” If the person disagrees, suggest a professional assessment. “Usually when one person thinks there is a problem and the other person thinks there [isn’t], there’s a problem,” Abreu says. Treatment requires abstinence and a lifestyle overhaul, which isn’t always easy. First comes detoxification in a controlled environment, followed by therapy in an inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation center. Support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, are available after rehab.
Addiction is a family disease, Abreu says, and everyone needs to get onboard because recovery means a long, arduous road ahead.
Community Recovery Resources
What: Adult outpatient services, Full Circle Adolescent Family Program, Mothers in Recovery, DUI classes
Where: 730 Sunrise Avenue, Roseville (additional locations in Grass Valley, Truckee, Kings Beach, Auburn and Lincoln), 916-782-3737 corr.us
What: Services for friends and families of alcoholics
Where: Local meetings held in Roseville and Folsom, ncwsa.org
What: Support group for people recovering from alcoholism
Where: Meetings held in Rocklin, Roseville, Granite Bay, Folsom, El Dorado Hills and Placerville aasacramento.org