12 Myths about Alcoholics and Alcohol Abuse

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Alcoholism is a disease, but numerous myths about alcoholism give rise to the stigma that deters many individuals from seeking treatment. Furthermore, these myths distort our perceptions of loved ones who may be suffering from alcohol addiction. Challenge what you know about alcoholism by reading some myths below:

1. “All you need is willpower if you really wanted to stop drinking.”
Alcohol addiction is more than just a psychological condition. Once your body develops alcohol dependence or an addiction to alcohol, recovering from alcohol abuse will require more than just sheer willpower. In order to detox safely from alcohol, one must seek treatment for alcohol abuse from a specialized addiction treatment provider. Self-detoxification may result in extremely uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms which lead to relapse, or worse yet, it could lead to death.

2. “You can spot an alcoholic by looking at their demeanor – disheveled hair, unkempt appearance with a bottle in hand covered by a paper bag.”
Individuals with alcohol use disorder come in all shapes and sizes from every racial, ethnic and socioeconomic background. Some are highly functional and are able to hide their drinking behaviors, while others can no longer control or hide their alcohol abuse. According to a Gallup poll, alcohol consumption is highest among America’s educated, high-income earners. About 80% of college graduates and 78% of high-income earners with annual salaries of $75,000 or more reported drinking alcohol. The white-collar corporate executive sitting next to you may very well be a closet alcoholic.

3. “Treatment is only effective if the alcoholic wants the help.”
Waiting for an alcoholic to ask for help may be a waste of time, because individuals with alcohol use disorders often do not see their own need for addiction treatment. When family members, significant others and loved ones care enough to stage an intervention, addiction treatment can be successful, as evidenced by many success stories of those who complete treatment.

4. “Alcohol abuse is the same as alcohol addiction.”
Alcohol abuse can become alcohol addiction if the individual does not take steps to reduce or abstain from drinking. Alcohol consumption turns into alcohol abuse when a person’s drinking patterns start to disrupt his or her daily routine, affecting one’s ability to perform on the job or at school. Blackouts, memory loss and risky behaviors become more frequent as the person continues to drink heavily, oftentimes binge drinking or drinking frequently throughout the week.

Alcohol abuse turns into alcohol addiction, or alcoholism, when the person meets the DSM-V criteria for alcohol use disorder, which is characterized by chronic relapse, compulsive alcohol consumption, loss of control and presence of withdrawal symptoms when the individual isn’t drinking.

5. “Alcoholism is a moral disease.”
Historically, alcoholism has always been (falsely) viewed as a moral disease, which villainizes individuals who have a drinking problem, as though alcohol addiction were a character defect than a brain disease. As a consequence for alcohol abuse, addicts were often incarcerated as criminals or institutionalized in psychiatric wards during the 18th and 19th centuries.

What constitutes a moral failing? The morality model of addiction looks at alcoholism as a result of someone’s failure to choose right over wrong. Based on this premise, it follows that spiritual direction and guidance would be the solution to alcoholism, and punishment for moral wrongs would deter one from making the same mistakes over and over again. However, numerous studies have shown that these inmates return to their addictive behaviors after they are released only to end up in jail again. Punishment for the “moral failure” of alcoholism has not solved the problem of recidivism nor does it explain why one person develops alcoholism and another one doesn’t.

6. “Alcohol causes alcoholism.”
The cause of alcoholism must be determined on a case-by-case basis. Alcoholism can be attributed to a number of factors, including genetics, environmental stimuli, psychological distress, co-occurring mental health disorders, social context, age, and gender. Alcohol in itself does not cause alcoholism; it is a combination of aforementioned factors that could predispose an individual toward developing an addiction to alcohol.

7. “Anyone who drinks alcohol can become addicted.”
Alcohol can potentially be addictive, but this doesn’t apply to everyone. Individuals may be genetically predisposed to develop alcoholism; for one person, one drink may be enough to lead to a downward spiral if the person has a family history of alcoholism. Others may drink heavily and frequently, but their drinking behaviors do not necessarily lead to alcohol addiction.

8. “If you can ‘hold your liquor’ without appearing intoxicated, you are at less risk for alcoholism.”
The ability to hold one’s liquor may be a sign of alcoholism, because it indicates the body’s tolerance for alcohol intake. After a consistent and continued pattern of drinking, the drinker’s body gets used to the same amount and starts to respond less to the effects of alcohol. Those who brag about holding their liquor (e.g., having fewer alcohol effects like hangovers after a night of heavy drinking) put themselves at greater risk for alcohol dependence, alcohol abuse and medical complications in the long run.

9. “Alcohol rehabs don’t work because a lot of alcoholics relapse.”
Addiction treatment centers for alcohol abuse and alcoholism works when the individual adheres to the program and lives a healthy, sober lifestyle with the support of friends and family. Being plugged into a supportive network such as one’s recovery community or a self-help group like Alcoholics Anonymous is critical to one’s lifelong recovery. Being in recovery is a daily choice to embrace physical, mental and spiritual wellness, which is much more than just abstinence from drugs and alcohol.

10. “Drinking coffee will sober you up after you’ve had alcohol.”
Caffeine may reduce the drowsiness, but it doesn’t stop the effects of alcohol after you’ve had a few drinks. Depending on the amount of alcohol consumed, your decision-making and coordination may be impaired; it takes an average of two or three hours for your body to metabolize a single drink.

11. “If you don’t feel buzzed, you’re okay to drive.”
Alcohol impairs your ability to drive and slows down your reaction time long before you appear intoxicated. Even if you eat before you drink, splash cold water on your face or roll down the window to let the cool air wake you up, that will not stop your body from experiencing the effects of alcohol.

12. “I don’t have a drinking problem…I only drink on the weekends.”
Heavy drinking is not defined by how often you drink but how much you drink in a day or a week. If you are a man, you may have a drinking problem if you have 4 or more in a day or more than 14 drinks in a week; if you’re a woman, you may be at risk if you have at least 3 drinks a day or 7 or more drinks a week. One standard drink is equivalent to a 12 oz. bottle of beer, a 5 oz. glass of wine, or 1.5 oz. shot of hard liquor, also known as distilled spirts (e.g., whiskey, vodka, rum, tequila, gin, and brandy).

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