What is Alcoholism?

The general definition for alcoholism considered a substance use disorder (SUD), is the inability to stop drinking, with endless cravings for more alcohol regardless of the consequences to one’s person, family, or work situation. By itself, alcoholism is considered an alcohol use disorder (AUD) with three classifications: mild, moderate, and severe.

When a person engages in binge drinking, that is, drinking a significant amount in a short period, it is considered excessive alcohol use. The inability to stop drinking entirely may indicate one’s state of addiction to alcohol. Excessive alcohol use is “a leading preventable cause of death in the United States, shortening the lives of those who die by an average of 26 years.

The CDC estimates that 1 in 6 US adults binge drinks. “Binge drinking is responsible for more than 40% of the deaths and three-quarters of the costs due to excessive alcohol use. Recent statistics (2019) indicate that 14.5 million people 12 years and older suffer from AUD, and less than 10% of those with AUD received treatment in the last year.

Impact of Heavy Drinking and Alcoholism on The Brain

Alcohol alters how the brain works. Think of someone who has had a bit too much to drink his/her/their:

  • Slurred speech
  • Uncoordinated body movements
  • Changes in personality
  • Changes in respiration
  • Impaired perception
  • Impaired learning and memory

“Neuropathological and imaging techniques have provided evidence of physical brain abnormalities in alcoholics, such as atrophy of nerve cells and brain shrinkage.”

With time, chronic drinking can cause other health problems, many of them serious:

  • Accidents (falls, burns)
  • Blackouts
  • Assaults
  • DUIs
  • Homicide
  • Liver disease
  • Cancer (research indicates that wine, beer, and liquor can contribute to cancers of the mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, colon, rectum, liver, and breast cancer.)
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (occurs in pregnant women who drink)
  • Heart disease
  • Dementia
  • Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (wet brain due to vitamin B1 deficiency)

Alcoholism as a Family Disease

Alcoholism is known as a family disease because everyone in the house, the extended family, is affected by the person who is an alcoholic. To begin the discussion on families, we can start with children. Children are negatively affected by alcohol. The alcoholic’s behavior may be aggressive, leading to:

  • Random violence
  • Unpredictable moods
  • Emotional abuse
  • Child neglect
  • Discomfort at home leads to a loss of socialization
  • Difficulty focusing in school
  • Having the child behave as the caretaker
  • Depression
  • Aggression toward other children
  • Delinquent behavior
  • Alcohol or drug use
  • Risky behaviors
  • Depression or suicidal thoughts

For the spouse, an alcoholic partner may instill feelings of failure, shame, and the need to take on additional responsibilities.

What factors may influence AUD?

There are a variety of factors that can influence why a person may become an alcoholic. Generally, no one plans on becoming addicted to substances, including alcohol. But experiences and feelings can lead some toward addiction. These factors include but are not limited to the following:

  • Genetics
  • Early childhood experiences
  • Self-medicating to treat bad feelings
  • Family history of alcoholism
  • Inability to handle stressful situations
  • Feelings of guilt/shame/insecurity
  • Dysfunctional family history
  • Childhood abuse 

Disease Progression in the Family

The disease of AUD is all-encompassing. No one escapes unhurt. Slowly, the dynamics in the family move from healthy, if it began that way, to dysfunctional. Arguments, physical abuse, verbal abuse, shame, lying, and spending family resources on alcohol all become the dominant factors in the family. The sober spouse unwittingly may add to the problem by assuming responsibilities and behaving as if the problem doesn’t exist. The alcoholic promises to stop.

The person suffering from AUD might stop for a while. But, over time, repeated relapses, such as stopping, staying sober, then drinking again, worsen withdrawal symptoms.

Without time to address the reasons underlying the AUD in a treatment program, the alcoholic will not find a robust and stable recovery. Sometimes people stop drinking and experience “white-knuckling it.” This means that underlying issues remain unsolved. Generally, the alcoholic struggles and becomes angry. Sometimes, the alcoholic will go into a detox facility or program. Many people think that going through detoxification equates with going to treatment. This is a severe mistake. Detox is the process by which the body rids itself of toxins; it can be accomplished with medical assistance. Depending on the amount of alcohol consumed, the length of time ruined, and the person’s age, health, and mental state all determine alcohol withdrawal symptoms.


Alcohol withdrawal symptoms usually occur within 8 hours after the last drink but can occur days later. Symptoms typically peak in 24 to 72 hours but may go on for weeks.

Common symptoms include:

  • Anxiety or nervousness
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Jumpiness or shakiness
  • Mood swings
  • Nightmares
  • Not thinking clearly

Other symptoms may include:

A severe form of alcohol withdrawal called delirium tremens can cause:

Treatment for Alcoholism

There are several options available for those seeking treatment. However, there is not one size fits all treatment. The first step is to go to a detox facility that is licensed and accredited, and staffed with medical personnel experts in addiction, alcoholism, and mental health disorders. A client must be properly diagnosed to minimize the withdrawal symptoms and control the mental health issues that may arise.

After successfully moving through detox, the client should immediately go into treatment. Several forms of treatment are available depending on financial considerations and work and family obligations. It should be noted that the best option is for a client to enter treatment away from family and work and other responsibilities that can be a distraction or a trigger to use. However, intensive outpatient programs can be successful if the client fully commits to recovery.

Commitment to recovery entails avoiding places where the alcoholic drank, avoiding friends with which the alcoholic drank, and changing many aspects of how the alcoholic negotiated life. Without help, these changes are complex, at the very least.

Treatment programs should include different therapeutic methods, including one-on-one and group counseling, behavior modification techniques, and family counseling. Family counseling helps identify the dysfunctional dynamics that may have developed during the addiction or the dynamics that participated in the habit. All members, where possible, should attend family sessions. Additionally, to help stabilize the alcoholic’s mental health, if there are issues, medication education and management, life skills, relapse prevention, nutrition and exercise, and meditation are also needed.

If you or a loved one is suffering from AUD and it is time to stop the cycle of addiction, call us today and learn how we can help you and your loved one regain your life without dependence.