What is alcoholism? According to the American Medical Association, “alcoholism is an illness characterized by significant impairment that is directly associated with persistent and excessive use of alcohol. Impairment may involve physiological, psychological or social dysfunction.” Psychologically speaking, alcoholism has less to do with “how much” someone is drinking, and more to do with what happens when they drink. If you have problems when you drink, you have a drinking problem.
The word alcohol comes from the Arabic “Al Kohl,” which means “the essence.” Alcohol has always been associated with rites of passages such as weddings and graduations, social occasions, sporting events and parties. The media has often glamorized drinking. Television viewers happily recount the Budweiser frog, the beach parties and general “good time” feeling of commercials selling beer. Magazine ads show beautiful couples sipping alcohol. Love, sex and romance are just around the corner as long as you drink the alcohol product being advertised.
The reality is that alcohol is often abused because it initially offers a very tantalizing promise. With mild intoxication, many people become more relaxed. They feel more carefree. Any preexisting problems tend to fade into the background. Alcohol can be used to enhance a good mood or change a bad mood. At first, alcohol allows the drinker to feel quite pleasant, with no emotional costs. As an individual’s drinking progresses, however, it takes more and more alcohol to achieve the same high. Eventually the high is hardly present.
How Common is Alcoholism?
Alcoholism is a complex disease, which has been misunderstood and stigmatized. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), Alcohol Dependence and Alcohol Abuse are among the most common mental disorders in the general population, with about eight percent of the adult population suffering from Alcohol Dependence and five percent from Alcohol Abuse.
It is widely accepted that there is a genetic predisposition toward alcoholism. According to DSM-IV, the risk for Alcohol Dependence is three to four times higher in close relative of people with Alcohol Dependence.
The Progression of the Disease
Alcoholism is a progressive disease and follows several phases:
The Social Drinker: Social drinkers have few problems with alcohol. A social drinker can basically take or leave it. There is no preoccupation with drinking. A social drinker is able to control the amount of alcohol consumed and rarely drinks to the point of intoxication. For these individuals, drinking is a secondary activity. It is the party, the meal, the wedding that interests the social drinker, not the opportunity to drink.
The Early Stage: An individual who is experiencing the early stages of alcoholism will begin to have an assortment of problems associated with drinking. In early stage alcoholism, a person may start to sneak drinks, begin to feel guilty about his or her drinking, and become preoccupied with alcohol. Blackouts, drinking to the point of drunkenness, and increased tolerance (needing more alcohol to achieve the same effect) are all signs of early alcoholism.
An individual who is entering the early stage of alcoholism will seek out companions who are heavy drinkers and lose interest in activities not associated with drinking. Family and friends may begin to express concern about the person’s consumption of alcohol. Work problems, such as missing work or tardiness, may also take place.