As we approach Independence Day, it occurs to me there is a connection to some of my work of the past eleven years and one of my most popular presentations requested by general audiences (e.g., Rotary Clubs, church fellowships, attorney groups, community coalitions), titled: “Alcohol and the Brain: How a Person Can Lose Control of Their Drinking.” Both relate to dependence on alcohol (whether that dependence is repeated binge drinking, routine heavy social drinking or alcoholism) and how to turn that dependence into personal independence.
Generally, at these short (or longer) programs, there is discussion and concern about what happens when a person loses control of their drinking. In other words, discussion and concern for the person on the receiving end of the drinking behaviors: the verbal, physical or emotional abuse; neglect; driving while impaired; illogical, circular arguments; mean, hurtful things said…. And of course the extent of these discussions depends on the group.
But of particular interest to attendees is learning that a person’s drinking is not an either/or – it’s not either “normal” or “alcoholic.” And in fact, it’s that whole gray area in between – “at-risk” drinking patterns referred to as heavy social drinking or binge drinking or alcohol abuse that are the bigger problem. I say bigger in that twice the number of people fall into this category as fall into the category of having the disease of alcoholism (being an “alcoholic”). Not only that, but alcoholism is a developmental disease. Meaning a person is not born an alcoholic. Thus some people can engage a lifetime of “at-risk” drinking that never reaches dependence (alcoholism). Regardless of which of these drinking patterns it is, the outcome is still the same – drinking behaviors.
It’s during these discussions that people learn it’s the drinking behaviors, regardless of the drinking pattern, that wreaks havoc in families and communities because drinking behaviors have a negative impact on others, something I refer to as Secondhand Drinking. Why is this the case? Because drinking behaviors are related to the amount of alcohol consumed, not to the disease of alcoholism.
Which brings me to my point: How does a person lose control of their drinking and thus his or her personal independence?
One of the most common ways is a lack of awareness that not all “drinks” are the same. A margarita, for example, often contains two to three “standard” drinks; a bottle of table wine contains five.
People also don’t understand that one standard drink equals 5 ounces of table wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of spirits (such as vodka).
Thus, it is easy to drink more than “moderate drinking” limits, which are defined by the NIAAA as:
- For women: No more than 7 standard drinks in a week, with no more than 3 of the 7 in any one day.
- For men: No more than 14 standard drinks in a week, with no more than 4 of the 14 in any one day.
Another way a person loses control of their drinking relates to the stigma and shame that still surrounds the brain disease of alcoholism, one of the diseases of addiction. This stigma and shame keeps all concerned — the person with the drinking problem, their families, co-workers and friends — sliding down a slippery slope. On the slope, they collude with one another to dismiss problematic drinking. Such “collusion” is all to avoid the label, “alcoholic.”
Yet, all alcoholics go through a period of alcohol abuse (a drinking pattern that can be changed), but not all alcohol abusers become alcoholics (a drinking pattern that cannot be changed unless alcohol use is stopped entirely). So stepping in as the progression begins can be very important. [Check out this short video, "Alcoholism is a Disease and It's Not Alcohol Abuse."]
Another key reason a person loses control of drinking, I believe, is society’s continued view of alcoholism as a “choice.” People don’t understand that it’s one of the diseases of addiction and that addiction sets up cravings for alcohol that are three to five times stronger than our hardwired cravings for food when hungry. This leaves the alcoholic and family, friends and coworkers believing the person should be able to get a grip on drinking and that failing to do so demonstrates a lack of willpower. So they all try harder to control it, not understanding that as long as the alcoholic drinks any amount of alcohol, they will never be able to control it. Talk about a Catch 22!
But losing control of one’s drinking does not have to continue. We can collectively “do something” about it, and in so doing have profound impacts on reducing consequences such as underage drinking, drinking and driving, alcohol abuse and alcoholism. How?
(CLICK LINK TO OPEN BROCHURE Breaking the Cycle Brochure_5-2014)
First understand the new brain research on addiction — information that has only been possible in the past 10 to 15 years as a result of new imaging technologies that allow neuroscientists and medical professionals to study the live human brain in action and over time. These images provide the visual “proof” of clinical evaluations, showing what happens to the brain with alcohol abuse and/or alcohol dependence (addiction). And perhaps more importantly, this research can help us prevent alcohol abuse and alcoholism — especially in young people, which is where much of it starts. This new research shows the human brain goes through a critical stage of development from ages 12 to 25 and shows the devastating impacts of alcohol abuse during that developmental stage.
Second is to understand that loving and living with a person who abuses (or is addicted to) alcohol can cause the non-drinking family members to experience serious psychological and physical consequences that interfere with school and work and social, family and community relationships. They too develop a “brain thing” we all must better understand, that “thing” I refer to as secondhand drinking (linked above).
Third is to learn what neuroscientists and medical professionals are discovering about the previously unknown neuroplasticity of the brain and the role of brain circuitry in our habits. This means we have the ability to change that circuitry. In other words, the brain can change, and in changing allow us to come up with different habits. But we are wholly responsible for how we do that — and that’s where new research and talking about it can help. By understanding and talking about it, we can shatter the stigma and shame that surround the disease of alcoholism and keeps so many millions of men, women and children “stuck.”
With knowledge will come the ability to stop, change or treat one’s drinking pattern. And that’s is when a person will know real freedom – freedom from the kind of drinking that causes drinking behaviors – now that’s a different kind of Independence Day!
The following sources have helped many individuals and families:
The Addiction Project – to better understand the disease of addiction, of which alcoholism is but one.
NIAAA’s Rethinking Drinking – to asses drinking patterns, learn more about standard drinks, find tips for cutting down.
Crossing the Line from Alcohol Use to Abuse to Dependence – short eBook debunking common myths that can cause a person to lose control of their drinking.