Alcoholism, also known as alcohol use disorder (AUD), refers to problematic patterns of alcohol use that lead to impairment and distress. Alcoholism is a complex disease that affects millions of individuals as well as their loved ones. This article provides an in-depth look at alcoholism - what it is, who it impacts, recognizing signs of AUD, effects on relationships and careers, and the difficulty of admitting alcoholism.
Alcoholism is characterized by an inability to control or stop using alcohol despite negative consequences. Those struggling with alcoholism prioritize drinking over other obligations, often to the detriment of work, relationships, finances, and health. Alcoholism disrupts daily functioning and quality of life.
Alcoholism is considered a chronic relapsing brain disease, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Genetic, environmental, and social factors influence one's risk. Over time, heavy alcohol use impairs brain circuitry, making it harder to control cravings and usage.
Alcoholism progresses in stages if left untreated. The early stage involves increased drinking frequency, intoxication in risky situations, and developing a high tolerance. In the middle stage, blackouts are more common, work and relationships suffer, and life revolves around alcohol. By the late stage, severe lack of control leads to physical dependence and an inability to function without alcohol.
Alcoholism is one of the most prevalent addictive diseases worldwide. In the United States, over 14 million adults ages 18 and older suffer from AUD, according to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. This corresponds to 5.3% of the American adult population, though less than 10% receive treatment.
Certain populations face heightened risk factors for AUD. The condition is more common among adult men than women. Native Americans have the highest prevalence of alcoholism of all major racial groups. Young adults ages 18-29 have higher rates of heavy drinking and AUD. Veterans and military members also struggle with elevated rates due to trauma exposure and stress.
While underage drinking has declined in recent years, over 4 million adolescents still engage in binge drinking, per the CDC. Early alcohol use in teens can increase likelihood of AUD later in life. Overall, the widespread nature of alcoholism means nearly everyone knows someone impacted by this condition.
Detecting the signs and symptoms of AUD is the first step towards recovery. The DSM-5, the diagnostic manual of mental disorders, outlines 11 criteria to assess alcohol use disorder:
Individuals meeting 2-3 criteria have a mild AUD diagnosis. 4-5 criteria indicate a moderate AUD, while 6 or more represent a severe AUD diagnosis. The more criteria met, the higher the level of impairment and need for treatment.
Paying attention to work performance, relationship conflicts, health issues and legal or financial problems related to drinking can reveal emerging AUD. Loved ones are often the first to notice dangerous drinking patterns and adverse effects. An honest evaluation from family, friends or a doctor can motivate those struggling with AUD to get help.
Unhealthy alcohol use takes a toll on relationships with loved ones. Partners and spouses of alcoholics often describe feeling angry, isolated and deprived of companionship. The chaos and instability of living with an alcoholic strains families and marriages. Children of alcoholics face elevated risks for emotional problems, impaired social development, and turning to substance misuse themselves.
Alcoholism also disrupts careers and professional lives. Hangover-related work absences, poor concentration, mistakes due to impaired judgement, and strained workplace relationships are common issues. Up to two-thirds of those with AUD experience job loss over their lifetimes. Financial troubles often follow, as alcohol dependency drains incomes. Legal issues like DUI charges may also threaten vocations. Getting help for alcoholism is key to restoring work productivity, performance, and stability.
One of the most challenging aspects of alcoholism is acknowledging the problem. Social stigma around addiction creates barriers to seeking help. Many remain in denial due to the false belief they can control usage on their own. Some minimize the issue out of embarrassment and pride. The fear of managing life without alcohol feeds further denial.
Loved ones can assist by expressing concern and offering support without judgment or ultimatums. However, the decision to pursue treatment must come from within. Hitting "rock bottom" events like relationship loss, job loss, accidents or health scares often prompt realizations about alcohol's destruction. Counseling helps many unpack their resistance and ambivalence in a supportive environment.
The path of admitting alcoholism looks different for everyone. With compassionate self-reflection, professional help, and social support, those struggling with AUD can find the turning point toward recovery. A fulfilling life of health and sobriety awaits those who take the courageous step of asking for help.