Alcohol seems harmless because of its widespread acceptance, but it’s still an addictive drug that hooks thousands of people who find it difficult to give up once chronic alcohol consumption and dependence have developed.
People aren’t slowing down on their drinking and some will never stop on their own. According to federal data released in 2015, alcohol reportedly killed U.S. adults at a rate not seen in more than three decades. Drinking alcohol also is socially accepted in many circles, and this can make it difficult to determine when heavy and frequent drinking has crossed the line into alcohol abuse and addiction.There are ways to tell if someone is in a serious battle to control their drinking or if their alcohol abuse has become an alcohol use disorder. Not everyone who has a problem controlling their drinking has an alcohol use disorder (AUD), a condition that affects about 16 million people in the U.S., according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
Not everyone who has a problem controlling their drinking has an alcohol use disorder (AUD), a condition that affects about 16 million people in the U.S., according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). An AUD is something determined after a medical evaluation has been done.
It can be difficult to gauge when a family member is abusing alcohol drinking and has become addicted to alcohol. According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “about 90 percent of people who drink excessively would not be expected to meet the clinical diagnostic criteria for having a severe alcohol use disorder.”
Here are seven signs that your family member is abusing alcohol or may have an alcohol use disorder.
Alcohol bottles and drinks are usually stored in a cabinet, at a home bar, or in an entertainment area. But if you find them hidden in closets in bedrooms or stored in unusual places that are out of sight, that may be just the sign you need to realize a loved one is struggling with their drinking or engaging in chronic alcohol consumption. It is common for problem drinkers to hide their stash of beverages or liquors because they don’t want anyone to know how much alcohol they are taking in.
Taking time away to get a sip here or a glass there is a sign that there is some shame or guilt about drinking. Problem drinkers also may lie about their alcohol use and become defensive when the subject comes up. If they appear to become angry when asked about how much they drink or how often they drink, that’s an emotional sign that your family member may be an alcoholic.
It is common for people addicted to alcohol to experience a roller coaster of emotions. Alcohol, a depressant, is a mood-altering substance. Sips of alcohol waste no time racing to the brain and slowing down communications between neural pathways. All of this activity changes the chemical balance in the brain, which, in turn, affects one’s mood, thoughts, feelings, and actions. If your family member feels tired or spent after drinking or doesn’t get sleep or rest, these are all conditions that can lead to mood changes.
Family members who use alcohol to improve their mood so they can feel better are likely self-medicating to manage mental health disorders that they may or may not know they have. If a person is already struggling with depression and/or anxiety, alcohol tends to worsen those mental health disorders. Alcohol intake also can make drinkers aggressive, so a negative emotional response when drinking is a sign that someone may have alcohol problems.
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Excessive drinking is a sure path to chronic health issues that affect the entire body. If you have a family member who drinks regularly and experiences problems with vital organs, alcoholism could be an issue. Heavy alcohol abuse can affect one’s heart, liver, and kidneys among other areas of the body. Hard drinking is damaging to the heart. If the heart muscle weakens, the heart will no longer pump blood efficiently to the other parts of the body and fail.
Too much drinking can prevent the liver from doing its important job, which is to remove toxins from the blood.
When this happens, drinkers develop an alcohol-related liver disease (ALD). The same goes for the kidneys, which are also responsible for filtering out toxic substances from the blood.
Alcohol also causes dehydration, so if the body’s cells don’t receive the water they need to thrive, kidney failure is possible. Binge-drinking can cause “acute kidney injury,” which is when there’s a sudden drop in a person’s kidney function. Dialysis is often needed with this kind of injury to help the kidney return to proper functioning. If not, the kidney could be permanently damaged.
Alcohol-related health problems also can affect cognitive health. Heavy drinkers may experience temporary (or in severe cases permanent) memory loss or memory impairment linked to blackouts. They also may struggle with retaining information or learning new data because all the excessive drinking has changed the physical structure and functioning of the brain.
If your loved one notices any changes in how they feel, think, and act when their chronic alcohol consumption stops, chances are good that they are already in alcohol addiction and need help to stop. One reason people avoid situations in which they can’t drink is that they know they won’t feel well if they can’t get alcohol. Alcohol withdrawal is very serious. It can be fatal if it isn’t treated properly. Common withdrawal symptoms include
Heavy drinkers who suddenly stop taking in alcohol may think they’re doing the right thing by going cold turkey, but that’s not true.
Excessive drinking followed by a break can be uncomfortable at best and fatal at worst. Withdrawal symptoms can be unpredictable and far more serious than being really drunk or hungover.
Seek professional help immediately if your loved one experiences any of the symptoms above as a result of their alcoholism. A treatment center should recommend a medically monitored detoxification as the starting point. At-home alcohol detox is not recommended.
The practice of drinking alone, either at the bar or at home, appeals to people who want to control when and where they drink and avoid social outings where they may be unwanted pressure to fit in.
Taking a drink solo does not mean the person is an alcoholic. However, if someone is increasingly seeking out solitude to overindulge in spirits, this is another matter, and family members who do this may need to be monitored a bit more closely.
If your family member likes to drink alone and increasingly becomes withdrawn and stays away from others regularly, they may have a problem with alcohol. As mentioned earlier, alcohol is used to self-medicate to deal with mental health disorders.
This also may be even more true of people who are dealing with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic health disorder.
People also drink to try to manage insomnia, mental or emotional pain, and other conditions.
If they do not want to hear from others about their alcohol use, they likely will seek alone time to avoid confrontation or embarrassment.
If you have noticed a relative’s relationships with others have broken down since they picked up drinking, the person may need alcohol treatment for their problem. Mood swings that include being aggressive and irritable, social isolation, and health problems can all contribute to heavy drinkers poisoning their ties with those close to them.
Some people sincerely want to stop drinking and may be perplexed as to why they can’t stop despite their good intentions or desire to stay out of trouble. This is a clear sign if your family member has repeated attempts to stop but goes right back. This cycle of starting and stopping only to start again is known as a relapse, which is dangerous each time it happens. An inability to stop drinking is a clear sign that your family member may be struggling with alcoholism.
There are many ways to tell if your family member is abusing alcohol and needs addiction treatment. If you identified with any listed here, now is the time to get your loved one help.
American Academy of Neurology. (May 2007). “Drinking Heavy Amounts of Alcohol Shrinks Your Brain.” Science Daily. Retrieved July 2018 from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/05/070502172317.htm
Ingraham, Christopher. (December 2015). “Americans Are Drinking Themselves to Death at Record Rates.” The Washington Post. Retrieved July 2018 from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/12/22/americans-are-drinking-themselves-to-death-at-record-rates/?
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol Use Disorder. Retrieved July 2018, from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-use-disorders