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Am I An Alcoholic?

Most people who suffer from alcohol abuse disorder are often told by the people around them that they should stop drinking. However, it isn’t as easy as that, and it can also be hard to decipher if they are an alcoholic or not. A reason why those with alcohol addiction refuse to give up is because they know that the withdrawal process can be dreadfully uncomfortable and lasts for a period of time – often coming in waves and with some more lasting long-term side effects.

Alcohol is classified as a depressant. That’s because it slows down the rate at which your brain functions. If you drink too much, too often, your brain and liver get used to having alcohol in the blood. In conjunction with all the other things alcohol does to your brain, your body builds up a tolerance to alcohol, meaning you have to drink more frequently - and in larger quantities - in order to get the same effect you experience when you first started drinking – namely a feeling of happiness and mild euphoria.

The problems really begin when a chronic drinker who experiences alcohol dependence wants to try abstinence from alcohol. That’s when they will experience withdrawal symptoms – some of which occur within a few hours of the last drink. An individual could experience anything from excessive sweating and nausea through to anxiety and an inability to sleep or eat properly.

In some cases, the signs and symptoms are extreme and can prove fatal. The most common include hallucinations and memory loss and psychosis. The most serious side effect of alcohol withdrawal is Delirium Tremens – also known as DT. If a patient presents with a rapid heartbeat, seizures or high blood pressure, then they’re likely to be admitted to hospital.

Many experts liken the withdrawal symptoms experienced by people coming off alcohol as being not dissimilar to those felt by people coming off drugs such as heroin. Symptoms often persist for ten days or more and can – as already indicated – be life-threatening.

It is possible to withdraw from alcohol, but it needs to be done safely and under medical supervision.

Withdrawal Methods

Usually, there are three ways for a person to withdraw from alcohol. Either, they go ‘cold turkey’ and stop completely, which isn’t recommended if you’ve been drinking heavily for a prolonged period as it could push your body into shock and can even be fatal. Another way is to stop drinking gradually by reducing your consumption over a number of days. However, some might find it easier to switch to medication to aid withdrawal under medical supervision.

If you stop drinking all at once, you are greatly at risk from withdrawal symptoms, so it isn’t really the safest method. That said, millions of people go through cold turkey withdrawal every year. It might be that they were arrested for disorderly behavior and ended up in custody for a short period, where they had no access to alcohol, or they choose to go down the stop suddenly route of their own accord.

This approach is mostly unsuccessful since you need to have a lot of motivation and willpower to push through the symptoms. It is often much easier to have a drink to combat the unpleasantness of withdrawal rather than wait them out. But, if you manage to get through the side effects of alcohol withdrawal, it could be the start of your recovery journey.

If you choose to use this method of withdrawal, it is wise to inform the people around you of your plans. You will need help and support – and it’s best to avoid anyone who is likely to tempt you into drinking during this period.

If you choose to reduce your drinking gradually over a few days, it is usually possible to avoid the worst withdrawal symptoms. This is because your body has the chance to adapt gradually to the lessening levels of alcohol in your blood.

Most people find cutting alcohol consumption in half as the best way to proceed. So if, for example, you were drinking two bottles of wine a night, this should initially be reduced to one. The advice is to then continue with this for approximately four days. After the first four days, cut your consumption in half again – in this case going to half a bottle of wine per day. Again, keep it at this level for around four days and then halve it again and then stop completely. If you follow this method, you could be off the alcohol within twelve days, and you will manage o avoid the worst of the withdrawal symptoms. This method is widely used in Britain under professional community supervision.

Some people who drink spirits choose to change over to wine or beer first and then reduce the levels from there.

The main thing is to gradually reduce your alcohol intake over a number of days. To do this, you must be aware of the concentration of alcohol in your drinks. The easiest way to do this is to read the labels to inform yourself of the percentage alcohol content.

As you can imagine, it is not easy to use this method. You need to be a very strong and well-motivated person to set your own limits and keep to them. Get support from people around you.

Seek Professional Help

Of course, you can seek professional help from the outset to help you quit drinking. In most cases, you will be given medication to help with the ‘drying out’ process. Embarking on a professional detox programme will require you to have professional supervision because you need to use drugs that are only available on prescription. With this method, the person comes off alcohol and changes over to prescribed medication, which has a similar effect on the nervous system as alcohol. The prescribed dose is then reduced over a number of days and then stopped altogether. At this point, the person will be free from alcohol and the medical alternative.

The amount you drink will depend on the amount of medication you will be prescribed. Very heavy drinkers will need to start on a high dose, which will be reduced over a maximum period of around ten days. People, who don’t consume, as much will be given a lower starting dose and are likely to take the medication for a shorter period of time.

There are several drugs that doctors can prescribe for detoxification, and they are all reasonably safe if you take them as prescribed - though they all tend to make you feel drowsy as a side effect. They are not very expensive.

It is down to your medical practitioner to determine which drugs are best suited to you. In most parts of the world, your family doctor should be able to prescribe these drugs for you; however, most people usually access them after admission to hospital or checking into an alcohol rehab clinic.

If you are allowed to stay at home during your withdrawal from alcohol, you must have sufficient professional support. In the UK for example, it is usual for a community nurse or social worker to keep in touch with you during your withdrawal if you are able to stay at home. They should give you emergency phone numbers in case you have problems outside of office hours. However, home-based alcohol withdrawal is less common in other parts of the world. In the United States, for example, most people would be checked into a rehabilitation facility to assist them in the process.

If you choose this method to come off alcohol, you must never try and take the medication together with alcohol. You have to make a clear choice to change over onto the medicines as prescribed. If you do mix these medications with alcohol, you can suffer very severe and unpleasant side effects. There is also a risk that you may become addicted to both alcohol and prescribed medication, with all the additional problems that involves.

Whichever method of withdrawal you use, the first three days are usually the worst. Don't be on your own if you can possibly avoid it, particularly for the first few days. Keep in regular touch with your health care professionals.

Perseverance Needed

While you are withdrawing, you might feel nauseous. If you do, try to eat a light diet. Many people find toast is the only thing they can face for the first couple of days. If you feel really sick, try to carry on drinking water until your stomach settles down - this will avoid dehydration. After the first three days, you should be able to eat a more normal diet. Get on a well-balanced diet as soon as you can.

Vitamins are often lacking in people who have abused alcohol over long periods. It is worth thinking about taking vitamin supplements, particularly ones that contain vitamin B12 and Folic Acid. This will help you replenish the vitamins you may have missed in the past.

Doctors advise patients recovering from alcohol abuse to get plenty of rest, but try to sleep only for short periods during the day. That way you are more likely to sleep better at night. If you sleep badly or can't get to sleep at all, don't worry; it normally passes after the first few days. Make sure you have plenty of blankets to hand as it is likely you will feel shivery at times.

Whichever form of withdrawal you choose, it is a good idea to reduce the amount of caffeine that you use. Caffeine will only make you feel more irritable and may well interfere with your sleep. The things to avoid or go easy on are coffee or other drinks containing caffeine and chocolate. Try decaffeinated coffee or tea. Tea contains far less caffeine than coffee, and most people can drink it without problems.

Remember; once you have stopped drinking you have only got over the first hurdle. You must then decide whether you are ever going to try and drink again, or whether you should aim to abstain completely. Make sure that you have enough support from your family, friends, work colleagues and health care professionals so that you make the right decision. It is important to understand that your journey through alcoholism affects all these relationships. If you are really serious that you want to abstain, think about contacting your local AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) group.

It is not "normal" to have withdrawal symptoms. People who drink moderately can always stop drinking without any problems at all. If you experience withdrawal symptoms, then it is a sign that you have a drinking problem and that your body is physically dependent on alcohol.

If you have hallucinations it is best to keep the lights on full in the room you are in until help arrives; bright light stimulates your brain. Keep talking to the people with you; it will help you to stay in contact with reality. Many people find that leaving the radio on also helps. Remember, hallucinations or DT's do not mean that you are "going mad," only that your brain is suffering from severe withdrawal symptoms. You can make a full recovery with the correct treatment. It is extremely rare to continue having hallucinations once the withdrawal period is over.

Epileptic fits can occur in people withdrawing from alcohol - and during the first three weeks following withdrawal. Epileptic fits are relatively unusual, but if you have one fit, you are at risk of having another during your present and subsequent withdrawals. If you are at risk of these withdrawal seizures, do not drive or operate machinery until your specialist tells you that it is safe to do so.

Stay On Course

In the end, it is very hard to avoid the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal if you have been drinking excessively for an extended period of time – whether that’s daily or binging several days a week. The only way to circumnavigate the worst of the symptoms is to cut down consumption gradually and do it under medical supervision. Going cold turkey might work for some people, but it’s with this method that you’ll experience the worst of the symptoms. It’s a good idea to plan your withdrawal carefully, gathering the support you need to make it a success – thus setting yourself firmly on the path to recovery.