Alcoholism can be a terrible disease, but it’s frighteningly common in the United States. More than just a drinking problem, alcoholism is a total addiction or dependence on alcohol. When a person is dependent on a substance, their behavior changes to fit their new priorities, which can often have dire consequences for them and those around them.
Worse yet, addiction often suggests a history of substance problems. Research suggests that genetics play a large part in the risk factors surrounding brain diseases like alcoholism. While it’s important that the nature of statistics ignores the fact that individuals are unique in nature and shouldn’t be grossly generalized, it’s also important to recognize that if alcoholism is present in your family, there is a greater chance that you or someone else will develop the habit as well.
Knowing what alcoholism looks like is the first step to helping a family member seek the help they need to get better. Addictions are not solved overnight, and dependence on a substance often leads to dangerous and significant withdrawal symptoms and intense cravings, requiring treatment clinics and medical attention to safely transition from addiction to long-term sobriety.
What Alcoholism Looks Like
Alcoholism, or alcohol addiction, is a condition where the brain develops a dependency on alcohol. This dependency is characterized first by tolerance, and second by withdrawal symptoms.
Tolerance is when you need more of something to experience the same effect. If you need to drink more to get a buzz, chances are that your brain is working hard to normalize the effects of alcohol, pushing the body into overtime to metabolize the drug faster than it used to. On the other hand, it’s also adapting to a regular flow of alcohol, meaning you begin to experience adverse physical effects if you stop drinking.
Other signs of alcoholism include:
- Losing control over your drinking.
- Wanting to quit but being unable to.
- Requiring alcohol to deal with life.
- Prioritizing a drink over the things you used to care about.
- Putting yourself or others in harms way with your drinking.
Why Alcoholism Can Run in the Family
It’s estimated that addiction is about half genes, half environmental. This is a significant split. It’s true that people with addiction in the family are exposed to it, often early on, shaping their relationship with problems, and the use of drugs for problem-solving. But this is an environmental risk rather than a genetic risk, suggesting that this does not affect a person’s chances of getting addicted as much as their genes do.
So why do we turn to addiction more often if others in the family decide to drink away their problems? Because our genes are an evolutionary tool to help each generation survive on the planet. The issue with that is that addiction can be considered something of an evolutionary oversight, although that’s not entirely accurate. We are addicted to things because they mess with our dopamine-based reward system, which is inherently used to make us crave certain foods, look for sex, and generally “enjoy” things. This was a big advantage in the days of early man, but it’s easily exploited nowadays. A preference for alcohol becomes hardwired in the brain, and is passed on through the genes, little by little, over generations.
But risk is risk, not destiny. There is no such thing as predestined addiction, and if you have not developed alcoholism, there is no reason to believe you will. If someone else in your family has, you can still help them get better.
Getting Help for Alcoholism
The help an alcoholic requires depends on the severity and length of their addiction. Long-term, very heavy drinkers will require medical assistance throughout the first few days, as alcohol withdrawal can be very painful and potentially fatal. It also takes time for alcohol to completely flush out of the system, and even more time for withdrawal to complete.
Once detox and withdrawal are over, the cravings can kick in. Rehab is a good place to start because it puts people in an environment without temptation and helps them work through the issues surrounding their addiction, from personal problems to family history, and codependent mental illnesses like depression.
Sober living homes are another option, either as a first choice or as a way to transition from rehab into regular living with a much lower chance of relapse afterward.
Sober Living for Alcoholism
Addiction treatment begins with abstinence. You simply stop drinking. That’s not necessarily difficult. What’s difficult is maintaining that abstinence past the initial few days of sobriety.
Sober living homes are perfect for individuals who have made it through the withdrawal period but still need help staying sober. The urge to drink is strong, especially out of rehab, when transitioning from rehab life into regular life. Life is full of expectations, responsibilities, hardships, and challenges. As individuals, we commit ourselves to family and friends, to interacting socially with one another, to engaging in relationships despite risk of severe emotional pain.
Pain lurks around every corner in the real world – but only the risk of it, the potential of it. Alternatively, we can find happiness in every single day, hidden away where we might not usually look. Keeping your life open to opportunities and embracing them fully is the only way to live a full life, but that means experiencing pain from time to time when things don’t go your way.
With a history of addiction, coping with this pain without relapsing is very difficult. But sober living homes are meant to help you do that, by reintroducing vital aspects of life outside of the treatment facility without dropping the most important rule: no drugs. At a sober living home or community, you’re guaranteed a drug-free living space, but are still expected to play a part in the community, help out, maintain a job or going to school, cultivate a skill or enjoy a hobby, and regularly go to group meetings to socialize and discuss.
Anything new can be difficult to deal with, and with a history of addiction, too many difficult things all at once can create the perfect temptation for drinking. But by living in a sober community, that option disappears, and you’re left with healthier alternative stress management techniques, from therapy to exercise, art, or meditation. With time, these techniques become your primary way to cope with life’s challenges as memories of addiction fall into the background, and your recovery from addiction will be essentially complete.