Let’s start out with a brief quiz. Just three simple questions to gauge your awareness about substance abuse problems: 1) What is the number one drug of abuse for youths aged 12 to 20? 2) What drug, for college students, is most closely associated with academic problems, injuries, vandalism, property damage, sexual assault and death? 3) What drug, though legal and socially acceptable, is clearly linked to increased rates of illicit drug use among youth? If you answered “alcohol,” you’re absolutely correct.
While many illicit drugs grab the headlines, alcohol continues to be our nation’s primary drug of choice and source of many problems. It is an interesting drug because for roughly 85-90 per cent of the population it does not seem to cause problems. And I think it is safe to assume that 100% of the people who drink alcohol do not intend for it to cause problems for them. And yet perhaps as many as 40-45 million Americans suffer from alcohol problems. The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA) reports that nearly 3 million youths aged 12 to 20 were classified as meeting criteria for alcohol dependence or abuse in the past 12 months alone based on the numbers of alcohol-related problems they experienced in that period.
One of the most common means of identifying an alcohol problem is by identifying other kinds of problems that seemed to be related to one’s drinking. Things like school or job problems, legal problems, financial problems, health problems, emotional problems, family problems can all be indicators of an alcohol problem if they are related to drinking. These are often the symptoms we recognize to begin to diagnose alcoholism. Of course, some drinkers are able to drink without experiencing obvious external problems. Other commonly accepted symptoms include craving, loss of control, tolerance and withdrawal symptoms.
There is a simple way to self-diagnose if you have ever questioned whether your drinking or that of a loved one is getting to be a problem. Answer the following four questions honestly.
- Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?
- Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
- Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?
- Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?
One “yes” answer suggests a possible alcohol problem. More than one “yes” answer means it is highly likely that a problem exists.
If you have discovered that you may have an alcohol problem, does this mean that you are an alcoholic? Not necessarily. Many people may experience drinking problems at difficult, perhaps stressful times in their lives. What separates the alcoholic from the problem drinker is that the alcoholic will continue to drink despite the problems that drinking is causing, often unable to recognize that life’s problems are not driving him to drink, but that his (or her) drinking is causing life’s problems.
Remember that no one begins drinking with the intention of experiencing problems. And no one simply crosses an imaginary line one day and goes from a normal social drinker to an alcoholic. It is important to recognize that alcoholism is a progressive illness with identifiable stages. The progression is often subtle. In Alcoholics Anonymous, the illness is referred to as being “cunning, baffling and powerful.” It is critical to educate ourselves to the symptoms of progression, treatment options available, and techniques to help maintain control should you not be alcoholic, but simply want to be responsible is your use of alcohol.