Are you a functioning alcoholic?
By Ross Walker
When you think of the typical alcoholic, you think of someone who starts drinking often in the morning and continues to abuse their body with excessive alcohol every day. They typically do not think of much else apart from where their next drink is coming from and their life becomes seriously affected by this.
Many studies have suggested that the gene for alcoholism occurs in one in twenty people but the reality is that there are many variations on the theme and there are a number of different genes that are associated with excessive alcohol consumption and also the varying health effects associated with excessive alcohol intake.
Rather than looking at the ‘skid row alcoholic ‘ or the typical person we see as an alcoholic, we must also look at people who are excessive drinkers but still function quite well in society.
Whether you want to label these people as functioning alcoholics or purely excessive drinkers is merely semantics and the reality is that anyone who consumes more than four standard drinks per day for a male or two standard drinks per day for a female on a regular basis is consuming more alcohol than their body can actually tolerate. The reasons for this are varied and as I have said often, it is your genes that load the gun and your environment that pulls the trigger.
Often people who are consuming excessive amounts of alcohol have had issues throughout their life that have driven them to excessive use of a substance that they know is not particularly good for them. Many people purely argue that after a busy day’s work it is nice to relax with a few glasses of something in the evening purely just to take the edge off the day’s stresses.
We then have to ask the question – when does habit become an addiction?
Addiction is defined as three or more of the following criteria:
- Consuming of a substance in large amounts, longer than intended.
- You can’t reduce the intake or control use.
- Time seeking, using and recovering from the substance.
- Social, occupational and recreational activities are affected.
- Use despite awareness of the problems associated with its use.
- Increased tolerance to the substance.
- Withdrawal symptoms when the substance is stopped.
Many people will still consume four or more drinks on a regular basis with none of these particular symptoms and then we must say their alcohol consumption is more a habit than an addiction.
The problem with addiction or habitual behaviour, that you know is not particularly good for you, is that there is no magic bullet. Many medications have been tried with a modicum of success, as has hypnotherapy and varying forms of cognitive behavioural therapy.
People with severe problems often become involved in detoxification programs, which are all very successful until the person is returned to the real world. In reality, it is my belief that the most powerful way to overcome any addiction of any substance is what I call my “Five Point Power” program.
- Probably most importantly is to make the decision that you want to make the change. Good life decisions are extremely powerful and are always the first step towards change.
- Recognise the limiting patterns. Many people have many psychological cues and associations around their habit. For example, if you only drink at night when you come home and sit down to watch the television it may be important for a good month to change your habits around this. The fellow who meets his friends down in the pub on a Friday night on a regular basis will find it very difficult to give up drinking because of this weekly meeting. An example more related to cigarettes was a patient I had whose family would not let her smoke inside so she would go into the backyard into the garden with a cup of coffee and a cigarette and the newspaper away from the rabble in the house. The psychological cues and relaxation around this would certainly reinforce her smoking habit.
- Create a new pattern – nature abhors a vacuum and if you spend a fair bit of your time involved in your habit it must be replaced with a new healthier pattern. The best example I can give you is one of my longstanding patients here Alan, who use to consume 18-20 schooners of beer on a daily basis. When I saw him in his early forties he had a severe dilated cardiomyopathy, which was, alcohol related. This is basically a situation where the heart is almost not pumping. I said to him he could either choose between continuing to drink and be dead in a month or to stop his alcohol and he would live.
Because his heart disease was so severe I immediately stopped him working, as he was a danger to himself and others in this. One of the limiting patterns was his work being right across the road from the hotel and during the down time he would immediately head to the hotel and start drinking.
This limiting pattern was ceased but the most dramatic aspect of his case is that he replaced his heavy alcoholism with an interest in Egyptology. At the age of 42 he became an amateur Egyptologist. All of the money he previously spent on alcohol was deposited in a bank account and he saved up enough money to travel to Egypt with his wife where he had a wonderful holiday. (This was of course in the days when it was safe to travel to Egypt as a tourist).
Twenty years later Alan is still doing very well with a normally functioning heart and has never touched alcohol again.
Train the habit. For any new habit to occur you must discipline yourself for at least 30 days for that habit to become a part of your normal behaviour.
Live the program for the rest of your lives. I am not a great fan of twelve-week programs or diets because typically you come back from your twelve-week program or your diet and get back into your normal behaviour. New habits have to become an ingrained part of life and something that you practise for the rest of your days.
The problem with any addiction to any substance is that once the addiction or habit has been established, it is always possible to slip back into your old habits.
The reality is that if you have an addiction or a habit that you know is bad for you, then you are right, i.e. it is bad for you, and if you want to have a good, long healthy life you must change your attitude and your behaviour around this habit.
Published: Thursday, April 21, 2016© Switzer Media + Publishing 2014. All Rights Reserved