I started this article last year as I sat at the hospital bedside of a dear long-term friend as he was detoxing from alcohol. I was thinking about the fragility of life and how we take our bodies and our health for granted.
Throughout our lives many of us mainly only consume food or other substances that feed our urges & impulses. Even though it may seem insignificant at the time, unfortunately these choices often lead to addictions. When an addiction takes over, we don’t like to think about the cumulative long-term damage to our bodies or minds (or relationships). Mostly all addiction is damaging to our bodies but in this article, I'd like to focus on alcohol dependence.
Alcoholism sneaks up on you. Alcohol is such a part of our culture that most people don't notice it becoming a problem, until they have become dependent and can't get through a day without it. It is important to understand our drinking habits and our personal relationship with alcohol.
Social drinking a couple drinks once a week with friends? Drinks every day after work to unwind and relax? Pounding back a few when feeling stressed or depressed? Drinking to excess to drown out the worries of the world? The two types of excessive drinking are binge drinking and heavy drinking. Binge is the habit of drinking to impairment (to get drunk). Heavy drinking is defined as several episodes of binge drinking per month. Heavy drinking increases the risk for developing Alcohol User Disorder and associated long-term health problems. Over 48 medical conditions, including high blood pressure and diabetes, are negatively affected by heavy drinking.
Alcohol Use Disorder refers to alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence. AUD may be diagnosed if any two of the following are present:
-Regularly drinking more than intended
-Drinking to relieve depression or anxiety
-Not able to cut back the amount consumed
-Putting self and others in danger as a result of drinking (picking fights, reckless decisions, driving impaired...)
-Concentration affected due to cravings
-Inability to keep a job, take care of family or perform in school
-Continuing to drink after it's caused problems with friends or family
-Not participating in areas of enjoyment
-Drinking despite health issues like heart disease, decreased liver function, diabetes...
-Having to drink more and more to get the "buzz" due to a built-up tolerance to alcohol
It is common knowledge that alcohol affects our liver. Our liver is our first defense against toxins (alcohol is considered a toxin by our body and the liver is like a sponge that filters toxins. If the liver is stressed (fatty liver) then other organs start failing in the body. Fatty Liver Disease is considered a silent killer because it may not show symptoms for many years, but as it progresses, it leads to liver failure "cirrhosis".
Symptoms of fatty liver include fatigue, weight gain, swollen belly, broken blood vessels under skin, darkened urine, enlarged breasts in men, yellowing of skin and eyes (jaundice), patchy skin, red palms, abdominal pain and gastrointestinal issues. If you are a regular drinker and have any of these symptoms, please see your doctor and get your liver tested. Livers can regenerate if you stop drinking (it only takes weeks in most cases) but if you don't stop drinking cirrhosis comes next, which can be deadly. If you have heard the term "they drank themselves to death", cirrhosis was their demise.
Detox and withdrawal are very difficult physically and psychologically. Quitting an alcohol addiction cold turkey can be dangerous without medical attention so please seek help for this process. After detoxification, alcohol rehabilitation and support will help in reclaiming a healthy life, as well as healing relationships that may have been damaged. The choice to get help is the hardest and most important step but many have walked this path before, and support is readily available in every community all over the world. Some supportive organizations to help include AA, (and Alanon for family members), SMART (Self-Management and Recovery Training) and so many other local organizations. Google 'alcoholic or (substance abuse) support groups in BC' for many helpful resources.
As I edit this article after a year has gone by, sadly I have to report that my friend did not make it. I had the beautiful honour of being at his bedside with his family as he took his last breath and I felt his deep remorse. He was an amazing, beautiful and vibrant man who lit up the room when he entered it. He was university educated and loved nature. He was the first person many people called if they needed an ear. He will be missed greatly by many. But he was also a victim of addiction and was unable to make the changes needed to save his life on his own. Rest in peace dear friend.
Share this article if it rings a chord of truth for someone you care about and please be gentle in your approach, as ultimatums rarely have the desired result. Many people drink to self-medicate due to depression or trauma, so harsh words and criticism from family members or friends just cause more shame and guilt and more withdrawal by the drinker. Whether you are concerned for another or think you may have a substance abuse issue yourself, you are not alone. Help and support are close by if you are open.
Claire Nielsen is a health coach, author, public speaker and founder of www.elixirforlife.ca. The information provided in the above article is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional health and medical advice. Please consult a doctor or healthcare provider if you're seeking medical advice, diagnoses and/or treatment.