When you’re out with your partner toasting to a new job or taking in a sporting event with friends, it’s not always easy to tell when you’ve crossed the line from having a good time to having too much to drink. If you’re in the company of loved ones, you’re likely feeling encouraged to continue having a good time. But how can you tell when social drinking or having fun puts your health and safety at risk?
While there are some general signs that may indicate that you or someone you care about is struggling with alcohol use disorder, there are varying degrees of the disease that are important to understand.
“Alcohol use disorder, or alcoholism, comes in different forms. There is alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence and binge drinking, all of which have different physical and behavioral side effects,” explains Jessica Cirillo, clinical supervisor at Mirmont Treatment Center, part of Main Line Health.
Below, Cirillo offers insight into each type, and how to recognize signs of when having fun crosses over into a more serious issue.
Understanding and recognizing alcohol abuse
Drinking in moderation is seen as a harmless activity, such as celebrating a special event or enjoying vacation with friends. In reality there is no level of alcohol use that can be considered completely risk free. When you find yourself over indulging or drinking more frequently than you should, and you begin to experience minor consequences as a result you may be abusing alcohol.
While individuals who experience alcohol abuse typically don’t experience withdrawal symptoms even if engage in daily drinking, they will often experience unmanageability and their daily responsibilities or habits can take a backseat to drinking. Behaviors like oversleeping, repeatedly arriving late to work, forgetting plans with friends, becoming more argumentative with a spouse or partner or not taking care of yourself or your hygiene are all signs that alcohol is making it difficult to manage everyday life.
This creates an ongoing cycle of increased stress and dysfunction.
“Many people turn to alcohol to cope with these feelings of stress, fatigue or disorganization. Drinking becomes a primary coping method and, rather than finding healthy ways to cope with these feelings, alcohol abuse can progress into alcohol dependency,” explains Cirillo.
Understanding and recognizing alcohol dependency
Alcohol abuse is drinking more frequently than what is recommended, whereas alcohol dependency is a physical dependence on alcohol that leads to withdrawal symptoms and significant consequences with self, relationships, daily responsibilities, work and more. People with alcohol dependence will have made several attempts to control or cut down their usage that have been unsuccessful. They will also exhibit a change in personality, mood or behavior. Some of these changes include excessive lying, denial, covering up, defensiveness or hiding drinking.
“The physical dependence on alcohol is so significant that, if a day goes by without a drink, there are physical symptoms of withdrawal,” says Cirillo. “This can include shaking and tremors, even if the person doesn’t have a history of them.”
In severe cases, withdrawal symptoms like seizures, insomnia, anxiety, restlessness and heart palpitations may even begin within a few hours. Because of this, medically monitored detox is highly recommended to ensure the safety of a person who is coming off of an alcohol addiction.
Understanding and recognizing binge drinking
Binge drinking can affect anyone, regardless of their age or background, but it is a practice that’s particularly common among young adults who may be out with friends or testing their limits with alcohol.
Characterized by consuming large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time, binge drinking is something Cirillo says is, unfortunately, somewhat normalized in today’s society.
“We do see a lot of it, and it’s harder to treat because going out and drinking so much in such a short period of time is considered ‘normal’ among a younger generation. It’s okay to go out and have drinks, but when it leads to risky behavior and blackouts, it becomes a problem,” she says.
While a safe amount of alcohol will vary from person to person, Cirillo says binge drinking is considered to be more than four drinks in one sitting for women and more than five drinks in one sitting for men. But—regardless of the amount—if it leads to memory loss, losing control or risky behavior, it could be indicative of binge drinking.
Asking for help
It’s easy to feel like you can manage addiction’s symptoms on your own but, often, the decision is not an easy one to make and it can be dangerous, too.
“Many people think they can manage the symptoms of alcohol addiction on their own at home. They are afraid to go away to detox or to a rehab center. But you shouldn’t try to wean yourself off of alcohol alone, as it can lead to withdrawal symptoms like a seizure or psychosis,” explains Cirillo.
In addition to these factors, it’s important to treat the underlying factors of addiction.
“Someone who is trying to stop drinking on their own will most likely fall back into the repeated patterns of lapsing back into alcohol use as a result of not treating their symptoms and the major social pressures and triggers that surround them,” says Cirillo.
At Mirmont Treatment Center, we work with you to develop a treatment plan based on your individual needs and goals for drug and alcohol recovery. In an atmosphere of trust and safety you’ll have the opportunity to work through issues that may have fueled your addiction to drugs or alcohol and continue to keep you stuck in the cycle of dependence. The goal of this process is to develop new skills, attitudes and behaviors.
As part of your treatment, you’ll meet one-on-one with your therapist to discuss challenges you may be facing during the initial recovery process and to identify factors that have contributed to your drug or alcohol addiction.