In the movies, the character with a drinking problem is easy to spot: sullen, unemployed, and estranged, typically found drinking alone or picking fights. Outside of Hollywood fiction, however, problem drinkers often look like our neighbors, co-workers, loved ones, and friends. They may be highly respected in their careers, beloved by their families, and appear to drink only when socially appropriate. The outward signs and symptoms of a drinking problem aren’t always obvious, especially when our view of alcohol-use disorders is colored by stereotypes. Below, Dr. Krista Roybal, Executive Medical Director at True Life Center for Wellbeing addresses several common misconceptions about alcohol use.
Myth: “I enjoy a few glasses of wine each night to unwind from work. My wife seems to have a problem with my drinking habits, and lately she’s been throwing around the word ‘alcoholic.’ I’m a very successful businessman and a good father, there is no way I’m an alcoholic.”
A problematic drinking habit often begins innocently: as a way to relax or transition from work to home, as the most common drug people use to fall asleep, to have sex, to reduce social anxiety, and to enjoy themselves. So before we ask loved ones to stop drinking altogether, we must first understand what role alcohol is playing in their lives. Drinking problems are defined not only by how much and how often someone drinks, but also by the effect drinking has on a person’s health, home, social, legal, or work life. It’s helpful to avoid shame-inducing terms like “alcoholic,” but if your drinking is having a real and negative impact on one or more of your primary relationships, a wise next step would be to talk with your doctor or therapist in a supportive environment about the role alcohol is playing in your life.
Myth: “My college-aged daughter confided to me that she has, on occasion, blacked out after drinking too much at a party. But that’s just part of the college experience these days, not an indication of a larger problem.”
I want to first commend your courage for even exploring the idea that your child could have a problem with alcohol. For many parents, underlying fear keeps them in denial. Binge-drinking (defined as 4 or more alcoholic drinks within a few hours for women, 5 or more for men) is a part of the college experience for more than 40% of students, according to some estimates. My concern for those students, and for your daughter, is safety. The dangers of binge-drinking include alcohol poisoning, unsafe sex, sexual assault, drunk driving, legal or academic consequences, and serious or fatal injury. Binge-drinking could certainly be an indication of an alcohol use disorder. It could also be a symptom of an underlying mental health issue like anxiety or depression. It would be in your family’s best interest to continue this conversation with a professional who can help you make informed decisions about wisely and compassionately supporting your daughter.
Myth: “Alcoholics just lack willpower. With discipline, someone could easily get their drinking under control on their own.”
This is the kind of myth that breaks my heart, because it might prevent someone from seeking or receiving much-needed help. Alcohol Use Disorder is a biological, brain-based disease. It is my job as a physician, and our society’s job as a whole, to treat addiction with the compassion and medical attention it deserves. Consider a disease like cancer or diabetes; you would never suggest that someone battling those illnesses should simply will him or herself to overcome the illness overnight. Additionally, sudden and severe withdrawal could cause painful physical symptoms leading to hospitalization or death. In my experience, so many people suffering from addiction want to change, but they don’t know how. Safe, supportive, and effective treatment is the bridge between the desire to change and the ability to change.
True Life Center for Wellbeing is an integrative mental health and addiction treatment center located in La Jolla’s UTC area. We offer an Intensive Outpatient Program as well as outpatient psychiatry and therapy appointments. If you or a loved one feels ready to prioritize wellness, please give us a call at 858-384-4535 or visit truelifewellbeing.com.