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Symptoms of Alcoholism Are Deceiving

  • Asks ...

    I am a bit confused about whether or not my brother is an alcoholic. He drinks a lot, like every night to the point of intoxication for 9 months of the year. Then, on January 2nd of every year he goes on the wagon for three months and he uses those three months to get back into good physical shape and to lose a lot of the weight that he puts on from drinking so much beer.

    He has been doing this for years and whenever anyone gives him a hard time about his drinking he points to the three months he takes off every year – he says it is no problem for him to do it – as evidence that he doesn’t have a problem with alcohol at all and that he can stop whenever he wants to.

    I am confused. Is it possible for a person to be an alcohol if he can stop drinking every year for three months without too much difficulty? For the rest of the year though, he sure seems like one.

  • Dr. James Strawbridge Says ...
    Dr. James Strawbridge

    Your dilemma is understandable.

    Whether your brother is an alcoholic or an abusers of alcoholic, both types start drinking alcohol in the same way. Both groups drink to get the effects of alcohol---to feel euphoric, stimulated, relaxed, or intoxicated. Sometimes they drink to ease frustrations; other times they drink to put themselves in a good mood. If they feel tense, they may drink more than usual to unwind and get their mind off their troubles; if shy, they may drink to gain confidence; if extroverted, they may drink because they like the company of other drinkers. Without these affects, people would soon lose interest in alcohol.

    One of the first symptoms of alcoholism is deceiving. Ironically and tragically the user is able to increase their alcohol intake and still function “normally.” This is ironic because most diseases incur immediate and obvious penalties, not benefits, and result in reduced functioning rather than improvement in functioning. But in the early stages of alcoholism, the alcoholic is not sick, in pain, or visibly abnormal. In fact, the early, adaptive stage of alcoholism appears to be marked by the opposite of disease, for the alcoholic is “blessed” with a super normal ability to tolerate alcohol and enjoy its euphoric and stimulating effects.

    This improvement of functioning is tragic because the alcoholic has little or no warning of the deterioration inevitably to follow. Neither the early stage alcoholic nor their friends have reason to suspect that they are suffering from a progressive and often fatal disease. 

    The disease is difficult to recognize or diagnose in its early stages because the symptoms are so subtle and so easily confused with normal reactions to alcohol. No pain or visible malfunction is involved. The early stage alcoholic does not complain, has no reason to visit a doctor because of his drinking, and does not suffer when he drinks. Indeed, they appear to be just like all other drinkers. They have hangovers when they over drink, but so do their friends. They look forward to their evening cocktail, a beer, or glass of wine, but so do many other people. 

    It is difficult if not impossible to convince an alcoholic to stop drinking. Why should they? They don’t feel sick but in fact feels better when they do. When confronted with the possibility they might say, “Who are you kidding? Me an alcoholic? I can drink more than my friends, I rarely have hangovers. I’m never belligerent or violent, I never miss work, I don’t drink in the morning, I can stop whenever I want to, and I feel terrific when I drink. Go pick on someone who really has a problem.” 

    In 1956 the American medical Association recognized alcoholism as a disease, a chronic progressive disease that affects about 10 percent of those who drink it. Since then, other studies have added support to the disease concept. 

    Physiology not psychology determines whether one drinker becomes alcoholic and another does not. Here’s why: the alcoholic’s enzymes, hormones, genes, and brain chemistry work together to create an abnormal and unfortunate reaction to alcohol. While psychological, cultural, and social factors can affect the alcoholic’s behavior, they do not cause alcoholism; they only influence attempts to control their drinking. 


    Researchers have long been known that children of alcoholics have a much greater likelihood of becoming alcoholics than children of non-alcoholics (a ratio of 4:1), this could easily be understood as a learned behavior. However, repeated studies have conclusively demonstrated that children of alcoholic parents who were adopted by non-alcoholic foster parents never exposed to the behavior of their biological parents still had the same 4:1 ratio of becoming alcoholic. Other studies of identical twins that were raised in separate foster homes also revealed that if one twin became alcoholic, the chances of the other twin becoming alcoholic were very great. This leaves no doubt that there is a genetic factor in at least some varieties of alcoholism.


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