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“Here’s to the nights we won’t remember with the friends I will never forget” is a common phrase among people drinking together. What other disease gets this kind of admiration, especially considering the harmful side effects of overconsumption?
April is National Alcohol Awareness Month, and an opportunity to shed light on the impact this disease has on people’s lives.
Despite alcohol being the third leading cause of preventable death after tobacco and obesity, its impact is often minimized by individuals directly affected by it. Alcohol may be the world’s most commonly accepted drug and, at the same time, it is often excluded from the list of drugs that negatively impact people’s lives.
The billions of dollars spent annually on alcohol advertising has a strong role in shaping perception. You don’t see the picture of the individual with their head hung, wringing their hands, wondering how they got to this place. You see the picture of people celebrating together, having a memorable time at a game, on a boat or at the beach.
Alcohol tends to operate beneath the threshold due to its wide cultural acceptance and its central focus on celebrations. The message communicated to people from a young age is “drinking is fun and makes everything better.”
Ironically, April 7 is recognized as National Beer Day, with offers of free beer and “buy one get one free” bar packages. What other disease in its month of recognition would have a day dedicated to the cause of it?
It is no surprise that during the coronavirus pandemic, the rate of alcohol consumption increased among those who reported experiencing COVID-19-related stress. There is a strong relationship between boredom, stress and alcohol use. The pandemic is continuing to keep our world in a state of flux, which puts those who have formed an attachment to alcohol in a very vulnerable position.
In recent times, activities such as Zoom happy hours “to get through COVID-19” have been normalized. Movies such as “Bad Moms” speak to a culture that is more socially accepting of alcohol use compared to other substances.
Prior to COVID-19, people with a problematic relationship with alcohol often underestimated the amount they drank and its impact on their life, or they overestimated their ability to control their drinking or quit. When COVID-19 shifted everyone’s day-to-day lives, people’s relationship with alcohol became increasingly problematic or they realized just how much they were drinking.
Many dismiss negative experiences as “bad luck” or a “one-time thing.” As the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous puts it: “Insanity is not doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results; insanity is doing the same thing over and over again knowing full well what the results will be.”
Alcohol can take on the unique position of being both the solution to, and the cause of, pain. Yet, no matter how much pain it causes, it is one of the most difficult substances to remove.
Anyone who has experience with someone who has an alcohol use disorder understands the grip it can have on all areas of that person’s life. While they may know that their drinking behavior is causing problems, they cannot fathom managing life without it. There are few items that can drive a person’s behavior like alcohol does.
This month, I find myself reflecting on a man I worked with who struggled with alcohol use disorder for the majority of his adult life. This brilliant man was riddled by the disease. He was not spoken of by his brilliance, his doctorate, his work for the government or his law degree. Instead, he was viewed and defined by his alcohol use disorder, which caused him to feel immense guilt, shame and isolation.
This man’s alcohol use reminded him of the life-altering consequences he had experienced: losing prestigious jobs with a university and the government, numerous medical detox stays, isolation and alienation from family and friends. Alcohol had removed all his hobbies, interests and relationships, leaving him with alcohol as his only “companion.”
He was aware that as long as alcohol was present, he would not experience a meaningful and fulfilling life. He went through great lengths attempting to “control” his drinking as many do that have been negatively impacted by alcohol, only to discover that he could not control it. Alcohol operated on the false promise of delivering this man what he desired, only to rob him of what he was holding onto.
Each year, alcohol is involved in many tragedies within our communities. It can show up as an underage drinking and driving accident that results in a young person’s life being cut short. Alcohol can play a role in an assault that occurs at an after-prom party at a family’s home. A dangerous combination is binge drinking by young adults without supervision. Each year, there are more tragedies of college students dying due to alcohol poisoning as part of fraternity/sorority hazing rituals.
This month, we need to work to decrease the stigma associated with alcohol use disorder. There’s a stigma that people who struggle with alcohol use disorder cannot handle their liquor or lack something that stops them from “drinking normally.”
Alcohol use disorder is a diagnosable mental health condition that also has a strong physiological component. We need to start treating it as such in our communities and not as a personal failing.
If you or a loved one need help for an alcohol problem, you aren’t alone. Linden Oaks Behavioral Health is here to help. Call us at 630-305-5027.
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