Alcohol is a Drug
Alcohol is a Drug not a Drink
If you have ever been admitted to a hospital or had to fill out a questionnaire for a physician or insurance company, you were probably asked two separate questions. How much alcohol do you drink each day or week? And do you do recreational drugs?
The fact is, these are not two separate questions. The difference between recreational drugs and prescription drugs, beside the fact that one is illegal, is the speed at which they act. A normal prescription drug may take from 30 minutes to two hours to have an effect on your body. Drugs such as cocaine, crack cocaine or crack methamphetamine and narcotics compressed into a powder and inhaled or injected work in less than a minute.
Anyone who has ever taken a good shot of alcohol will tell you that the effect is immediate. No legal drug in your doctor’s arsenal can act with the speed and force of alcohol and that is where the danger lies.
Very often after a night out or company that continues to drink long after dinner, many of us make that solemn pledge to never again drink so much.
These intentions are rooted in a stark reality. For all the deserved attention the opioid crisis gets and all the anticipation of legalized marijuana after July 1 of this year, alcohol remains a persistent health problem and is responsible for more deaths, as many as 9,000 per year. While light drinking has been shown to be helpful for overall health, (reduces your HDL cholesterol and relieves stress), since the beginning of this century there has been about a 50 per cent up -swing in emergency room visits related to heavy drinking. After declining for three decades, deaths from cirrhosis, often linked to alcohol consumption, have been on the rise since 2006.
The pattern has been years in the making. Rick Grucza, an epidemiologist (the study of health patterns in society) who has been studying alcohol consumption patterns for more than a decade, says the numbers are incontrovertible. Since the early 2000s, according to five government surveys Dr. Grucza has analyzed, binge drinking—often defined as 5 per day for men and four per day for women—is on the rise among women, older Canadians and minorities.
Behind these figures there’s the personal toll—measured in relationships strained or broken, career goals not met and the many nights that university students can’t remember. In my long career as a health professional I’ve spoken with hundreds of problem drinkers of all races. Most were university or college-educated; It’s a sad fact that many people learn to drink excessively at our high levels of education. Most of them lack physical symptoms of alcohol dependence but they think they are overdoing it and they are worried.
Many of them drink because of despair about the world situation. Others despair about not being in the super rich and just struggling to make ends meet. As we approach tax time, it also can be a source of despair as well as personal relationships between you and your spouse and your children. The famous John Lennon lyrics of “Beautiful Boy” contain the famous quote “Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.” So we grab for a bottle of this drug and in seconds we feel the hit, and for a moment life’s despair may go away.
And the culture around drinking, the way we drink, has grown more intense. Epidemiologists say that excessive and binge drinking begins in college, and that for many it continues through adulthood with after-work happy hours, and weekend get -togethers with friends.
I watch a lot of sports on TV. As such I am inundated with constant commercials showing me how much fun I could be having if I was out drinking with my friends. Here I am, quietly watching my Maple Leafs or Blue Jays when I could be having a much more exciting time drinking alcohol with my friends in a bar.
Many who struggle with drinking aren’t getting the help they need, largely because they think that the only way to gain control over alcohol is to abstain. Facing such a severe restriction, they may not try to change unless they hit “rock bottom.”
Nobody wants to view themselves as an addict, and the fact of the matter is most problem drinkers are not. Many people are even afraid to discuss the topic with their doctors for fear of being labelled. But in fact, researchers have long shied away from using the term “alcoholic,” because it’s both negative and dated.
In the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), the new term to describe problem drinking is alcohol-use disorder—a more expansive phrase that denotes a spectrum of risky drinking from mild to moderate to severe. Only about 10 per cent of the estimated 2 million Canadians who abuse alcohol fall into the severe category, according to Reid Hester, a clinical psychologist who has been studying addiction for more than 40 years, He believes that the only those in the severe category need to abstain from drinking, not the vast majority of others.
Newer treatments involve an array of techniques and are affective for those with mild and moderate problems. A great deal of research supports the use of anti-craving medications, such as naltrexone, and cognitive therapy from a psychologist or psychiatrist.
Many of the new treatments help people track their drinking—and perhaps most important, understanding why they are using alcohol as a drug in the first place. Patients are taught how to “surf” their urges—taking 15 seconds to notice the emotion that might be causing them, and then substituting healthier behaviours such as breathing exercises or just taking a walk or bicycle ride. You must also have a strategy when you go to a party or meet up with friends. Make a plan that after a few drinks, coffee and water until time to head home.
Drinking poses special risks for women, of course. They’re almost twice as likely as men to have anxiety disorders, which they often medicate with alcohol. And biologically, women are more at risk for alcohol’s intoxicating effects.
Because of the stigma associated with alcohol problems, women—especially those with children—are less likely to seek help. Some of these women find web based programs on the internet to help them because they are confidential and available around the clock.
The news about our alcohol habits may seem grim, but there’s room for hope. I’ve been playing baseball for most of my adult life and retiring to the bar after a game. Now that I play with men my own age or a little younger, I find that almost half the team do not drink alcohol any more. Obviously there was a problem and these men have overcome it and have no problem sitting in a bar with drinkers.
One of my fellow players told me a story about drinking out of control after his company went under and he had no chance for future employment at that position. He tried abstaining for 30 days—a difficult challenge—and then reintroduced alcohol while writing down his thoughts and feelings and cognitive abilities after each drink on note cards.
He recognized a stark pattern: He felt happy and lucid after his first and second drinks, but sloppy and drunk after his 3rd and 4th drinks. He taped the notes on his refrigerator and kept them up for a year as a reminder of how bad he felt after that third drink. Years on, he still thinks about those notes, especially during stressful times. More often than not, he switches to water.
“Happiness, he said, “doesn’t come in a bottle.”