People who have never seen someone undergoing alcohol detox have no idea how severe the symptoms can be.  This is especially true of delirium tremens, which is the most severe form of alcohol withdrawal. Delirium tremens is most common in people who drink the equivalent of 7-8 beers on a daily basis for several months and in people who have been drinking heavily for 10 years or more.

I recently interviewed a married couple who shared the story of their experience with alcohol detox and delirium tremens.  Ann and Steve (not their real names) are the parents of two teenage boys.  Shortly after the birth of their youngest son, Steve became anxious and began to increase his alcohol consumption.  Soon he was consuming 2 six packs of beer per day and getting up in the middle of the night to drink wine.  He stopped eating regular meals and his personal hygiene suffered.

Steve had previously been very athletic and health-conscious, so Ann was naturally concerned about the change in his behavior.  She finally talked him into making an appointment with their family doctor.  The day before his appointment, Steve decided to stop drinking.  Over the next few hours he became increasingly agitated.  He became extremely pale, his hands began to shake and he was nauseous.  Suspecting that Steve was going through severe alcohol detox, Ann took their children to a sitter's house.   When she returned, his condition had worsened.  He had been vomiting and now he had dry heaves.  He decided that a glass of wine would help "calm his nerves."  As he stood up to go to the kitchen he emitted an involuntarily yell and fell to the floor in a grand mal seizure.

Ann recognized what was happening and did what she could to keep Steve from harming himself during the seizure, which lasted just a minute or so but seemed longer.  She then called the doctor's office and was told to get Steve to an emergency room as soon as possible.  Steve was in a dazed state, but with a neighbor's help Ann was able to get him into their van.  (Later she would wonder why she had not called 911).  He lay on the floor during the short drive to the hospital and was unconscious by the time ER workers placed him on a gurney.  In the emergency room, Steve suffered three more grand mal seizures.  Based on comments made by ER personnel, Ann knew his alcoholism was life-threatening situation.

Steve was admitted to the hospital and given medication to help him sleep.  When Ann returned the next day, he was sitting up in bed and talking.  He was far less agitated but was delusional, referring to the hospital as a school and the nurses as teachers.  He remained delusional for the next 24 hours and Ann began to wonder if he had suffered irreversible brain damage.  By the next day he was more rational and though in a weakened state was ready to be released.  Before Steve left the hospital, his neurologist told him that his alcohol detox had nearly been fatal.  If he wanted to see his sons grow up he would have to stop drinking immediately.  The doctor's words affected Steve deeply.  He successfully completed alcohol treatment and has remained sober for more than a decade.