Alcohol plays an important role in our culture.  From winding down after work with a drink to enjoying a bottle of wine with dinner to toasting a special event with champagne, alcohol is a constant presence in many people's lives.  Because drinking is so familiar, it may not be obvious when someone's use of alcohol has crossed the line from a fun social activity to alcohol substance abuse.

Experts in alcoholism draw a distinction between alcoholism (also known as alcohol dependence) and alcohol substance abuse.  For alcoholics, every aspect of life is affected by their drinking, including relationships, work, finances and health.   Despite the enormous difficulties in their lives caused by alcohol, they continue to drink.  Those who are described as alcohol substances abusers are in an earlier stage of the disease.  Their alcohol use has some self-destructive aspects, but they have some control over the problem and are able to set limits on their drinking.

Many alcohol substance abusers are at high risk of becoming alcoholic. Some alcohol abusers move into alcoholism following a crisis or life-changing event, such as divorce, loss of a job or death of a loved one.  For other alcohol abusers, the shift to alcoholism is gradual.  They begin to drink more as their tolerance for alcohol increases or they start to spend more time focusing on drinking.

Anyone who drinks needs to be aware of the warning signs of alcohol substance abuse:

  • Taking risks with alcohol.  This may include drinking and driving or mixing alcohol with prescription drugs.
  • Ignoring responsibilities and commitments. Due to drinking or a hangover, responsibilities at work, home or school are neglected.
  • Continuing to drink despite problems.  Even though relationships are suffering, the drinker does not change his or her behavior.
  • Needing alcohol to relax. Alcohol once made the drinker feel good, but now is needed to avoid feeling bad.

Alcoholics also exhibit these signs, but in addition they have developed a physical dependence on alcohol.  They need alcohol to function on a daily basis and have a physical urge to drink.  They have developed a tolerance for alcohol, which means that over time they have to increase the amount of alcohol they drink to feel the same effects.  When they stop drinking, they experience physical withdrawal symptoms.  Even if they want to stop drinking, it may not be possible.

There are a wide variety of treatment programs available for alcoholics and alcohol substance abusers who recognize that they have a problem.  Outpatient treatment programs, residential rehab and 12-step support groups are just a few of the options for recovery.  The most important step on the road to recovery is reaching out for help.