It’s just a few drinks, right? Nothing to be concerned about. For approximately 15 million Americans with alcohol use disorder (AUD), that’s a statement of denial.
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Alcohol use disorder is a chronic disease that often goes ignored by the millions in its grasp. Nearly 1 in 13 American men has AUD. For women, it’s 1 in 25. More than 400,000 children are dealing with addiction, too.
“Sadly, it’s common,” says addiction psychiatrist Akhil Anand, MD. “And often, people don’t recognize that they have a problem.”
Here’s how to tell.
Dr. Anand talks about the “Four C’s” regarding alcohol addiction. It’s a simple way of looking at alcohol consumption and determining if it has reached a concerning (and possibly dangerous) level.
The Four C’s of alcohol addiction are as follows:
Let’s start with this basic fact: An addiction is a brain disorder.
Addictive substances like alcohol essentially commandeer the “reward pathway” in your brain. The reward pathway makes mental connections between activity and pleasure.
“Natural things like romance and exercise stimulate the same pathway,” explains Dr. Anand. “But addictive substances artificially hijack it. So, even things that you used to naturally enjoy, you suddenly can’t — because it’s all about that addictive substance.”
Basically, a person with an addiction develops a relationship with a substance that can eventually override everything else in their life. What follows is often described as a “personality metamorphosis.”
“At that point, a person’s actions are built around obtaining whatever their substance of choice is,” says Dr. Anand. “That’s the relationship they work the hardest to protect.”
People who struggle with addiction “do all kinds of terrible things” that impact themselves and those around them, warns Dr. Anand. Someone with AUD will:
“I always emphasize that these behaviors illustrate the severity of addiction, not the person,” stresses Dr. Anand. “It’s important to understand this if you’re trying to communicate with someone who has an addiction.”
Reaching out after recognizing you have an addiction — or talking to someone else about their addiction — can be extremely challenging. Emotions run deep. There are often worries and concerns, and even anger.
“It’s not easy,” acknowledges Dr. Anand. “If you have a loved one who struggles with addiction, be honest, open and nonjudgmental when speaking with them. Communicate in a succinct manner that’s calm and constructive and not emotional. Remember that the goal is to get them help.”
Treatment for AUD often revolves around a plan that includes rehabilitation, care from addiction specialists and self-help programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). But the process starts with simply identifying the issue.
If you see yourself in the description of the Four C’s or the behaviors connected to personality metamorphosis, talk to someone. Maybe it’s your doctor, another healthcare professional, a family member or friend, or someone in recovery.
“Find someone who can give you support and start the process,” advises Dr. Anand. “Don’t be afraid to take that first step.”
To hear more from Dr. Anand on this topic, listen to the Health Essentials Podcast episode, “How To Help Someone With an Alcohol Addiction.” New episodes of the Health Essentials Podcast are available every Wednesday.