Alcoholism in Canada
Alcoholism is a disease with a name, but it has no face. An alcoholic could look like a mother or a brother, a student or a professor, a top executive or someone down on their luck. Alcohol is the most commonly used drug in Canada, and there is a lot of information available about it. Despite that, alcohol and alcoholism are still widely misunderstood.
Learning about alcohol and alcoholism is the first step to understanding. From this understanding, we can get rid of the stigma and misinformation that surrounds alcohol abuse and Alcohol Use Disorder. If we can shift our perspective, we can look at alcoholism from a place of awareness and knowledge.
What is Alcohol?
Alcohol, also called ethanol or ethyl alcohol is an ingredient produced by the fermentation of sugar. It is this ingredient that leads to intoxication and drunkenness. Alcohol is a depressant, which means that it has sedative effects. It’s called a depressant because it depresses the nervous system. It reduces brain arousal and stimulation and also lowers neurotransmission in the brain.
Drinking alcohol is a widely accepted social behaviour in Canada. It’s often associated with times of celebration like birthdays, weddings, concerts, and other social events. It’s easily passed around at these social gatherings, and often referred to by nicknames: booze, vino, juice, brew, and cold one are all common nicknames for alcohol. Because it’s so ingrained in our culture, it’s easy to forget the risks that come along with it. Many Canadians are unaware of these risks, short-term and long-term.
A 2013 report showed that approximately 22 million Canadians had a drink in 2012. Of those 22 million, 3.1 million drank enough to lead to injury or harm. This statistic demonstrates the idea that not everyone can moderate alcohol consumption and some drink to a point where their physical health may be at immediate risk.
How Drinking Affects You
For many Canadians, drinking is associated with positive events such as celebrations, making memories, meeting new friends, relaxing, and improving moods. However, drinking can also lead to high-risk situations such as family conflict, violence, crime, and even homicide. How drinking affects you, in particular, can be dependent on many factors, including how much you drink, your metabolism, medications, mood, and more.
Alcohol is a depressant substance, and drinking it can influence you in many different ways. There are immediate changes that come with intoxication: it impairs your vision, speech, memory, and your judgement. It also impacts your mood, cognition, hormones, and immune system.
Once you reach heavy intoxication, symptoms may include:
- Memory Loss
- Reduced Inhibition
- Reduced Reaction Time
- Altered Mood
- Respiratory Depression
- Coma or Death
There are many factors that can influence how alcohol affects you. As such, there is no standardized amount of alcohol that has been deemed safe. Any amount of alcohol can be dangerous, making it difficult to draw boundaries as to what amount of drinking can be defined as low-risk.
What is Alcoholism?
Alcoholism is the addiction to alcohol, resulting from compulsive behaviour and physical dependency. Alcoholism is when you lose control over alcohol, and it begins to control you. It is also known as Alcohol Use Disorder.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) describes Alcohol Use Disorder as a “chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over alcohol intake, and a negative emotional state when not using”.
Harmful use of alcohol can seriously impact your health in the long term. Abuse of alcohol has also been linked to other conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, stroke, liver disease, pancreatitis, and sexually transmitted diseases. These conditions are serious, and the harmful use of alcohol could land you in the hospital. In fact, there were 77,000 hospitalizations due to alcohol in 2015–2016 in Canada. That same year, there were 75,000 hospitalizations for heart attacks. 4.3% of Canadians consider themselves heavy frequent drinkers.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization (WHO) has deemed alcohol carcinogenic. A carcinogenic is any substance that has the potential to cause or contribute to cancer. In 2008, it was reported that approximately 70% of Canadians did not know that alcohol was linked with cancer. About half of Canadians didn’t know about its links to diabetes and heart disease.
Harmful use of alcohol does more than influence your physical health, it can also influence your relationships. Low productivity and loss of employment are associated with alcoholism as well, and so are mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
Addiction to alcohol is often accompanied by relationship issues. This includes relationships with partners, family members, and friends. Heavy alcohol can contribute to arguments and violence, which can severely impact these relationships. Individuals who become addicted to alcohol may find that they’ve become estranged from people they used to be close to.
Alcohol use disorder can lead you to continue to abuse alcohol despite any negative consequences associated. This means that no matter the physical, social, or emotional harm that may come to the individual, they will continue with their harmful use of alcohol.
Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction
Alcohol Addiction is a progressive condition and takes place over time. Alcoholics start out as problem drinkers and eventually become addicted to alcohol.
There are risk factors associated with developing alcoholism. These include socio-economic factors including your upbringing and how you were raised, your environment, your genetics, and your mental health.
Persons struggling with mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder are at high risk of becoming addicted to alcohol because it is often used as a coping mechanism. If alcoholism is in your family history, or if you often associate with heavy drinkers, you are also at a higher risk.
How do you know if you’re addicted to alcohol? Although it is not easy to define, there are some typical signs that can help define whether or not alcohol may be a problem for you.
You may be a problematic drinker if:
- You lie about or hide your drinking
- Drink to excess, even when you don’t set out or intend to
- Feel guilty about drinking
- Experience memory loss or “blackouts” while drinking
- Use alcohol as a coping mechanism
- Neglect your responsibilities because of your drinking
- Experiencing legal problems as a result of drinking
There are other key indicators that generally distinguish the problem drinker from the alcoholic. The symptoms of alcoholism include the following:
You’ve lost control of your drinking. You may set limits on how much you will drink, but you always drink more than you intend to. You have tried to quit or cut down, but those efforts are not successful.
Alcohol is your main focus. Alcohol takes up much of your day. This includes thinking about alcohol, recovering from alcohol, purchasing alcohol, or drinking alcohol. Your social activities include alcohol as well. You no longer engage in hobbies and other activities that don’t include drinking.
You drink despite the consequences. You are aware that alcohol is negatively impacting your relationships, social life, mental health, or health, but you still continue to drink despite it.
You have a high tolerance and experience withdrawal symptoms. High tolerance and withdrawal are the two main warning signs of alcoholism. Tolerance means that over time, you’ve needed to increase the amount of alcohol you need to get the same effects. If you drink to avoid withdrawal symptoms, this is another red flag that alcoholism could be affecting you.
Withdrawal Symptoms and Timelines
Alcoholics also experience physical withdrawal when they go without drinking for a period of time. Withdrawal symptoms include:
- Nausea or vomiting
- Low Appetite
- Low Appetite
There are other more serious symptoms of alcohol withdrawal such as agitation, fever, hallucinations, and seizures. The rapid onset of confusion that takes place about 3 days into withdrawal is called Delirium Tremens (DTS) and usually subsides in 2-3 days.
Withdrawal can last up to 14 days or more, but most people report the symptoms subsiding after about a week. Symptoms like anxiety, insomnia, and restlessness can last longer, in which case is actually referred to as a condition called Post-acute Withdrawal Syndrome.
Because the symptoms associated with withdrawal are quite dangerous, you would want to consult your health professional before quitting alcohol to see how they might help you mitigate these symptoms. Talk to your doctor if you are a heavy drinker and want to quit.
Alcoholism and Loved Ones
The alcoholic may believe that the problem is theirs and theirs alone, but the truth is that their drinking does impact those around them, especially their loved ones. Friends and family members of alcoholics are also impacted by the harmful use of alcohol. Children are especially sensitive when exposed to an environment where an alcoholic is their parent or guardian.
The alcoholic’s family members and friends may feel pressured or obligated to lie or cover for the alcoholic’s drinking. Not only can drinking place an emotional burden on your relationships, but the strain could also be financial. This financial burden could be related to missed work, loss of employment, or legal fees.
There are resources available specifically for the loved ones of an alcoholic. This can help them learn how to properly cope with the addiction. These resources include peer support, support groups, and therapy.
Getting Help with Alcoholism
Getting help for alcohol addiction is a difficult but extremely brave step to recovery. If you’re able to identify that you have a problem, you’ve already taken the first step.
What you should know, first and foremost, is that you don’t have to go through this alone. There is support available, and it’s important to find out which next step is right for you.
For many beginning recoveries, detoxification is the first step. This means coping with the withdrawal symptoms related to alcoholism. As mentioned, some of these withdrawal symptoms can be quite dangerous, which is why it’s recommended that you have medical professionals help you with this process. A medical professional can help you mitigate the physical symptoms associated with initially abstaining from alcohol, and encourage your success.
There is no “one size fits all” treatment for alcohol use disorder. There are many different ways in which you can go about treatment, and usually, a well-rounded approach is the best approach. This includes learning to incorporate healthy coping strategies, addressing mental health issues, and facing any underlying issues that have contributed to your alcohol use disorder.
Inpatient Programs. Inpatient treatment requires the individual to stay in the facility at which they are receiving this treatment. This is also referred to as rehab, which stands for rehabilitation. The benefit of this type of treatment is that it removes the distractions associated with everyday life and allows the person to focus on sobriety. These treatment programs are usually highly intensive and immersive but are also typically more expensive. Individuals who engage in inpatient programs have greater success remaining abstinent from alcohol.
Outpatient Programs. Outpatient treatment is when a person attends treatment during the day but still stays at home. This type of treatment is less demanding financially, and also typically requires less of a time commitment. It allows the person to work on their sobriety with less of an impact on other aspects of life such as school or work.
Antabuse. Antabuse, which is also known as disulfiram, is a drug that is used to help alcoholics abstain from use. Taking Antabuse results in increased sensitivity to alcohol, making the reaction to alcohol highly unpleasant. These reactions include nausea, vomiting, rapid heartbeat and hypotension. The experience, or even the fear of experiencing these symptoms, can deter a person from drinking when they are in recovery. Antabuse needs to be prescribed by your doctor.
Therapy. Going to therapy allows you to meet with a professional one-on-one who can help you deal with any possible underlying issues at the root of your alcoholism. Therapists can also help you identify any triggers, and work with you on healthy coping mechanisms to deal with negative emotions. This equips you with additional tools that can help you on the road to sobriety.
Support Groups. Support is an important component in learning to live sober. Support can come from friends and family members, but a support group of peers can be very valuable as well. Support groups can provide wisdom and guidance, and also give you a place to turn when you are worried about falling back into old destructive habits. It is incredible just how much connecting with other people who have experienced something similar to you can help you.
What About Relapse?
When getting sober, relapse can be a very scary concept to approach. Most people in recovery from alcohol will relapse at least once. It’s important to know that a relapse is not the end of a recovery journey, but simply just a part of it. It’s never too late to work on your recovery again.
Sobriety and Recovery
Recovery is a journey that looks different for everyone. It starts with sobriety, which is simply abstaining from alcohol. Recovery is not just about sobriety, but it’s also about managing the physical and mental challenges that arise from alcoholism.
That’s why having a recovery strategy is so important. If recovery is your goal, you need to find out what works for you and utilize those supports that you have when you need them. Recovery is certainly not easy – it does require hard work and effort, but it is possible. It all begins with getting the help you need. There are resources, support systems, and most importantly, there is always hope.