THE PROGRESSIVE SYMPTOMS OF ALCOHOLISM
The behavioral characteristics of the alcoholic are progressive as is the person's tolerance to alcohol and as is the
course of the disease itself. An inventory of some of these characteristics follows. They are not necessarily in precise chronological
order and some may never be experienced by an individual alcoholic. But most of them are experienced and, in total are mileposts
along the way.
The road to alcoholism begins when the drinking is no longer social but becomes a means of psychological escape from tensions,
problems and inhibitions. Although the eventual problem drinker is still in reasonable control, their habits begin to fail
into a definite pattern:
1. Gross Drinking Behavior: They begin to drink more heavily and more often than their friends. "Getting wasted"
becomes a habit. When drunk, they may develop a "big shot" complex, recklessly spending money, boasting of real
and imagined accomplishments, etc.
2. Blackouts: A "blackout," temporary loss of memory, is not to be confused with "passing out," or
loss of consciousness. The drinker suffering from a blackout cannot remember things they said, things they did, places they
visited while carousing the night before - or for longer periods. Even a social drinker can have a blackout. With prospective
alcoholics, the blackouts are more frequent and develop into a pattern.
3. Gulping and Sneaking Drinks: Anxious to maintain a euphoric level, they begin to pass off drinks at parties and instead
slyly gulp down extra ones when they think nobody is looking. They may also "fortify" themselves before going to
a party to insure their euphoria. They feel guilty about this behavior and skittishly avoid talking about drinks or drinking.
4. Chronic Hangovers: As they grow more and more reliant on alcohol as a shock absorber to daily living, "morning
after" hangovers become more frequent and increasingly painful.
Until now, the problem drinker has been imbibing heavily but not always conspicuously. More important they have been able
to stop drinking when they so choose. Beyond this point, they develop the symptoms of addiction with increased rapidity.
5. Loss of Control: This is the most common symptom that a drinker's psychological habit has become a physical addiction.
They still may refuse to accept a drink; but once they take a drink they cannot stop. A single drink is likely to trigger
a chain reaction that will continue without a break into a state of complete intoxication.
6. The Alibi System: Their loss of control induces feelings of guilt and shame. So they concoct an elaborate system of
"reasons" or excuses for their drinking - "The pressure on my job is too hard to take," or "My wife
is constantly yelling at me," or "I'm a little shaky, a drink will calm my nerves." They hope these excuses
or rationalizations will justify their behavior in the eyes of their family or associates. In reality, the alibis are mostly
made to reassure or bolster the drinker into thinking that their behavior is acceptable.
7. Eye-Openers: They need a drink in the morning "to start the day right." Their "morning" may start
at any hour of the day or night. So an eye-opener is, in fact, a drink to ease their jangled nerves, hangover, or feelings
of remorse after any period of going without a drink; as an example: while they were sleeping. They cannot face the upcoming
hours without alcohol.
8. Changing the Pattern: By now, the drinker is under pressure from their family, friends, and/or employer. They try to
break the hold that alcohol has on them. At first, they may try changing the kind of drink; from beer to whiskey, or from
wine to beer. That does no good. Then they may set up their own rules as to when they will drink and what they will drink:
only three martinis on weekends and, of course, holidays. They may even "go on the wagon" for a period of time.
But one sip of alcohol and the chain reaction starts all over again.
9. Anti-Social Behavior: They prefer drinking alone or only with other alcoholics, regardless of the other person's social
level. The drinker believes that only these other people can understand them. They brood over imagined wrongs inflicted by
others outside this pale, and think that people are staring at them or talking about them. They are highly critical of others
and may become violent or destructive.
10. Loss of Friends, Family or Job: Their continuing anti-social behavior causes their friends to avoid them. The aversion
is now mutual. The members of their family may become so helplessly implicated that their spouse leaves them ("to bring
him to his senses"). The same situation develops between their employer and fellow workers. And so, they lose their job.
11. Seeking Medical Aid: Physical and mental erosion caused by uncontrolled drinking leads them to make the rounds of
hospitals, doctors, psychiatrists, etc. But because they will not admit the extent of their drinking, they seldom receive
any lasting benefit. Even when they do halfway "level" with the doctors, they fail to cooperate in following their
doctor's instructions and the result is the same.
Until they have reached this point, the alcoholic has had a choice: to drink or not to drink -- the first drink. Once
they took the first drink, they then lost all control. But in the last stages of alcoholism, they have no choice: they rnust
12. Benders: They get blindly and helplessly drunk for days at a time, hopelessly searching for that feeling of alcoholic
euphoria they once appreciated. They utterly disregard everything - family, job, food, even shelter. These periodic flights
into oblivion might be called "drinking to escape the problems caused by drinking."
13. Tremors: In the past, their hands may have trembled a bit on "mornings after." But now they get "the
shakes" when they are forced to abstain, a serious nervous condition which racks their whole body. When combined with
hallucinations, they are known as the D.T.'s (delirium tremens), and are often fatal if medical help is not close at hand.
During and immediately after an attack, they will swear off alcohol forever. They nevertheless come back for more of the same.
14. Protecting the Supply: Having an immediate supply of alcohol available becomes the most important thing in their life
- to avoid the shakes, if nothing else. They will spend their last cent and, if necessary, will sell the coat off their back
to get it. Then they hide their bottles so there will always be a drink close at hand when they need it - which can be any
hour of the day or night.
15. Unreasonable Resentments: The alcoholic shows hostility toward others. This can be a conscious effort to protect their
precious supply of alcohol, be it a half-pint on the hip or a dozen bottles secreted about the home. It can also be the outward
evidence of an unconscious desire for self punishment.
16. Nameless Fears and Anxieties: They become constantly fearful of things they cannot pin down or describe in words.
It is a feeling of impending doom or destruction. This adds to their nervousness and further underscores the compulsion to
drink. These fears frequently crop up in the form of hallucinations, both auditory and visual.
17. Collapse of the Alibi System: They finally realize that they can no longer make excuses nor put the blame on others.
They have to admit that the fanciful "reasons" they have been fabricating to justify their drinking are preposterous
to others and are now ridiculous even to them. This may have occurred to them several times during the course of their alcoholic
career, but this time it is final. They have to admit that they are licked; that their drinking is totally out of control
and is beyond their ability to control it.
18. Surrender Process: Now, if ever, the alcoholic must give up the idea of ever drinking again and be willing to seek
and accept help. If at this point the alcoholic is unable to surrender, all the sign posts point to custodial care or death.
If they have not already suffered extensive and irreversible brain damage, there is a strong likelihood that some form of
alcoholic psychosis will develop. The amnesia and confabulation of Karsakoff's syndrome and the convulsions and comas of Wernicke's
disease are possibilities. Death may come in advanced cases of cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatitis, or hemorrhaging varices
of the esophagus. Or they may arrange their own suicide. After all, the suicide rate among alcoholics is three times the normal
rate of self-extermination.
There is no cure to alcoholism.
The alcoholic is fortunate that the disease of alcoholism is treatable; it can be arrested and it has a good response
rate to treatment. But treatment is of no avail unless the alcoholic subscribes to total abstinence from drinking alcohol
in any form. As pointed out above, once they have lost control over alcohol, they will never regain it.
The sooner the progress of the disease is recognized and arrested the easier the return to a comfortable and continuing
sobriety and the less physical and mental deterioration there will be.
AA Meeting Information