Many people realize they have a problem with alcohol and attempt to stop drinking or cut back on drinking entirely on their own. Many addicts are ashamed of their alcohol addiction and don’t want to admit it to anyone, including a doctor or the staff at a rehabilitation center. Most think that all they have to do is exert their willpower and stop. How hard can it possibly be?
The first obstacle on the path to recovery is going through alcohol withdrawal. Drinking heavily for only a few weeks can be sufficient to cause withdrawal symptoms. Individuals who have been drinking heavily for years will almost certainly suffer from severe withdrawal symptoms after stopping or cutting back on alcohol. In general, the longer and heavier the drinking, the worse the withdrawal symptoms are.
Symptoms start shortly after the last drink and can last for weeks. Alcohol withdrawal is one of the few drug withdrawals that can cause death, and for this reason alone all individuals who stop drinking are urged to seek medical help. Even with medical help a certain percentage of individuals die from delirium tremens (DTs).
About six hours after the last drink the individual begins to feel shaky, anxious, and nauseated. Between 12 and 24 hours of withdrawal many individuals experience mild hallucinations. Individuals may begin to recover at this point, or they can get worse. Seizures may occur between 24 and 48 hours of withdrawal. The dangerous symptoms of the DTs usually start 48 to 72 hours after the last drink and peak in intensity at five days:
- Confusion and anxiety
- Severe tremors
- High blood pressure
- Irregular heartbeat
The vast majority of drinkers who attempt to stop drinking on their own cannot make it through alcohol withdrawal. Even if the withdrawal symptoms are relatively mild, they are so unpleasant that most desperately seek any source of alcohol to relieve the discomfort.
Individuals experiencing only mild withdrawal symptoms can be medically supervised through detox on an outpatient basis, but patients experiencing severe symptoms need to be hospitalized.
Addressing the Cause
After making it through withdrawal, the addict next has to refrain from drinking. Addicts trying to do this on their own often find out the hard way that willpower has little to do with addiction. Many addicts fail to realize that there are reasons why they started abusing alcohol, and just stopping the alcohol does nothing to correct the real problem. Almost always there are underlying issues that are causing or contributing to the addictive behavior. For example, many people who suffer from untreated depression end up abusing alcohol and becoming addicted to it. Others never learned any coping skills and when subjected to stress don’t know what to do other than reach for a drink.
If the real reason(s) why the addiction developed are not addressed then the addict will almost certainly fall back into addictive behavior. Rehabilitation programs attempt to identify the real issues that are causing the addiction and assist the individual in correcting the real underlying problems.
Ease of Relapse
Alcohol is everywhere and is readily available. It’s legal, common and cheap. Most recently reformed drinkers quickly realize that most of their social activities revolved around alcohol. In order to avoid the temptation of drinking, the new non-drinker often has to avoid all friends, many family members, and most social activities. The new non-drinker may end up lonely and bored at home, with the liquor store just down the street. Or the new non-drinker may agree to go out with friends, thinking to just spend time with the friends, and end up accepting a glass.
A major advantage of inpatient rehabilitation programs is the lack of access to alcohol during this vulnerable early period. Outpatient rehabilitation programs offer structured activities, social support and somewhere to go and be with people that are free from temptation.
Another advantage of going through a formal rehabilitation program is that it declares to your friends and family that you are serious about quitting. Once everyone realizes you don’t drink anymore, they will stop offering you drinks, stop inviting you to bars, and will actively help support you in your day to day struggle. Individuals who just quietly try to stop drinking, or even loudly announce they are done with drinking are rarely taken seriously. Some friends may even try to deliberately sabotage your self-efforts by constantly putting alcohol in front of you.
Most addicts do manage to quit. No one collects statistics on how many alcohol addicts manage to overcome their addiction entirely on their own. There is, however, no reason to even try to overcome addiction without any help at all.