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Bringing about recovery with evidence-based substance use treatment.

Alcohol Withdrawals

What are Alcohol Withdrawals?

Alcohol withdrawals are a serious condition. Alongside benzodiazepines, alcohol is the only substance that can kill the user from withdrawals. This has to do with alcohol’s effect on the GABA centers on the brain. Sudden deprivation of alcohol can send the user into life-threatening seizures. It is highly advised to seek medical treatment during alcohol withdrawal as having a medical professional with you for the process can save your life.

Chronic alcohol use alters synaptic connections in the brain, along with their relationships. When the brain becomes dependent on certain chemical levels, an external change can cause internal problems. Many alcohol users report feelings of intense panic and anxiety when withdrawing, with more severe cases reporting these feelings even while drinking. The grasp that alcohol can take on the addicted mind is so vast that withdrawals can assault the full span of human sensory perception. Feelings of panic and anxiety, coupled with intense physical and emotional discomfort make breaking the hold very difficult for people without access to a clinical setting.

The Cycle

Many alcoholics find themselves drinking again just to keep the withdrawals at bay, while others have enough perspective to stay away from alcohol for a time, before drifting back into old behaviors and habits. The reward centers of the brain have been rewritten from chronic alcohol abuse, and can take months or even a year before they are back to normal.

But even after the user’s body has recovered from alcohol abuse and their reward pathways are rewritten, the brain still may have a very positive association with alcohol consumption. Despite the cars crashed, the bridges burned and the life dismantled, alcoholics will still crave that drink, why?

Mostly because alcohol provides a blissful (albeit brief) escape. An alcoholic may feel that they need that drink to make sense of life in the first place. Usually there is a level of disillusionment or dissatisfaction with the outside world that the alcoholic is trying to medicate, usually to the point of insanity. A normal person thinks, “Oh, I can’t wait for this concert, let’s have a couple drinks!” while an alcoholic will think, “Let’s drink! Oh, and go to the concert.” Normal people use alcohol to amplify an event, while for an alcoholic, drinking IS the event.

Sadly, for the vast majority of alcoholics, this thinking is never quite undone, thus the inability to learn how to drink “like a gentleman or lady”. The inherent compulsivity coupled with the positive association the user has towards alcohol creates a switch that they are unable to turn off. You can turn a cucumber into a pickle, but not the other way around. Coming to terms with this fact is arguably one of the most difficult aspects of a recovering alcoholic.

The Symptoms

Alcohol withdrawal can manifest itself in varying degrees of intensity. The mildest cases may suffer from little more than some anxiety, insomnia and mild tremors, while full blown, high-intensity withdrawal can become a nightmare of lethal proportions. Symptoms include, psychosis, seizures, heart palpitations, jaundice (a symptom of liver failure), hallucinations and confusion. Some of the less fortunate chronic alcoholics also suffer from delirium tremens, a sometimes permanent form of psychotic break that destroys cognitive function that can be permanent depending on the severity and intensity of the withdrawal. Without medical assistance, the more severe cases can end in permanent brain damage or death.

Moving Forward

Recovery isn’t only about staying away from alcohol. If an alcoholic’s life is more miserable sober then it makes no sense for them to remain abstinent. Alcohol abuse is a symptom of a person who is maladjusted towards everyday life. This can happen for a variety of reasons, but the good news is that perception, unlike alcoholism, is quite modifiable. Finding purpose and happiness is quite possible without the use of drugs and alcohol, and really depends on the individual’s level of commitment towards finding happiness and fulfillment.

Unfortunately, while the technological advances of the 21st century have brought with them numerous positive achievements, it can be said pretty objectively that it has made us lazy. Many people don’t remember a world where any answer they could dream of couldn’t be with a few quick swipes on a device in their pocket. These behaviors that we seem to have learned as a public consciousness aren’t difficult to spot, they are difficult to break however.

The Road to Recovery

There is a reason that many alcoholics anonymous meetings begin with “taking a moment to remember our last period of drinking (or using)”. It is a universal truth that people don’t join alcoholics anonymous because they are living happy, fulfilled lives with a healthy and moderate relationship with alcohol. In order to reach a point of complete surrender, many alcoholics need to hit rock bottom, which more often than not included intense and severe alcohol withdrawals. These withdrawals, coupled with embarrassing behavior, the destruction of relationships, and / or the terror and confusion of friends and family is usually a painful and powerful memory. The power of this memory is important, because sometimes it will be the only thing standing between an alcoholic and that one drink that will begin the agonizing cycle all over again.

Taking some well-deserved rest from the outside world and really taking the time to find out what is important in life is the best way to recover from alcohol withdrawal. Perspective is a fleeting gift, and re-training the brain to start thinking in the long-term is an uphill battle. Luckily, there are others who have done this very thing, and continue to help others by providing their insight and experience with this difficult and sometimes baffling commitment to abstain from drinking indefinitely. As the disease of alcoholism progresses, the user finds themselves digging themselves in a deeper and deeper hole, and while proper medical support and a strong sober community can assist with the hardest part, the decision is ultimately up to the drinker themselves, who, after going through the worst of it, will find themselves running out of reasons to stay away from pursuing treatment and recovery.