You know I’m being cynical when I state that February is “Return Shopping Carts to the Supermarket” Month. I refuse to be cynical about the fact that April is Alcohol Awareness Month. Nothing against other causes, but alcohol impacts so many people in so many ways that I’ll treat it with the seriousness it deserves.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol use disorder (AUD) affects some 15 million adults in the country and beyond that, an estimated 88,000 people are dying from alcohol-related causes each year. This translates into alcohol being the third leading preventable cause of death in the country.
While the stats say 15 million, my cynicism says that the number is an undercount in the same way I suspect the census folks missed several thousand people during the last census. When it comes to alcohol, there is the obvious fallout we see every day.
In working the night shift for Code Blue to provide a warm space for the homeless, I would venture to say that most of the homeless in need of Code Blue are either actively struggling with alcohol or had done so in the past and have now moved on to some other substance. Such are the obvious impacts of alcohol abuse.
But I’m also thinking about everything not captured in the statistics, the stuff that is hidden, less visible—the slow and quiet death of a marriage, a relationship between parent and child, a career, dreams, or whatever. These don’t get captured in surveys and statistics but they’re real and ever-present.
There are many whose lives are less than they should be because while “functional,” they are still addicted, and because alcohol and their relationship to it is central in their lives, they’re less present in relationships, in their work, in their play, and in the moment.
How much parenting doesn’t get done because of alcohol? How much connecting doesn’t happen? How much potential goes untapped and how much talent gets left on the table because alcohol assumes a central place in someone’s life? My guess is that what alcohol itself doesn’t directly steal from a person’s life is still stolen or compromised by the shame, guilt, worry and anger that mark the cycle of emotions experienced by those who struggle daily with AUD.
None of this is meant to condemn or pass judgment on anyone who is struggling with alcohol. I know that for some people, it is an attempt to ease an incredible amount of pain or emptiness in their lives that led to the struggle with alcohol. For others, they started life down in the count 0-2 because of genetics and a family history.
Regardless of what contributed to the struggle, I think we need to abandon the mentality that condemns the person struggling with alcohol as weak-willed or lacking in character and recognize that this is a medical and biological problem and not a moral failure problem.
With that in mind, there are four medications used in the treatment of AUD, including Disulfiram, Acamprosate, Topiramate, and Naltrexone. Some medications repair the chemical imbalance in the brain while others block the side effects of alcohol or make someone sick when they drink.
Short term, medications may be the place to start. Longer term, wellness will involve changes in behavior and confronting issues in one’s life. For those needing a place to start, there is an alcohol treatment navigator at alcoholtreatment.niaaa.nih.gov/. Let Alcohol Awareness Month be your starting place.