There are many misconceptions about alcoholism that can lead to confusion and misunderstandings. Some of these common myths can even be used by alcoholics as a means to stay in denial about their problem. The individual may have a picture in their head of what a stereotypical alcoholic looks like. So long as they differ from this image they can kid themselves that they don’t really have a problem. The truth about alcoholism tends to differ greatly from the public perception of it. This can act as a handicap when it comes to helping people escape the misery of addiction.
The usual stereotype of an alcoholic includes a list of characteristics including:
* Someone who doesn’t have much money.
* Drinks cheap alcohol – often from a paper bag.
* Is unable to hold down a job and may even be unemployable.
* They are usually estranged from their family.
* Physically or verbally aggressive.
* Someone who drinks every day.
* Someone who drinks alcohol as soon as they wake up.
* They frequently suffer from blackouts where they can’t remember what has happened.
* They have made a mess of their life.
* They will probably be wearing cheap clothes and have poor personal hygiene habits.
* They enjoy drinking alone.
While there are certainly alcoholics who do fit in with at least some of the characteristics of the stereotypical alcoholic the majority do no. In reality an alcoholic can:
* Have plenty of money and nice possessions.
* Only ever drinks expensive beers or wines.
* Is highly successful in their career and their work colleagues respect them.
* Are loved by their family and friends.
* Never become aggressive when alcohol. They may even be able to completely hide the fact that they have been drinking.
* They are able to stop drinking for days at a time.
* Never drink in the mornings.
* Never experience blackouts – or at least don’t remember experiencing them.
* Are highly respected in their community and thought by many to be a successful person.
* Wear expensive clothes and are always well groomed.
* Rarely drink alone.
A common myth is that beer drinkers can’t be alcoholic. In some countries they have even classified alcohol as a soft drink. This view of beer can give people a false sense of security. The reality is that beer continues alcohol and some of the stronger beers can contain high levels of alcohol. There are plenty of alcoholics who only ever touch beer. Those alcoholics who move onto the stronger liquors may be doing so because it is all they can afford.
There are plenty of people who go through a period of heavy drinking in their life but don’t become alcoholics. This most frequently happens with college students who can binge drink at the weekends. Their behavior is dangerous, but it does not necessarily mean that these people have developed an addiction. Once they leave college and take on some responsibilities they settle down to safer drinking levels or may even give up alcohol altogether without any struggle. There are also plenty of heavy drinkers who have not crossed the line into alcoholism. The individual who has become an alcoholic has developed a physical or psychological dependence (usually both) on alcohol. This means that they have increased tolerance for the substance and they experience withdrawal symptoms when they try to quit or significantly reduce their intake.
The average alcoholic does not end up in the gutter. In fact a significant number of them will be doing relatively well in life. These high functioning addicts can have good jobs and a family that adores them. It may even be that heavy drinking is considered the norm within their profession. So long as they are able to perform well there will not be much pressure on them to reduce their intake. It can be harder for high functioning alcoholics to escape their addiction because it is easier for them to be in denial about the problem, and they may feel they have more to lose by admitting to an addiction.
A classic symptom of alcoholism is the blackout. This is a type of amnesia that people experience when they are inebriated. This can be a particularly distressing symptom because the individual will have no idea about what they’ve been up to. There are stories of people who committed murder while in the midst of a blackout, and they later can’t remember a thing about it. Some alcoholics never experience blackouts. This is because their pattern of drinking is to remain mildly intoxicated throughout the day. They drink all the time, but the rarely become so drunk that it affects their memory. There are also many people who do have blackouts but do not notice the missing time. The usual way that people find out that they have had a blackout is when other people remind them of their behavior, and they can’t remember it.
Some alcoholics are able to show a bit of self control over their drinking. This means that they might only drink at certain times of the day, and they may even have dry days each week. By doing this they can fool themselves, and loved ones, that they are not really alcoholics. The fact that the individual has to try so hard to control their drinking is an obvious sign that something is not right.
There is some truth in the claim that alcoholics need to hit rock bottom before they can recover. The problem is that this is often misunderstood to mean the individual has to lose everything before they can quit. This is certainly a myth, and a very unhelpful one at that. The rock bottom refers to the point where the addict has had enough. This can occur at any time during the alcoholic’s career. Some people have a high rock bottom, and this means that they lose relatively little before they become willing to get help. There are other people who seem willing to lose almost everything before they are ready to call it a day. Obviously the sooner the individual decides that they’ve had enough the better. It is like being a passenger in a descending elevator – it is up to the individual to decide where they want to get off.
Unrealistic expectations of recovery are dangerous because it can lead to disillusionment and relapse. It is often claimed that recovery is a process and not an event. This means that giving up alcohol is just the first step in a long process to a great life away from addiction. The problems that drove the individual into substance abuse in the first place are likely to still be there. The goal of recovery will be for the individual to develop coping skills so that they no longer have the need to try to escape from life.
Another dangerous myth is that only alcoholics need to worry about overindulgence in alcohol. This is wrong and anyone who drinks more than the recommended levels of alcohol use will be putting their mental and physical health in danger. The safe level of alcohol consumption is:
* 2 drinks per day for men
* 1 drink per day for women
* 1 drink per day for anyone over the age of 65
* No alcohol for anyone who has ever struggled to control their intake
In the above recommendations a drink is classified as a standard beer, a standard glass of wine, or a shot of bar spirits.
There are many different paths that will lead the individual away from addition. Some people seem to do better with the help of a recovery fellowship like Alcoholics Anonymous, but there are other people who prefer to go it alone. Many people benefit from therapy in recovery, but this is not something that appeals to everyone. There is no one right way for how people should achieve sobriety. In fact insisting that a newly sober person takes a path that does not suit them could even be detrimental to their recovery.
One of the biggest myths that alcoholics entertain is the idea that life is boring once they give up drink. This is a type of cognitive dissonance, and it could not be further from the truth. It was only when people become sober that they realize how boring and limited their life was during the midst of their addiction. Sobriety usually means that the individual does not have enough hours in the day to do all the things they want to do. Boring is rarely a problem for people who have built a life in sobriety.