A Frequently Abused Drug
Alcohol is the most frequently abused drug in the United States. As a legal substance that a majority of Americans use or at least experiment with at some point in their lives, it is also the most openly-used drug at parties and events across the country. Everyone who takes a drink of alcohol has technically “turned to it” at some point, but it may be difficult for non-drinkers or moderate drinkers to understand why casual use by some individuals turns into abuse.
Despite the legality of alcohol, it is still a psychoactive drug that alters the brain’s chemistry, and some people are more susceptible to this change in the brain than others. Once an individual gives in to one of these major gateways into alcohol use, the slide into abuse can be rapid.
One of the most immediate reasons that people begin using alcohol in the first place is because everyone else is doing it. The use of alcohol prior to legal age is a rite of passage in American culture, made into plot points in movies such as Superbad and American Pie. Once kids begin using alcohol in this setting, in which the more you drink, the more popular you are, those who are susceptible can quickly become dependent.
Teenagers can become abusers within six months after they begin drinking, and over three million people under the age of 20 in the U.S. are problem drinkers, before they have even reached legal drinking age.
The genetics of problem drinking has been widely studied, and it has been found that genetics may be the biggest factor in whether occasional drinkers become abusers of alcohol. How genetics relates to alcohol abuse exactly has been difficult to determine, as more than 50 parts and chemicals of the body are expected to play a role, including the amygdala, which controls cravings, and serotonin, which controls feelings of well-being.
Genetics alone do not serve as the family’s only influence when it comes to alcohol use, though. Much like the social pressure of drinking with peers, an individual who grows up seeing his or her family drink together at every social gathering is generally more prone to drink than an individual whose family abstains.
The line between having a good time and alcohol abuse is a flimsy one. Many young people turn to alcohol on a nightly basis, becoming part of the clubbing or bar-hopping cultures. Despite the ability to function at school or work during the day, and making it to every appointment or family gathering, overindulging in alcohol every night is still problem drinking.
Alcohol lowers inhibitions and lessens the brain’s ability to feel emotional pain, so once a person starts drinking, an uptight, stressed out person may have the feeling of being able to really let go, and a depressed person may feel happier. Once a person begins using alcohol, and experiences these effects, it can be addictive.
Since alcohol lowers inhibitions, it generally reduces feelings of shyness, anxiety and low self-esteem as well, making it easier for people who are naturally uncomfortable in social settings to find a level of drunkenness at which they can feel more open and comfortable. As with any effect of a drug, though, this feeling is only accessible when the drug is in use, meaning someone who uses alcohol to be able to talk to people will need it every time they go into a social situation to find the same level of comfort.
Alcohol use results in some physical changes in the body. One of the most important changes is the depletion of serotonin-producing neurons, which can result in serotonin levels 10 to 30-percent lower in individuals who abuse alcohol. Since serotonin is necessary for feelings of well-being and calm, when a habitual drinker attempts to stop drinking, the individual will experience the very things they were trying to avoid – namely, stress, anxiety and depression – as the body attempts to restore itself to its pre-dependent state. At this point, the brain has developed a dependence on alcohol that results in chemical imbalances when one tries to quit. These imbalances persist after the physical effects of alcohol abuse have abated.
With less serotonin, stressful life events feel more stressful, so an unexpected event, like the death of a loved one, the loss of a job or the breakup of a marriage, are major reasons that problem drinkers return to using after they have successfully quit drinking.
Just as many people begin drinking due to social pressures, social pressures are responsible for the continued drinking of many abusers as well. If an abuser began drinking with a group of college friends, met his or her spouse at a bar, or drinks with family on holidays, there is often a lingering social component to their alcohol use.
If the individual is still in school with the same group of friends, he or she may fail to quit because every time the group of friends get together they do so at a bar or a party where the alcohol is flowing freely. If the individual is married to a moderate drinker, the desire to maintain the relationship may be more important to the problem drinker than abstinence from alcohol, and, if the couple keeps alcohol in the house, the immediate availability can make quitting more difficult. If the individual drinks with family, he or she may feel pressure to have that one drink at the holidays for the sake of tradition, which can lead to a spiral that forces the individual to start weaning off alcohol all over again.
Issues that encourage co-dependency include:
- Fellow drinkers may be able to drink in moderation, and fail to understand why a problem drinker can’t do the same.
- Friends may find the ex-drinker a bore when sober, and either not want to be around the individual or encourage them to drink.
- Problem drinkers may be embarrassed and unwilling to tell friends why they don’t drink, leading friends to unknowingly encourage a relapse.
- Problem drinkers can be desperate to maintain relationships, even if it means returning to drinking alcohol.
Since alcohol is legal, popular and readily-available to those over 21, it is a difficult drug to avoid for those people who have problems with drinking. If the craving for alcohol is strong, as it generally is immediately after a heavy drinker stops using, the recovering user may have to avoid going out with his or her friends, holidays with his or her family, and other activities that he or she used to enjoy. The ex-user may have to change peer groups, or even get a divorce, if the individual’s friends or spouse won’t make changes in their own lives to meet the needs of a recovering alcohol abuser.
The social aspect of alcohol use in the U.S. cannot be overlooked when it comes to alcohol abuse. As a rite of American passage, everyone expects everyone to drink socially, while expecting no one to develop a drinking problem. It’s an impossible contradiction that leads individuals to start drinking in the first place, and makes the path to recovery for individuals who discover they cannot drink in moderation an uphill climb.