Sheryl, 55, a court reporter in the north suburbs, seemed to have the American dream: "a decent life -- two healthy kids, a nice husband, a two-car garage, what you're supposed to have," she said. "Only something was wrong. I was in my late 30s and miserable."
She began to drink -- not daily but three or four times a week. And once she had the first drink, "that was the end of it. I'd continue to drink for the rest of the day or evening," she said. "[After] you take that first drink, you want to replicate that rush, but it doesn't come. ... I wanted to get to that point [again], where it first goes into your blood and you have that calm, relaxed feeling."
Sheryl said she continued to function, cooking dinner for her family and fulfilling social obligations, though her friends could tell she'd been imbibing because she became unusually chatty. She typically drank vodka and wine; toward "the end," whiskey and beer, although she hated both. She would feel hung over and shaky the next morning -- and full of remorse. "You're so ashamed of yourself. This is not like your life's dream."
"The end" came on the eve of Rosh Hashana, one of the holiest days in the Jewish tradition, after about 12 years of using alcohol. Her husband came home from work that Friday for a holiday dinner, and she had been drinking. "Fear is what made me call a therapist Monday morning; I was afraid that my husband would take my kids away."
Sheryl suffers from alcohol dependence, or alcoholism, a disease affecting almost 4 percent of the U.S. population and more than 9 percent of those ages 18 through 29, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Alcoholism is a "brain disease," according to Dr. Seth Eisenberg, who specializes in addiction psychiatry at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. It's a chronic disease seen as a "complex biological, medical, behavioral and psychological array." For some, it has genetic underpinnings; for others, it results from social and environmental dynamics. Scientists have yet to tease apart the relationships among those factors.
Characterized by a craving to drink, losing control once drinking starts, withdrawal symptoms and tolerance (meaning you need to drink more and more to feel the same effect), the disease cannot be cured. But it can be treated.
Abstinence generally is the best medicine, and "there are many pathways to recovery," Eisenberg said. They include professional treatment in a hospital or non-hospital facility, outpatient treatment and/or mutual aid, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Prescription medication to curb cravings or discourage drinking by making one feel sick when the drug is mixed with alcohol can help too.
Often patients need to be treated for other co-occurring mental health issues, including bipolar disorder, anxiety or depression. True recovery takes a long-term, holistic approach that addresses issues with work, family, health and spirituality, in addition to drinking, Eisenberg said.
Sheryl's therapist suggested she contact Alcoholics Anonymous. She has been attending meetings for 12 years and, she said, hasn't had a drink in all that time. The group has taught her coping skills; she has her self-respect and self-esteem back, and her marriage, going on 34 years, is "better than ever."
People can indeed change their lives, Eisenberg said. "The notion that you go into treatment for 28 days and you're cured is naive, and it sets people up for failure. ... The more flexible you are in trying to address needs, the more likely you're going to find something that will help."
Source: Chicago Tribune
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