News & Events

Warning signs of problem drinking

Marc Zuch, L.I.S.A.C., N.C.A.C.II

To understand what a responsible level of alcohol use is, one needs to know the warning signs of problem drinking. Here are four red flags to be aware of:

• Increased tolerance - is when a person can consume large amounts of alcohol and not seem impaired. It usually indicates he or she drinks frequently or heavily and that his or her body has adapted by needing more alcohol for the desired effect.

• Blackouts - are temporary memory losses that occur while drinking. People confuse blackouts with “passing out,” where a person becomes unconscious after consuming too much alcohol. With a blackout, a person is fully conscious and able to interact with others. The person may be involved in unsafe behavior, such as driving under the influence, but have no memory of what was done during the drinking episode. Some people will remember parts of the evening, but any period of temporary amnesia is considered a blackout. Blackouts are early warning signs that a person probably is developing a problem with alcohol dependence. Blackouts should be viewed with concern, because they are abnormal, bio-chemical reactions to alcohol in the brain.

• Loss of control - refers to becoming unpredictable while drinking. It does not mean they lose control every time they drink. It refers to not being able to predict what will happen when they drink or if they will lose control of their behavior. For instance, a person can drink on a Monday and Tuesday with no problem, but on Wednesday, the person goes to have “a couple of beers” and ends up getting drunk and creating consequences for herself or himself. Loss of control also could mean not being able to consistently stick with limits or time frames of drinking. For example, a drinker stays out past 1 a.m. when they meant to be home by 11 p.m. Once a person becomes unpredictable with his or her drinking and related behaviors, it suggests the presence of a problem with alcohol.

• Continued use despite adverse consequences – is when drinking is affecting major life areas and a person continues to drink. This is considered to be the hallmark symptom of alcohol dependence. Any two of the following major life areas that are impacted by alcohol can signify a dependence to alcohol:

• Family – healthy family dynamics are broken due to tensions caused by alcohol use.
• Legal – there are DUI or other alcohol-related offenses.
• Emotions/feelings – there are feelings of anger, depression, anxiety or guilt during or after drinking.
• Economic – money or work problems arise stemming from excessive drinking. This may be one of the last areas to be impacted.
• Social – friends express concern about the person’s drinking; most of the person’s friends drink heavily, or the person avoids social settings and drinks alone.
• School – the drinker has poor grades or drops out of school.
• Health – this is often the last area to be affected. Any alcohol-related medical problem (such as liver disease) is a sure sign of severe alcohol dependence.

To understand alcohol dependence, one also must understand the concept of denial. Denial goes much deeper than just refusing to admit there is a problem. The person really doesn’t see how his or her drinking is hurting anyone. Examples of denial are: rationalizing (making excuses, justifying drinking), minimizing (downplaying the negative consequences), blaming others or situations for alcohol abuse or comparing oneself to others who “drink more.” All of these defenses prevent people from seeing the true nature of their condition. The drinking problem is compounded when the family and friends accept and support the drinker’s denial and defenses.

There are many addiction counselors, community groups and treatment centers in Northern Arizona that are available to help. If you, a friend or family member are concerned about alcohol-related problems, please use one of the confidential resources listed in the Yellow Pages.

Marc Zuch, L.I.S.A.C., N.C.A.C.II, is a licensed independent substance abuse counselor at Flagstaff Medical Center Behavioral Health Services.