It’s Not How Much You Use, It’s What Happens When You Use

Some Things You Might Not Know About Addiction

Image from Wikimedia

Grandma doesn’t drink much. She only has a glass of champagne every New Year’s Eve. But, boy, oh, boy, you should see what happens then.

Last New Year’s she danced on the kitchen table, fell, and broke her hip. The year before, she stripped off all her clothes in front of her children and her grandchildren, who had permission to stay up late that one night. It was not a pretty sight. Champagne seems to have that effect on her. The year before that, she broke her arm. I don’t know about before that, but there are whispers that she made out with her husband’s best friend one New Year’s while under the influence, but you never know.

Grandma has a drinking problem.

Yes, that’s right; she has a drinking problem, even if she only drinks once a year. Officially, her diagnosis would be alcohol use disorder, on the mild side, if she sought help. Simply defined, a mild alcohol use disorder is continued drinking despite problems. These could be social problems, health problems, legal ones, problems at work, whatever. For her, they are health and social problems. No one is taking her to court and she isn’t getting fired, but she is humiliated and things keep getting broken. She may have endangered her marriage. She has problems that wouldn’t have been there if she didn’t drink. She’s going to have to decide what to do about it.

She might stop drinking; turn down that glass of champagne. The New Year will come whether she drinks it or not. If she had stopped years ago, she wouldn’t have had all these problems; but she didn’t. She didn’t stop because she just couldn’t get her head around the fact that alcohol problems have little to do with the amount or frequency of alcohol use. They have everything to do with problems.

Let’s just say that one year she says, I’m not going to drink next year. I don’t know if I’m going to break my hip again, but every year something happens and it’s just not worth it. Next year, I’m going to be sober.

Let’s say she says that, but, the next new year, she drinks again. She wasn’t going to, but someone poured her a glass of champagne and it was there, so she drank it. Now she has a new problem. She lost control. She only drinks once a year, but she still loses control.

So, you see, you don’t have to be a skid row bum, sitting on the sidewalk, drinking out of a paper bag, wasted most of the time, to have problems with alcohol. You just need to have problems with alcohol to have problems with alcohol. You need to have problems and continue to drink anyway, even if it’s only once a year.

The guy drinking on the sidewalk most likely has a more severe alcohol use disorder. Grandma has it mild, but I say Grandma’s it’s still pretty serious. Serious as a broken hip.

To get to the point of an addiction like the guy on the sidewalk has, it’s necessary to use large amounts with some frequency. Addicted people usually experience increased tolerance for the substance; they need to use more and more to achieve the desired effect, or they need to go to stronger and stronger forms of the drug. The guy on the sidewalk does not drink Wild Irish Rose because he likes the taste. He drinks it for its high alcohol content.

When people use large amounts of a substance, they get a hangover. When you have a hangover, you basically feel the opposite of the way you felt when you had that buzz. If the substance made you feel calm, you are jittery; if you are social, you can’t stand people and noise; if you are happy, then you are miserable. Your body is trying to get back into balance. It’s compensating to your having consumed so much and is trying to tell you something. 

Once you get a hangover, you have two choices: a) You can stop using the substance and let your body, over time, heal itself, or b) You can use some more and avoid the handover by drinking some more. Have some of the hair of the dog that bit you, as they say. Many people elect option b. Keep it up and eventually you may start to experience alcohol withdrawal. Withdrawal is more serious than a common hangover, but it’s caused by the same thing. The body is reacting to large amounts of booze. Many people who have severe withdrawal, must continue to drink or they will die from not drinking, unless they get some professional help.

In Grandma’s case, she doesn’t use enough alcohol to develop tolerance or withdrawal, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a problem with alcohol.

Oh, and the same thing goes with other substances: cocaine, heroin, marijuana, tobacco, whatever. The frequency and the amount is not the problem. The problem is the problem.

Published by Keith R Wilson

I'm a licensed mental health counselor and certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor in private practice with more than 30 years experience. My newest book is The Road to Reconciliation: A Comprehensive Guide to Peace When Relationships Go Bad. I recently published a workbook connected to it titled, How to Make an Apology You’ll Never Have to Make Again. I also have another self help book, Constructive Conflict: Building Something Good Out of All Those Arguments. I’ve also published two novels, a satire of the mental health field: Fate’s Janitors: Mopping Up Madness at a Mental Health Clinic, and Intersections , which takes readers on a road trip with a suicidal therapist. If you prefer your reading in easily digestible bits, with or without with pictures, I have created a Twitter account @theshrinkslinks. MyFacebook page is called Keith R Wilson – Author.

One thought on “It’s Not How Much You Use, It’s What Happens When You Use

  1. My Dad thinks addiction is addiction is addiction. He doesn’t understand varying degrees of substance use. And this of course requires treatment to be tailored to the individual problem. I tried explaining that once you’re dealing with physical withdraw symptoms, it’s no longer a conscience decision to keep using. And you’re correct. It is STILL a problem before withdrawal! Thanks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: