How Alcohol Ruins Lives

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Chapter 4
How Alcohol Ruins Lives

Nobody ever takes their first drink with the intention of one day becoming an alcoholic. Dr. Alan I. Leshner, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, explains that addiction is something that sneaks up on most people: "This unexpected consequence is what I have come to call the oops phenomenon. Why oops? Because the harmful outcome is in no way intentional."42

Unintentional though it may be, alcohol addiction does indeed cause great harm. Wendy's story is an example of how alcohol can ruin a life. Wendy had her first drink at age thirteen at a school dance on her first date. Her initial experience with alcohol was so enjoyable that she kept drinking. Within three years her life had changed––and not for the better. Wendy explains:

At first [drinking] was on a rare basis. And then it became almost a daily thing that you start looking forward to. I mean, it just slowly takes over your life. You don't know that it's beginning to take a priority, except one day you wake up and you know you've got to have it, because you can't function [without it]. Alcohol gradually replaced everything in my life that I loved.43

Wendy had become an alcoholic. In the process, she was transformed from good student to dropout. She lost most of her friends and hated herself for what she was doing. When people become addicted to alcohol they not only lose control over their drinking, but they also lose control over themselves.

The long-term effects of heavy drinking are dangerous, debilitating, and deadly, and they can ruin lives in many ways. Prolonged, excessive drinking can destroy a person's health by causing a host of illnesses including cirrhosis of the liver, a disease that is often fatal. Alcohol tears apart families and weakens or destroys personal relationships, impairs job performance and can lead to dismissal from work, and creates a host of problems ranging from trouble with the law to financial ruin.

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A Progressive Disease

Alcoholism is a progressive disease, one that grows stronger the longer that people drink heavily. Although most of the devastating consequences of heavy drinking take time to develop—usually many years, people can start having problems right away. John grew up in a nondrinking home, but on his first night away at college he had a chance to drink for the first time. The experience was a disaster:

I went to what they called a "kegger." Some older students had bought a keg of beer and set it up down by a river. It was the first time I ever had a beer and I drank so much I passed out. My roommates had to carry me back to our dorm. I was never so sick as I was that next day. Passing out like that scared me, sure, but a few days later I went to another one.44

Even though John's initial experience was frightening, he kept on drinking. Eventually, he became an alcoholic. Like many young people who drink for the first time, he did not realize how dangerous it is to consume large quantities of alcohol. This lack of knowledge can lead to disaster. During the 2000 fall college semester, at least eleven students died from alcohol-related causes at Colgate University in New York, Old Dominion University in Virginia, the University of Michigan, and Washington State University.

Once a person begins drinking, the progression into alcoholism will be different for everyone. Some people drink heavily every day, others binge several nights a week, and a smaller number go on extended drinking sprees months apart. No matter which path an alcoholic takes, there comes a time when the urge to drink becomes compulsive. Michael, who drank for more than twenty years, explains: "In the end, I'd drink by myself. I'd hide beer in the closets, under the porch of the house. It wasn't fun anymore. It went from a luxury to a must."45

Life Problems

Although there are many unpleasant short-term consequences—from a punishing hangover to the possibility of being arrested for drunk driving—most of the devastating outcomes of heavy drinking take time to develop. These problems become progressively more serious as alcohol steadily destroys the drinker's ability to function in every phase of his or her life, whether as a worker, family member, or friend. Many alcoholics, for example, have trouble doing their jobs and often miss days at work because they are sick or drunk. "I'd stay out late," admitted Barbara. "I found myself losing jobs."46

Alcoholics, through their drinking, often injure family and personal relationships by killing the love these people have for them. Their drinking hurts family members, who anguish over seeing loved ones slowly destroy themselves with alcohol. When they are confronted with their excessive drinking, many drinkers react angrily or, like Jim, start covering up their alcohol use:

I would hide bottles all over the house and tell my wife I wasn't going to have anything to drink at night except two beers. Then when she was on the phone or taking a bath, I'd run get a bottle and take a big drink. She smelled alcohol on my breath, but she figured it was only the beer. I lied like that for years.47

Alcoholics, however, are almost always trapped by their lies. When Jim's wife found bottles he had stashed in various places, they fought. Not only injured by his drinking but also by his lies, she lost faith in Jim because she never knew when he was telling the truth. Many alcoholics wind up divorced because their spouses cannot bear living with them. If alcoholics remain married, their relationships are often troubled, with the anger sometimes spilling over into domestic violence. Studies have shown that 67 percent of people who attacked their spouse or other intimate partner had been drinking.

Alcohol can also destroy friendships. Friends can turn away from an alcoholic because they do not like drinking themselves or because they hate the way that person is acting. For example, many alcoholics have financial problems. They often borrow money from family or friends but never repay it. Jerry remembers how he was always asking for loans during his drinking days:

I always needed money, even though I spent most of it on booze. I borrowed from friends, other guys at the bar, people at work, anyone who would give me a few bucks. I never had any when it came time to pay them back. I made a lot of people mad at me, one guy even threatened to beat me up. It wasn't a good way to live, but I didn't care as long as I had money to drink.48

Alcoholics have trouble with relationships because people who drink heavily are very volatile, with anger and resentment the two most common emotions fueling their actions. Alcoholics often blow up over small events, becoming enraged over minor incidents that most people would accept, such as a flat tire. The resulting out-of-control behavior––shouting, abusive language, displays of temper such as throwing things––can alienate everyone around them.

Poor Decisions

The difficulty alcoholics have in controlling their emotions often leads them to make one poor choice after another. This may include driving while drunk—which not only endangers the alcoholic but many other people as well. In 1998 alone, alcohol-related accidents killed 15,935 Americans and injured another 305,000. Drinking is also a factor in one-third of all drownings and boating and aviation deaths as well as many other types of accidental fatalities. Harry Milt, in Alcoholism, Its Causes and Cure: A New Handbook, explains that alcohol greatly relaxes a person's normal sense of inhibition and restraint: "Cheating and stealing are no longer out of the question. . . . In general, the disinhibiting effect of alcohol enables the drinker to do things he wanted to do while sober but could not do because of conscience, shame, guilt, fear, prudence, or common sense."49

This lack of inhibition leads people to do stupid things. Author Susan Brink lists some of the humiliating, disturbing actions that people she interviewed for a magazine article on alcoholism admitted they did:

Inga fell down a flight of stairs with her infant in her arms. Mark had five wives, and five divorces. Betty polished off a pint of vodka, then carpooled fourth graders from soccer practice. Jeffrey committed strong-armed robbery. April, once shy, took off her clothes and danced for money. Martha threatened her husband with a carving knife. Paula slipped into the kitchen during dinner parties to swill down the last drops of wine left in dirty goblets. All are recovering alcoholics and they are ashamed of these recollections.50

"Getting Stupid" on Alcohol

Some teenagers jokingly refer to drinking a lot as "getting stupid." Young people, however, have no idea how accurate that slang term is. In an article in Discover magazine, Bernice Wuethrich explains that young people who drink may damage their brains, which are still growing and developing and are thus more sensitive to alcohol than those of adults. Therefore, when teenagers drink, the consequence may be a loss of as much as 10 percent of their mental ability.

Scientists have long known that excessive alcohol consumption among adults over long periods of time can create brain damage, ranging from a mild loss of motor skills to psychosis and even the inability to form memories. But less has been known about the impact alcohol has on younger brains. Until recently, scientists assumed that a youthful brain is more resilient than an adult brain and could escape many of the worst ills of alcohol. But some researchers are now beginning to question this assumption. Preliminary results from several studies indicate that the younger the brain is, the more it may be at risk. "The adolescent brain is a developing nervous system, and the things you do to it can change it," says Scott Swartzwelder, a neuropsychologist at Duke University. Teen drinkers appear to be most susceptible to damage in the hippocampus, a structure buried deep in the brain that is responsible for many types of learning and memory, and the prefrontal cortex, located behind the forehead, which is the brain's chief decision maker and voice of reason. Both areas, especially the prefrontal cortex, undergo dramatic change in the second decade of life. When Swartzwelder published his first paper [in 1995] suggesting that alcohol disrupts the hippocampus more severely in adolescents, "people didn't believe it," he says. Since then, his research has shown that the adolescent brain is more easily damaged in the structures that regulate the acquisition and storage of memories.

When people are drunk, they may also decide to do dangerous things. Padric, a gay teenage alcoholic, admits that, "I drank to get up the courage to do dangerous things."51 He remembers that he often got into troubling situations when looking for partners in bars. Wendy, the young girl who dropped out of school when drinking began to consume her life, had several close calls with death. While drunk, she once almost died after she fell four stories from the window ledge of a Brooklyn brownstone while trying to attract her boyfriend's attention. She also cut her face with a razor blade while drunk. "It's insanity that happens when you're in the throes of this disease," Wendy admitted. "I didn't want to cut myself up; I didn't want to jump out windows."52

The inability to think clearly and make proper decisions can also lead people to do things they know are wrong, not just morally but legally. This can be seen in the well-established link between alcohol and crime.

Alcohol and Crime

Research shows that alcohol use is involved in one-half of all crimes committed in America. A study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) estimated that in 1992 the cost to U.S. society of crimes attributed to alcohol, ranging from robbery to homicide, was $19.7 billion. That included medical bills and lost work days for victims, damage to property, and the cost to incarcerate offenders. Almost one-quarter of the 11.1 million victims of violent crime each year report that the offender had been drinking, and studies show that the amount of alcohol consumed is related to the severity of the subsequent violence.

Research figures in the Tenth Special Report to the U.S. Congress on Alcohol and Health indicate that people who were intoxicated committed 15 percent of the robberies, 26 percent of the aggravated and simple assaults, 37 percent of the rapes and sexual assaults, and 32 percent of the homicides in cases studied. Figures showed that more people committed crimes while under the influence of alcohol than while using any other drug: "Thus, despite the popular conception that violent crime is strongly linked to drug use, there is actually a much greater probability that any given violent incident will be related to alcohol use than to [other] drugs."53

Alcohol Kills

The physical effects of chronic alcohol abuse are wide-ranging and complex because alcohol reaches every cell and organ of the body. Alcohol damages the liver, the central nervous system, the gastrointestinal tract, and the heart. People who drink heavily for a long period generally decrease their life expectancy by ten to fifteen years. The NIAAA estimates that more than ninety thousand Americans die each year from alcohol-related diseases. This figure is about 5 percent of all deaths in the United States, ranking alcohol use as the fourth major cause of death in America.

Heavy drinking causes so many physical problems that about 40 percent of all hospital admissions are alcohol-related, and alcoholics use health services at twice the rate of the general population. The most common and serious health problems occur in the liver, which performs many essential functions and is vital to life. It breaks down proteins, carbohydrates, and fats from food so the body can use them, stores vitamins and other substances the body needs, removes waste and toxic matter from the blood, and regulates blood volume.

One of the substances the liver breaks down so the body can use it is alcohol, but chemical by-products from this process can damage the organ. Exposure to these chemical by-products can inflame the liver, make it larger, and reduce its ability to function, which will make the drinker ill. The most severe form of liver damage is called cirrhosis, which means the liver has become scarred because individual cells are being killed. Each year more than twenty-five thousand Americans die from alcohol-induced liver problems.

Because diseased livers grow larger and become tender, alcoholics often know there is damage before they ever see a doctor. The sensations of discomfort they feel from their malfunctioning livers are often the first warning signs they have that their drinking is beginning to harm them. Joe, who drank heavily for nearly two decades, explains what it felt like:

I knew there was something wrong. My side was always sore and at night I couldn't sleep on it [his side] because it hurt. And not long after I would start drinking, I could feel it [his liver] beating, throbbing. I guess it was processing the alcohol. It felt funny. It scared me, too, but by that time I didn't know how to do anything else but keep on drinking.54

Unlike some alcoholics who destroy their livers and die unless they have a transplant, Joe did not have any permanent damage, probably because the liver has a tremendous capacity to regenerate itself. But there is another major organ that is heavily affected by alcohol that cannot heal itself––the brain.

Alcohol and the Brain

Research has proven that continued exposure to large amounts of alcohol causes significant changes in the brain's physical structure and impairs how it functions. These changes include modifications in the shape of brain cells and a noticeable shrinking of the brain itself; autopsies of alcoholics have consistently shown their brains to be smaller and lighter than those of other people of the same age and gender.

A reduction in brain size is just one of many changes caused by heavy drinking, none of them healthy. Studies indicate that 50 to 75 percent of heavy drinkers show some kind of impairment in the way they think and reason, even after they detoxify and abstain from alcohol. And according to the NIAAA, alcoholic dementia is the second-leading cause of adult dementia in the United States, accounting for 10 percent of such cases and second only to Alzheimer's disease.

Dementia is a condition in which the brain's ability to function has been reduced. This can adversely affect a person's ability to remember things, to understand abstract concepts, to speak clearly, and to perform fine physical movements, impairments that make it harder for people to function normally. Approximately 9 percent of alcoholics have brain damage severe enough to be diagnosed by a doctor, and 50 to 75 percent of alcoholics have some degree of brain damage.

One of the most severe forms of brain damage from excessive alcohol use is known as alcoholic Korsakoff's syndrome. It is characterized, in part, by an inability to remember recent events or to learn new information. In 1976 an interview with Mr. F., a fifty-eight-year-old patient at a Veterans Administration Hospital in Boston who had been diagnosed with Korsakoff's syndrome, showed how decades of heavy drinking had destroyed this World War II soldier's memory. Although Gerald Ford was president, the patient did not know it:

Doctor: Do you know who the president of the United States is?

Mr. F.: Let's see, uh. . . .

Doctor: The president of the United States.

Mr. F.: [Harry] Truman?

Doctor: Truman. Well, Truman goes back quite a while ago. There must be someone else.

Mr. F.: [Dwight] Eisenhower?

Doctor: Uh-uh. Who else? Who is president right now?

Mr. F.: Beats me.55

Heavy alcohol consumption can also contribute to or cause many other health problems, including heart damage, high blood pressure, and an increased risk for coronary artery disease and stroke. Long-term excessive drinking has also been linked to the risk of developing certain forms of cancer, especially cancer of the esophagus, mouth, throat, and voice box.

Drinkers also risk one other serious health problem. The risk, however, is not to the drinker but to an unborn child.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is the name for a group of physical and mental birth defects that are the direct result of a woman's drinking alcohol during pregnancy. An FAS child can be mentally retarded or have reduced mental abilities, growth deficiencies, central nervous system dysfunction, abnormally shaped heads and faces, and behavioral problems. Fetal alcohol effect (FAE) is a less severe set of the same symptoms. More than five thousand children are born in the United States each year with FAS, the most common nonhereditary form of mental retardation.

First identified in France in 1968, it was not until several years later that U.S. researchers began to study FAS. Up until then, it was not known that pregnant women could injure a fetus by drinking, and pregnant women were often advised to have a glass of wine or a drink to relax them or help them sleep. But researchers now believe that even moderate drinking can create permanent disabilities, and doctors advise pregnant women to abstain from alcohol.

The birth defects FAS creates can ruin the lives of its victims and their parents. Nasdijj was born with fetal alcohol syndrome. He states, "My mother was a Navajo drunk. I cannot recall her ever being sober." 56 When Nasdijj married, he and his wife adopted an infant boy who, unknown to them, suffered from FAS. The boy, named Tommy Nothing Fancy, died at age six from FAS complications. Nasdijj still struggles with the birth defect:

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

The National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (NOFAS) works to educate the public about this alcohol-related birth defect. The following is information on the syndrome from the group's website.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is a series of mental and physical birth defects that can include mental retardation, growth deficiencies, central nervous system dysfunction, craniofacial abnormalities and behavioral maladjustments. Fetal Alcohol Effect is a less severe set of the same symptoms. If you drink wine, beer, or liquor when you are pregnant, your baby could develop FAS. A baby with FAS [will have] disabilities that will last a lifetime. No amount of alcohol has been proven safe to consume during pregnancy. FAS and FAE (Fetal Alcohol Effects) are 100% preventable when a pregnant woman abstains from alcohol. At least 5,000 infants are born each year with FAS, or approximately one out of every 750 live births. Thirty to forty percent of babies whose mothers drink heavily throughout pregnancy have the Syndrome. FAS/FAE is a problem found in all races and socio-economic groups. FAS and FAE are widely under diagnosed. Some experts believe between one-third and two-thirds of all children in special education have been affected by alcohol in some way. The institutional and medical costs for one child with FAS are $1.4 million over a lifetime. Is there a cure for FAS? There is no cure for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Once the damage is done, it cannot be undone. However, FAS is the only cause of birth defects that can be completely prevented. How can FAS be prevented? The easiest way for a woman to prevent FAS is to not drink during pregnancy.

I have FAS. Not as badly as Tommy Nothing Fancy had it. My version of the disease manifests itself in some rather severe learning disabilities. All my craziness, my inability to deal with authority, my perceptual malfunctions, my upside-down imagery (I can read entire books upside down), my rage, comes from FAS. I have never held a real job for more than a year in my life. Reading and writing are complete tortures for me, so I could understand how it was torture for my son.57

Dangerous Alcohol

Alcohol can ruin innocent lives as well as those of alcoholics who, drink by drink, take part in their own destruction. Enoch Gordis, director of the NIAAA, says simply that "alcohol is the most widespread and damaging substance we have in society."58

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How Alcohol Ruins Lives

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