People who have been abusing alcohol for a period of time can develop both a physical and psychological dependency on the substance. In order to break this addiction, it’s necessary to overcome this dependency through the process of detoxification.
“Detox” is the first and often the most difficult step of the healing process for the alcohol addicted. It’s not easy, it can hurt, and it often will make a person physically ill for a period of time. How long it lasts depends on the severity of the addiction and the intensity of the drinking. For some people, it may be a few hours while for others it could be a week or longer.
Alcohol Detoxification Defined
Alcohol itself is a poison, or toxin. In fact, that’s how it makes you feel drunk: When you consume alcoholic beverages, the toxins in the alcohol disrupt normal brain patterns which cause impairment to your motor skills, including speech, balance, and thought. As a result, inhibitions are removed and the person “acts drunk”, slurring their words, staggering, and often being loud and obnoxious.
Like any other toxin, the longer your system is exposed to alcohol – in other words, the more you drink – the more of a resistance you build up to it. That’s why people who are serious alcoholics can often drink an astonishing amount of alcohol before any perceivable results can be seen.
The problem is that alcohol has both short-term and long-term consequences on the body. In the short term, it causes dehydration, which is the primary symptom of a classic hangover. Replace your missing liquids and electrolytes over a period of time and you normally will begin to feel better.
Long-term consequences can include cirrhosis of the liver, decreased brain function, even heart disease. Another long-term consequence is addiction. Once the body becomes accustomed to having alcohol in the bloodstream, the cells don’t just want it, they need it.
The Detoxification Process
Over time, this physical and psychological dependency on alcohol can become quite strong. That’s one of the reasons overcoming alcohol addiction is a long-term process, not a short-term fix.
Detoxification begins with the complete elimination of alcohol from the body. In other words, the person simply stops drinking, either voluntarily or involuntarily. There are no half-measures when it comes to alcohol addiction. You can’t wean yourself off of drinking. As long as there is alcohol in the system, the body will continue to crave it.
That means quitting cold turkey. It’s difficult and painful but necessary.
Symptoms of Detoxification
So what are the symptoms a problem drinker experiences when they first stop drinking entirely? Probably the biggest one is a burning desire to drink again. This is fed by both the physical and psychological symptoms.
When somebody has been drinking for many years, they create a self-image of themselves as a drinker. In fact, their whole personality usually revolves around getting drunk. So suddenly removing drinking from their life can create a type of identity crisis. And when they are simultaneously dealing with the physical symptoms of withdrawal, it is often too much and they aren’t able to stop themselves from going back to their normal drinking routine – at least if they are in an unstructured recovery program, such as trying to do it on their own.
In-Patient and Out-Patient Care
Most problem drinkers have more success with in-patient or out-patient programs that restrict their access to alcohol, or at least provide the support services they need to remain strong. This can cause severe physical symptoms, including nausea, cramping, weakness, fatigue, hallucinations, uncontrollable shaking, vomiting, and the sense that they are experiencing a complete physical and mental breakdown.
That’s why a structured program is so helpful. The individual can get the medical and psychological support then need to ease them through this initial detoxification phase. Once they make it through this process and have eliminated their physical need for alcohol – by purging all the residual alcohol from their body’s cells – they are ready to begin the next step in the recovery process.
What Comes Next
Detoxification mostly addresses the physical need for alcohol, rather than the psychological dependency on drinking. This is where the next steps of recovery programs come into play. People who are recovering from an alcohol addiction usually need a combination of personalized psychotherapy and interaction with a group of other recovering addicts in order to stay on course with their recovery.
The recidivism rate for recovering alcohol addicts is very high. And whenever the person drinks, they have to go through the whole unpleasant process of detoxification all over again. That’s why it’s important that detox be followed up by intensive therapies to help improve the chances of success.
Detoxification is a process most people only want to go through once.
About the Author – Olaf Hendersson, the author of this article writes in support of The Cabin Sydney, a sought after alcohol rehab centre in Australia.