One of the greatest and most complicated misconceptions about drug use and drug addiction is the belief that excessive drug use implies addiction. While it is true that drug use is a sign of addiction, and likely to lead to it, not all first-time drug users end up struggling with physical dependence. This is most evident when exploring America’s drinking culture, wherein nearly a third of the nation engages in excessive alcohol consumption, but only 12% of Americans are addicted to alcohol.
Now, there is no positive argument to be made for alcohol use. Decades of research has culminated in the conclusion that, no, there is no legitimate health benefit to a pint of beer or a glass of wine. When exaggerated past a certain point, the negative health effects begin to pile up.
But even among the country’s heaviest drinkers, rate of consumption is not a clear symptom of addiction. Understanding the difference between drinking and drug addiction is important, especially because it helps demonstrate how drug addiction is in fact a disease, and one that affects individuals differently.
Casual Drinking, Problem Drinking, and Alcoholism
Casual drinking, problem drinking, and alcoholism are very different forms of alcohol consumption, each with their own characteristics. While alcohol is an addictive drug, only a fraction of its users get addicted. This is because alcohol does not seem to cause addiction at the same rate as a few other, more dangerous drugs, including powerful prescription stimulants, opioid medication, and methamphetamine.
Despite this, alcoholism is just as dangerous as any other addiction, and can lead to death. Irresponsible alcohol misuse – even without addiction – can also lead to disastrous consequences, ranging from permanent health issues to fatal complications. Alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder, is characterized as a brain disease caused by the interactions between alcohol and the cells in our brain.
At a certain point, the brain begins to change in response to heavy alcohol use, causing cravings and intense withdrawal symptoms in the absence of a fix. Alongside serious changes in cognition and risk management, many individuals leading completely normal lives can find themselves struggling immensely with the consequences of irrational decisions made in the pursuit of another drink, or while drunk. Alcoholism can occur in anybody, regardless of gender, age, or circumstance, and is a debilitating and disabling disease.
Casual drinking, on the other hand, exists on the other side of the spectrum. Where alcoholics cannot control the rate at which they drink, and often drink on a daily basis, casual drinkers only drink alcohol occasionally, feel no internal pressure or craving for a drink, and do not rely on alcohol as a way to deal with stress or reduce pressure. Instead, they may often be ‘social drinkers’, only consuming alcohol around others or when the occasion calls for it.
Heavy drinkers or problem drinkers lie in the grey zone between casual drinking and all-out addiction. Heavy drinkers consume more alcohol than is recommended, and problem drinkers consume alcohol not only out of habit, but either to deal with stress, or to a degree that they begin to regret their drinking. The key difference between a problem drinker and someone diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder, however, is the ability to reduce or even stop drinking altogether. A problem drinker might regret some of the things they did while drunk, but they also have the option to simply reduce or even stop drinking for a while. They do not possess the compulsive need to drink daily, and do not struggle with the myriad of physical and psychological symptoms that many with alcoholism struggle with.
Casual drinkers drink occasionally. Problem drinkers regret their drinking decisions at times. And those who drink because they are addicted to alcohol do not only regret their drinking, but are unable to stop or curb the habit, and instead often find themselves staring at the bottom of a glass of booze more frequently as time goes on, and an addiction grows stronger.
Why Does Alcoholism Occur?
So, if millions of Americans imbibe in alcohol but only a fraction become alcoholics, how is it that alcoholism occurs in the first place? To understand why some people get addicted to alcohol and others do not, it is important to understand the factors that go into a developing addiction, and why they matter.
The first and most important factor determining a drug’s popularity and use is its availability. The easier it is to get your hands on a drug, the more likely it is to be used. This is primarily why alcohol and nicotine are some of the most abused drugs in the world. However, it is only one of many factors. Internal and external factors determine the rate at which a person becomes addicted, with the most important factors being:
- Genetics and physiology.
- Mental health and mood.
- Circumstances and stress.
Is Alcoholism Guaranteed?
You could have the best odds for developing an addiction, drink every now and again, and still not develop alcoholism. Alcoholism is not guaranteed, and while that may have something to do with certain factors we do not completely understand yet – for example, we only have little information on the “addiction gene” – the causes for alcoholism are more useful as a way to inform people of the risk of developing alcohol use disorder, rather than providing a clear cause for any given case of addiction.
While alcoholism affects 15 million Americans, only a fraction seek treatment. Yet regardless of why treatment doesn’t reach into the lives of most addicts, it is effective for those who do take the plunge and seek help.
Alcoholism treatment centers around providing better drug-free environments for recovering addicts to wean themselves off their addiction and find ways to successfully adapt to a sober life and thrive within it. There are countless paths to finding happiness while sober, which is why addiction treatment is complex, multimodal, and flexible. Alcohol addiction is a terrible disease, but it can be treated and overcome, given time, patience, and compassion.