It’s hard to talk about alcohol awareness without first talking about shame. Unfortunately, shame continues to be one of the most significant barriers to people struggling with alcohol abuse getting the treatment that they may desperately need.
Shame takes so many forms and can be sneaky and pervasive in how it shows up. Shame for the person who is abusing or dependent on alcohol may sound or feel like, “I don’t drink as much as so and so…” or “I’m not having a drink first thing in the morning, so, I’m not worried” or “I’m just a screw up anyway; it doesn’t matter.” Shame for a loved one can sound or look like, “I don’t think they’re drinking is that bad” or “he has no reason to drink too much; I was a good mom” or “she just has a lot on her plate right now”.
As I try on shame in this moment, I also recognize how strongly connected shame and fear often are. Shame can mask the fears loved ones have that perhaps they did something to cause their loved one’s drinking or that their loved one is actually very, very ill. Shame may even work to cover the fear of being helpless after all.
For a person struggling with alcohol dependence, shame can be a more welcome experience than acknowledging the deep awareness that he or she really is out of control and doesn’t know how to stop his or her drinking. The fear that their life is at risk may be too much to sit with, and hence they move to numb by any means necessary; shame and drinking, of course, being two highly effective means of numbing.
Given the above, our first hope is to reduce the stigma and shame associated with alcoholism. If we are unable to hold compassion for those struggling with this disease or for ourselves in the process, we are limited in our ability to alleviate its’ devastating affects.
As we hold compassion, it is so crucial that we also hold the facts. According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 14.4 million adults ages 18 and older (5.8 percent of this age group) had Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). Unfortunately, only about 7.9% of adults who had AUD in that same year received treatment. An estimated 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes annually, making alcohol the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States. *
These are staggering statistics. They call not to be ignored.
So, what do we do?
Most people who have ever loved or tried to treat someone with dependence upon alcohol come to learn one important truth: no one can make anyone else get help or choose to reevaluate their drinking behaviors. We can, however, personally and culturally, do our part to create an atmosphere of non-judgment, compassion, and awareness that makes it safer and easier for people to access the help they deserve and need. We can educate each other and ourselves. We can name our experience and our fears. We can model healthy self-care and healthy boundaries.
At Water’s Edge Counseling & Healing Center, we often use the term “survival resources” to describe those behaviors that effectively manage our distress in the short-term while creating long-term harmful consequences to our physical, mental, social, and/or spiritual well-being. Alcohol abuse is almost always such a survival resource. As such, we can acknowledge and honor how alcohol at one time or another acted to serve as a means of protection for an alcoholic. It may have acted, often unconsciously, as a way to protect from uncomfortable emotions, anxiety, trauma, or self-hatred, among other things. We can even try to hold gratitude for the ways it effectively held such things at bay for a time. And yet, we can hold hope for each other and ourselves that there are now more effective, healthy, and creative ways of protecting oneself and resourcing one’s distress.
Another essential aspect of educating and reducing shame is understanding the complexity of substance abuse on a biological and, in fact, neurobiological level. The effects on the brain of repeated alcohol (and other substance) use make treating and eliminating alcohol abuse especially complicated and challenging. Hence, being aptly informed regarding the neurobiology of substance use can not only reduce shame but also help us to take even the beginnings of alcohol abuse more seriously. The more aware we all are, the more we can do to help encourage healthy patterns and prevent dependence before it even starts. Visit: https://addiction.surgeongeneral.gov/executive-summary/report/neurobiology-substance-use-misuse-and-addiction for a brief summary of the neurobiology of substance use.
If you are concerned about your drinking or are curious about what the recommended limits are, feel free to access this free and brief screening: https://alcoholscreening.org . For more information on alcohol abuse in general, please visit the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism at: https://www.niaaa.nih.gov .
As always, if you are seeking help for drinking or other mental health concerns, we at Water’s Edge would be grateful to help. If we are not equipped to meet your needs, we would be happy to offer referrals and recommendations elsewhere. Call (952) 898-5020 today to schedule an appointment or visit us at https://www.watersedgechc.com for more information on our services.
In the meantime, take care of yourselves and challenge the stigma.
– Nikki Holm, Chaplain
*All statistics taken from: https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics