One for the road: alcoholism and its impact on families


No doubt you have heard of alcoholism. It’s been represented in media, entertainment, and television, and many of us have dealt with this disease in our families and friend groups over the years. Perhaps you have even dealt with this more intimately, in your own life.

What, exactly, is alcoholism, and what is an alcoholic? I must admit, I have a personal reason for writing about this topic, as a person in my life very recently passed away who was an alcoholic, and who suffered with this disease for a very long time.

He was not a bad person, but it was a bad situation for a lot of the people surrounding him, and ended very badly, as a contributing factor to his untimely demise. The person I am speaking about is my ex-husband, the father of my children.

Alcoholism is a chronic disease that is characterized by the inability to control drinking and a preoccupation with alcohol. The disease of alcohol is hallmarked by the inability to control drinking due to a physical (as well as emotional and psychological) dependence on the substance. The disease is also characterized by a familial relationship, in other words it ‘runs in families’. This is due both to a genetic predisposition for addiction, as well as learned behavior in play among family dynamics.

Symptoms of this disease are indicated by a strong need or urge to use alcohol, on a regular basis, with a problem controlling drinking, and continued use of alcohol even when it causes problems (in relationships, health, employment, socioeconomic status, etc). It can also be heralded by very dangerous withdrawal symptoms, when the individual quickly decreases or stops drinking, without an appropriate medical protocol in place.

This withdrawal can lead to hallucinations, seizures, extreme sweating, to name a few, and may even lead to death, in extreme cases of unassisted severe withdrawal.

As of the time of this writing there are more than 3 million reported cases of alcoholism in the United States alone, with many unreported cases, related to social stigma and an unwillingness to admit there is a problem with an individual’s drinking habits.

Treatment for alcoholism involves abstinence, usually, as typically speaking an alcoholic is unable to ‘just have one’, and therefore unable to drink responsibly in any given situation. Additional treatment involves counseling (such as behavioral therapy), and medications that can reduce the desire to drink and retrain the mind and body to not crave alcohol.

Medical detoxification may be required to stop drinking safely and without health risks that could be fatal. There are also support and therapy groups to help people stop drinking, which can help with relapses, teach coping skills that do not involve substances, and support the necessary lifestyle changes that come along with this life change.

Please speak with a medical professional about alcoholism, as the health risks are greater than any perceived benefit that an individual believes they are receiving from drinking to excess.

What happens to an alcoholic who does not successfully complete treatment or stop drinking to excess? Many medical changes and conditions are associated with alcoholism: liver disease and irreversible damage, stomach ulcers, esophageal ulcers, as well as pancreatic and spleen damage, heart disease, gastrointestinal and kidney/urological diseases.

It is also linked to many types of cancer. It leads to depression, anxiety, social isolation, and suicidal thoughts in many. It also will eventually, if remaining untreated, lead to alcoholic encephalitis, which will lead to an inability to remember things, confusion, and irritability.

All of these are extremely serious health conditions that require immediate treatment and medical intervention. In other words, alcohol over consumption destroys the entire body, and may also destroy the entire mind. This is without even mentioning the inherent danger in drunk driving, risky behaviors associated with drinking, domestic abuse situations that are heavily associated with substance abuse, and irreversible damages to family units and children.

There is a reason my former husband has ex before his title. That being said, he was a wonderful father, if not a partner meant to withstand a lifetime, and he was a kind and generous man, who was always hard working and deserved a much more pain free, dignified, and longer life.

Because of alcoholism he lost his life at 62 years of age, and my sons are now without a father, without the man they loved.

There is no cure for alcoholism, but there is management, including the treatment steps listed above. Treatment is able to begin when we self diagnose, as no one knows about a person’s excessive dependence on any substance more than that individual, themselves. As human beings we try so hard to hide our flaws, out of fear, but often destroy our lives and those lives around us with our secrets and unresolved traumas and issues.

I encourage anyone who is dealing with this very serious condition or knows someone who may be, seek help, and save as many lives as you possibly can with your intervention.

Betty Cohn is a retired registered nurse with 35 years of experience in the medical field in a variety of roles. She will write a semi-monthly column about medical-related topics and welcomes questions and suggestions at