April is Alcohol Awareness Month, and this year’s theme is “For the Health of It: Early Education on Alcoholism and Addiction.” As a clinician who constantly hears misinformation about alcohol and sees firsthand the destruction it causes, I’m grateful for the emphasis on education and the chance to separate myth from fact. Here are five popular myths about alcohol, and the debunking they deserve.
Myth #1: Only teenagers and college students die of alcohol poisoning.
Fact: While it’s true that you’re more likely to die of alcohol poisoning during your first year in college than during any other single year of your life, drinking-related deaths continue to affect people over the age of 22. In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recently reported that it’s middle-aged men who are most at risk when it comes to dying of acute alcohol poisoning—drinking so much that the high concentration of alcohol in the blood shuts down parts of the brain. The report revealed that a shocking 76 percent of alcohol poisoning deaths between 2010 and 2012 were adults between the ages of 35 and 64, and men accounted for 75 percent of those deaths.
Older Americans are also face a high risk of alcohol poisoning. They often drink alone, build up tolerance, metabolize alcohol more slowly, and may accidentally mix alcohol with medications in dangerous combinations.
Myth #2: Allowing children to drink moderately at home helps them drink responsibly and not lose control when they’re away from their parents.
Fact: Kids who are allowed to drink at home are more likely to drink larger amounts and more frequently when they’re away from home than are kids whose parents don’t permit this activity. Study after study has confirmed this finding–even in Europe, where Americans tend to think drinking isn’t much of a problem. A recent study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs found that even being permitted to sip from Mom’s glass of wine or Dad’s bottle of beer can be problematic: Children who had sipped alcohol by the sixth grade were about five times more likely to have had a full drink by the time they were in high school. They were also four times more likely to binge drink or get drunk. The best course of action with kids and teenagers is to keep an open dialogue about drinking and make it clear that you don’t condone underage drinking—even at home.
Myth #3: It’s my body and I’m not hurting anyone with my drinking, so it’s no one’s problem but mine.
Fact: I hear this one all the time from clients. Here’s what I say to them: “So I guess your mom’s not home crying and worried sick about you.” I treat adolescents, but addiction specialists who treat adults hear the same thing, to which they say, “I’m sure your wife isn’t affected at all that you may lose your job due to your drinking”—and if you think your kids don’t know what’s going on because you don’t drink in front of them, think again. None of us lives in a vacuum. Your actions do affect the people you love, and they can affect people you don’t even know if you drink and get behind the wheel of your car or behave irresponsibly in other ways. Which leads me to our next myth….
Myth #4: I know how to handle my liquor.
Fact: If you’ve been a heavy drinker—defined as eight drinks or more per week for women, 15 or more for men—for a long time, you may have developed quite a tolerance. You probably don’t get sloppy drunk and can carry on a conversation without being silly or belligerent. People may not even realize that you’ve had a lot to drink. In short, you’re probably able to hide your drinking very well in certain situations. But this can lead to a dangerous overconfidence: Since you “feel” normal, you think you’re capable of driving, even when your blood alcohol content is way over the legal limit. And having a high tolerance doesn’t mean that alcohol isn’t affecting you. In fact, if you drink large amounts and feel just fine, you likely do have a problem. You are at risk for liver complications and other serious medical conditions caused by drinking, damaged relationships, financial difficulties, and even suicide.
Myth #5: I’m not a problem drinker if I drink only occasionally.
Fact: Alcoholism occurs when a person is physically dependent on alcohol—he or she has a strong, powerful urge to drink and goes through what we think of as withdrawal symptoms when the drinking stops. But alcoholism is just one type of alcohol problem. If someone drinks only a couple of weekends a month, but binge drinks (defined by four drinks for women or five drinks for men in the span of two hours) on those occasions, this is a problem. Binge drinkers may not be physically dependent on alcohol, but they may be putting themselves or others in danger when they do drink. As Phoenix House Chief Medical Officer Andrew Kolodny, M.D. pointed out in a Huffington Post article, when used heavily, alcohol can impair judgment and lead to impulsive behavior, meaning people may do things without thinking through the sometimes irreversible consequences of their actions. Alcohol intoxication can also cause the dramatic mood swings that we all know can be a part of being drunk: laughing and having a great time one minute, and then crying and feeling utterly hopeless and depressed the next. Together, these factors–impulsivity combined with mood instability–can be a recipe for disaster.
Thankfully, there is one truth behind all of this: No matter the problem, no one is beyond help. Treatment works, and people can and do overcome alcohol problems every day.
Director of Juvenile Drug Court Program
Clinical Director, Phoenix House Academy at Wallum Lake, Rhode Island