Northwest Health Winter 2012

Are You Drinking Too Much?

A Group Health member shares her story about alcohol abuse and how she got sober with help from Behavioral Health Services.

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In May of 2008, Tracey knew she had to do something about her drinking problem. Her use of alcohol and other drugs was so pervasive, she couldn't imagine not drinking or being high. "I was depressed, wishing I would die but not wanting to kill myself. I hated my job but felt stuck, and was lying a lot," says the Group Health member who asked that only her first name be used.

She's been sober for three years, and attributes it to an intensive outpatient treatment program offered through Group Health Behavioral Health Services. She attended three-hour meetings three times a week for about six months. "Going to outpatient was the key to my new life," she says.

Tracey was among the 25 percent of Americans who consistently drink above the recommended limits. More than 10 percent have a pattern of drinking that negatively impacts their quality of life, says Vicki Evans, associate director of Group Health Chemical Dependency Services.

Alcohol affects nearly every organ, says Evans. Short-term effects of alcohol abuse can include sexual problems, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, periods of depression, and high blood pressure. Alcohol can also interact negatively with medications, and often leads to risky behavior and poor decision making.

Signs of an alcohol problem. Having a high tolerance for alcohol, exceeding self-set limits for drinking, sleep problems, frequent hangovers, and drinking and driving are all signs that you might have an alcohol problem, says psychiatrist Ryan Caldeiro, MD. Family members might observe that you are withdrawing from activities that you used to enjoy, insisting that alcohol be part of every social activity, and unable to stop drinking once you start.

A screening tool called Rethinking Drinking can help determine if you — or someone you love — has an alcohol problem.

It's important to note that not everyone with a drinking problem is addicted to alcohol, says Dr. Caldeiro. Alcohol addiction is a disease in which alcohol use actually changes how the brain works. "There are many people who aren't addicted, but who drink in a way that puts them at risk for health consequences," he says. Understanding the recommended limits of alcohol use can help them change their behavior.

Some groups are more at risk for developing an alcohol problem, including those with a family history of alcohol abuse. Anyone with a mental health condition — including depression, anxiety, or a sleep-related disorder — might use alcohol to self-medicate.

How to get help. A good first step is to call Behavioral Health Services to talk with someone who can help you assess whether alcohol is a problem for you. In Western Washington, call toll-free 1-888-287-2680; in Central and Eastern Washington and North Idaho, call toll-free 1-800-851-3177. You may be referred to a chemical dependence treatment program, or another solution may be suggested.

For Tracey, an outpatient program was a solution that worked for her. Outpatient programs are very effective, says Evans. Some patients may also benefit from mental health care for depression or anxiety, or medical attention to help with alcohol withdrawal or cravings. "The earlier you get help, the easier it is to make changes," Evans says.

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