Garth George: The enigma of alcohol

By Garth George

Garth George
Garth George

I read this week that American experts on alcohol abuse have devised new medical guidelines that could classify nearly one in 10 New Zealanders as having trouble with the booze.

That should surprise nobody, for it has been accepted for decades by those in the alcohol abuse treatment business that for every 10 people who ever imbibe alcohol, one will end up seriously disabled physically, mentally and emotionally through addiction to the stuff.

It was my misfortune to be that one out of 10 - yet had I been shown a list of symptoms I would have rationalised it away on the basis that "I'm different" or "It can't happen to me".

The trouble with alcohol addiction is that it is a disease that tells you you haven't got a disease. It is alcohol itself - a mind-altering chemical - that makes the addict able to deceive him or herself.

As an internationally renowned physician said a few years ago: "If alcohol were invented today, it would be available only on prescription, and then only from hospital pharmacies."

But, he went on, alcohol remained the safest, most readily available and cheapest tranquilliser known to mankind.

And therein lies the enigma of alcohol: on the one hand the cup that cheers and relaxes, the almost indispensable lubricant for social intercourse (and often sexual intercourse, too); and on the other a mind-altering chemical, a brain poison and a highly addictive drug, the abuse of which is said to cost this little country some $2.4 billion a year.

It's a peculiar thing, alcohol, and more peculiar still is our attitude to it. It seems to always have had a mystique about it, an aura, and it is neither coincidental nor insignificant that it is known as a spirit.

Excessive drinking, particularly among young people, has always been with us, but as outlets have proliferated and the legal drinking age has been progressively lowered, the problem has become exponentially greater.

Add the breakdown in family life, the upsurge in one-parent units, an economic system that forces both parents to work, the abandonment of traditional morals, ethics, virtues and values, politically correct attitudes to children's so-called "rights", and arcane liquor advertising all over television and you have a recipe for social disaster.

Fortunately, however, there are those in the medical and psychiatric professions, in our health, church and charitable agencies, who constantly strive to alleviate the effect of alcohol abuse.

The American psychiatric profession's latest edition of its guidelines on the classification of mental illnesses and addictions has set down 11 symptoms which, they say, reveal evidence of mild (two or three of 11), moderate (four or five) or severe (six or more) symptoms of alcohol "use"disorder causing clinically significant impairment or distress:

1. Alcohol often consumed in larger amounts or over a longer period than intended.

2. Persistent desire for, or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control, alcohol use.

3. A lot of time is spent doing things to obtain alcohol, using alcohol, or recovering from it.

4. Alcohol cravings.

5. Failures to fulfil major obligations at work, school or home because of alcohol.

6. Continuing to use alcohol despite its causing social or interpersonal problems, or making them worse.

7. Important social, occupational or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of alcohol use.

8. Recurrent alcohol use in situations in which it is physically hazardous, such as driving.

9. Continued alcohol use despite having an ongoing physical or psychological problem likely to have been caused or made worse by alcohol.

10. Increasing tolerance to alcohol - needing to drink more to get the same effect.

11. Withdrawal symptoms, relieved by resuming drinking.

There was a time when I could have admitted to every one of those. How about you?

- Rotorua Daily Post

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