Many people who are trying to quit drinking experience serious withdrawal symptoms. What you may not realize is that these withdrawal symptoms can even be fatal if not treated properly.
As a recovering alcoholic myself, I would have thought it was a good idea to simply get my hands on the proper medication and then use it to detox myself. This is a bad idea for many reasons, not the least of which is that it is extremely dangerous.
Perhaps a better question than “what medication do I need?” is to ask “where can I go to get help?” Finding help from the right place implies that you will have medical professionals who can help you through alcohol withdrawal safely.
There is a process for anyone who wants to overcome alcohol addiction. It starts with surrender but then you have to follow that up with action in order to be successful. Going to rehab or seeking “disruption” is the next critical step if you want to break free from the disease. See the alcoholism help guide for more details on how this process might unfold for you.
The recovery process is long, and lasts for the rest of your life (if you do it right!). Therefore the detox and withdrawal portion of the process is just a drop in the bucket, a mere nanosecond on the time scale of your journey. But it is also a very important hurdle and I don’t blame anyone for being afraid to face the discomfort of withdrawal. It can be downright scary to give up your drug of choice, though most of us are not honest enough with ourselves to label this correctly as being “fear.” I don’t blame you for that either! I did the same thing, arguing that I was just wired differently and that I needed alcohol in order to be happy. The truth was I was terrified of having to face life sober.
Medications that can help treat alcohol withdrawal
You should really not worry about the specific medications that are used to treat alcohol withdrawal. This is because:
1) The medications will vary depending on your condition, your medical history, special conditions, and how your body is responding to the withdrawal process.
2) Medical professionals (nurses in most cases) will need to monitor your withdrawal symptoms closely and then adjust your medication accordingly.
3) A doctor decides what and how much medicine you need at any given time. During the typical alcoholic’s day in detox, a doctor may consider their symptoms and vital stats and make several different decisions about what and how much medicine to give the person. Through the course of a single day in detox this will happen at least 3 times and possibly a lot more than that.
4) Some people respond differently to the medications, including possible allergic reactions to it. Or the doctor may do the best that they can and the person will still have a very bad withdrawal anyway, possibly having a seizure. This is not a risk that you want to take outside of a medical setting (such as in your own home). Again, alcohol withdrawal can kill you.
The medications that are typically used to treat alcohol withdrawal generally work on the nervous system. The reason for this is because the body is used to having lots of alcohol dumped into it every day, so the body gets used to producing extra adrenaline in order to fight off the depressing effects of alcohol. Then when you suddenly remove the alcohol the body is still in overdrive trying to produce as much adrenaline as possible. This is where anxiety and seizures come from. The body does not realize that it can stop trying to produce so much adrenaline yet.
Therefore they use medications such as Gabapentin or even Valium to help treat withdrawal. However, this does NOT mean that you should ever take those medications yourself in order to try to detox yourself from alcohol. If you do so then you are risking your life because too much or too little could kill the right person in a specific situation. In the old days they tended to use pills such as Librium or Valium to detox people (under very close medical supervision), but they have found that there are generally better medications to use these days. In general, you don’t want to use a potentially addictive medication in order to treat withdrawal IF you can help it. However there are times when the withdrawal symptoms are intense enough that stronger medication must be used. Again, even a doctor with 30+ years of experience treating addiction is simply making his best judgment in such a situation. For you to try to make these same sort of medical decisions (with no experience at all!) is absolutely insane. Do not try to do it or you are risking your life.
In addition to the medications that attempt to treat alcohol withdrawal directly, there are also medications that might be used in order to treat the side effects. Because you cannot completely eliminate the withdrawal symptoms through the use of medication, the best you can do in some cases is to treat the symptoms themselves. Again, you would not want to try to do this yourself because unless you have several years or even decades of experience in treating patients with alcohol withdrawal. Let the doctors and nurses at a rehab center tell you what medicine to take in order to help you get safely through withdrawal.
The danger in trying to self medicate
If you attempt to self medicate then the most likely outcome of this that alcoholics will eventually end up combining “anxiety” medication with alcohol. This is incredibly dangerous.
I worked with a doctor who had over 30 years experience in treating alcoholic patients. He taught me that what typically happens it that the alcoholic will go see their doctor and (usually out of shame) they will not explain to their doctor that they are a full blown alcoholic. They might mention that they “drink to relax” or to calm their nerves a bit. So the doctor may give them some anxiety medication in order to try to treat their nerves, especially if the person is going to try to “lay off the sauce” a bit.
So what happens is that the doctor will usually prescribe an addictive anxiety medication (such as Xanax or Valium) which is probably the worst thing that could possibly happen.
The alcoholic may stop drinking for a day or two and pop an anxiety pill instead. This helps them a lot, and they notice it.
So what is the problem?
The problem is that eventually the alcoholic will combine it with alcohol. They will have a pill in their system and then they will drink. And this is a recipe for disaster. Because the pill is doing much the same thing to the nervous system as the alcohol does, only they combine to make it even more powerful. So they both depress your nervous system even more.
If an alcoholic is taking addictive anxiety medications and drinking on top of it, and they stop both of them suddenly, they are almost certain to have a seizure. This is because the effect is three or four times more powerful than if they had just stopped drinking cold turkey. Instead they stopped the alcohol and they pills at the same time, and their adrenaline system is in overdrive. This is incredibly dangerous.
It is not uncommon for doctors to prescribe addictive medications to (even someone who admits to being) an alcoholic, even though alcohol is also a drug which is addictive.
If you try to medicate your withdrawal from alcohol then you are taking your life into your hands. In a similar way, if you try to medicate your anxiety yourself with addictive medications (like Xanax, Valium, Klonipin, Ativan, Librium, etc.) then you are also playing with fire. These medications all create a dangerous combination when you combine them with alcohol.
Why everyone should go to rehab and detox if they are quitting drinking
Once you have made a decision for recovery and decided to stick to it, you are ready to take action.
The first thing is always surrender.
The second thing is almost disruption. You can’t overcome alcoholism until you break free from your pattern of abuse.
In order to get healthy you have to stop dumping alcohol and addictive drugs into your system. Seem obvious? It is to most people, but not if you are still stuck in denial. The idea of complete abstinence was something that I had to eventually accept the hard way. It took me many years.
On the larger scale of human history, drug and alcohol treatment centers are actually fairly new. They have only existed for a matter of decades (or possibly centuries if you count certain institutions). The have not really been around all that long in the big scheme of things.
So don’t get me wrong–there are other ways to overcome alcoholism. People have done it long before the idea of “rehab” even existed.
That said–why would you want to try it any way that is going to be so much harder? Why make it difficult on yourself?
Rehab may not be perfect, and it may not be a magic bullet, but it is certainly the best option that you have available to you.
Inpatient treatment makes a lot of sense because it typically includes other forms of treatment as well.
For example, you will likely get a therapist or a counselor at rehab. And you will probably attend group therapy or meetings while you are in treatment.
And perhaps most importantly, you will likely go through a medical detox if you check into rehab.
It’s not a cure. But it is still the best solution that we have today.
The other advantages of going to rehab
The other main benefit of going to rehab is that you meet people. You meet a group of peers who are all trying to get sober, just like you.
This is very empowering.
Forget about the statistics, the fact that most people will likely relapse. Not everyone relapses. Some will stay clean and sober for a long time. Some until they die.
No one is a complete island in recovery. Especially in alcoholism recovery, no person is an island. You need help in order to get sober. Rehab is a place to start getting that help.
This will likely introduce you to some form of support in treatment. Perhaps this will be 12 step meetings, or maybe it will be religious based recovery. Either way, there will probably be people who are eager to help you once you get out of treatment and are back in the “real world.”
Everything changes when you walk out of treatment. Reality hits, sometimes like a ton of bricks. You have to have some form of support in place so that you can weather the storm. If you don’t have a support system to help you through the rough times then you are much more likely to relapse.
It is foolish to believe that you will never need any help or support in your recovery. They have a concept they talk about called the “pink cloud,” where everything is rosy and your recovery is going great. Of course every cloud has to burst at some point. They are not trying to rain on your parade here, they are just pointing out that we all have our ups and downs in recovery. It is fallacy to believe that you will never have any “downs” on your journey. Are you prepared for when things inevitably take a turn for the worse? Are you prepared for when things are not going so well? What have you learned in terms of coping skills, outlets for your anger, support systems that you can communicate with, and so on? What have you learned, who have you connected with? If you don’t have answers for these things then relapse becomes that much more likely.
Going to rehab can be a springboard to a healthier life in recovery. Everyone who is struggling with alcoholism should consider getting this sort of help. Inpatient rehab is the most serious attempt you can make at turning your life around. There are other methods (such as seeing a therapist, going to an AA meeting on your own, etc.) but none of them are as powerful as inpatient rehab. Notice too that most of those other techniques for getting sober are typically a part of an inpatient rehab experience. In other words, inpatient treatment includes most other forms of recovery (counseling, therapy, meetings, group support, etc.).
It is possible to sober up without treatment, but the associated risks make it crazy to try and do so
You may be wondering what you can possibly say to an alcoholic that is out of control and refuses to go to rehab.
To be honest there are not a lot of things that you can say other than to set healthy boundaries and limits.
You can do this by setting a boundary, first with yourself and then with the alcoholic in your life.
What can you say if someone refuses to go to rehab? Getting someone committed (forcing them into treatment) is not legal in most places (and it is a questionable strategy in most cases anyway).
Therefore you are left to fend for yourself when the alcoholic in your life refuses to get any help.
Here are some of the ideas you should think about:
1) Make sure that you are seeking out help for yourself first and foremost. This may sound silly because it takes the focus off of the alcoholic and puts onto you, where the problem clearly is NOT. But this is the best thing you can do, because you may need to become stronger in order to set healthy limits and boundaries. The best way to get this help is to go to an Al-anon meeting and share your story with the people there and ask for advice. You may come to learn that you have some codependent tendencies. And maybe you don’t. If not, that is great too, as you will have no problem at all setting healthy boundaries and limits (but then, why did you not set them already?).
2) You need to get clear with yourself on what is helping the alcoholic in your life and what is hurting them. Most things that you would normally do to “help” them are really hurting them. Giving them money to buy food for their kids is actually hurting them. This teaches them (indirectly) to go waste money on booze. It hurts because it will seem like you are hurting others too in the process. But giving the money in this case only prolongs the addiction problem and creates more problems in the future. Bailing someone out of jail for a DUI is enabling them. Leaving them in jail to face the full consequences of their actions is probably a healthier boundary to set in most cases.
3) After you figure out what you will and will not do for the alcoholic in your life, you need to tell them. This should not be a yelling match. That usually makes it a challenge, but it has to be done anyway. If you are going to set a new boundary in your life then you should communicate it to the alcoholic.
The key here is to never make threats though. Don’t set a boundary that you don’t intend to keep. You must follow through on everything that you say you will and keep your word. This is crucial to the process of the alcoholic finding surrender eventually.
It is crazy for an alcoholic to claim that they don’t need help by going to rehab. You must make it clear that you will only help them if they agree to go to rehab, and that you will not help them in any other way. Thus you can stop enabling them and hopefully this will move them one step closer to surrender.
Have you had to deal with alcoholic withdrawal in your own life? Have you had to deal with the withdrawal of a friend or a loved one? What was it like? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!