I hope this week has treated you well.
This week I’m continuing to write about habits that my readers have asked me to help them break. Not surprisingly I’ve had many requests to talk about alcohol- its harms and how to lower it.
I was a bit sceptical about this one because an alcohol- dependent person will not be able to read this and simply stop drinking alcohol. Someone who is truly alcohol dependent, needs to go to their nearest health centre as alcohol withdrawal is severe and in some cases fatal. This means, the treatment plan would involve not only counselling but prescription medication as well.
However, if you are a casual drinker and feel like you would like to learn more about alcohol, its harms and how to lower use, this piece would more pertain to you.
The column’s title explains the actuality in Guyana. Alcohol has become a culture in the sense that it is a normally practised, accepted and even encouraged part of most of our lives. I have been fortunate enough to live in many different countries for long periods of time and no groups of people drink like we can. The worst part is that we (myself included in the past) are proud of this.
This is explained by many reasons – its commonality, accessibility, and affordability are just a few factors. I cannot remember the last time I went to anyone’s house or even out to lunch/dinner and was not offered an alcoholic beverage.
To first fix something, we must accept it. Repeat after me – We as a Guyanese community and society drink too much alcohol. Say it again!
Once we have accepted it, we need to educate ourselves on it. No one will ever stop unless they know (in detail) the harms associated with alcohol. Of course I cannot go into too much detail here but I will definitely cover the basics.
The first and most important FACT to remember is that alcohol is a drug. People tend to forget this because of its legal status- but it is as it has a physiological effect- meaning it alters our mood, thoughts and behaviour.
Now, the first and most important QUESTION, why do people drink alcohol? Before reading further, answer that question. If you do drink, why do you drink?
Working in this direct field for almost two years in Guyana has given me great insight as to why the average person drinks.
– To relieve stress
– Boredom/ Curiosity
– Accessibility – it would take the same amount of effort to buy alcohol vs a loaf of bread
– Peer pressure
– Family influences
– History of abuse/ trauma
Your reasons may be different. Why do you drink?
I want to make it clear that you do not need to drink every day in order to have a problem with alcohol nor do you necessarily have a problem with alcohol if you drink every day. For example, if someone has a glass of wine with dinner every night, that is not an issue. On the other hand, if someone does not drink for months at a time, but drinks heavily for the period of which they have started back, they have a problem with alcohol. If you are consuming more than 3-4 drinks per day for long periods of time, I would recommend that you do go to your nearest health centre to discuss it further.
I would need this whole newspaper if I was to list all the issues and illnesses associated with alcohol. Alcohol affects us physically, mentally, socially and economically.
Physically, alcohol weakens our entire immune system, making flus, infections and diseases easier to obtain and harder to rid. Simple intoxication can cause nausea, vomiting, headaches and numerous accidents/injuries. They cause black-outs and memory loss which over time can lead to permanent brain damage. Heavy use increases our blood pressure, stomach ulcers and our chances of strokes. It results in serious and sometimes fatal diseases of the heart and liver.
It is responsible for numerous types of cancer such as liver, mouth, throat or breast. Heavy alcohol consumption can also cause impotence and infertility in men and women respectively. Pregnant women who consume alcohol expose the unborn child to multiple issues such fetal alcohol syndrome, addiction and pre-mature death. For the ones who overly care about weight, alcohol contains as many calories as fat does and is therefore poses a high risk of weight gain.
The mental effects of alcohol consumption are just as many and as serious as the physical ones. Alcohol is classified as a depressant drug which means, just as it sounds, that it physically depresses our nervous system. This ‘physical depression’ causes many people to believe that alcohol eases stress and anxiety when in the long run, it does just the opposite. Heavy alcohol use can worsen and even cause mental health issues. Alcohol flows through many pathways in the brain which results in disruptions and impairments in thought, behaviour, communication, judgement, coordination, concentration and memory- just to name a few.
Heavy use causes psychosis, which is identified by both audio and visual hallucinations. Drinking alcohol lowers level of serotonin in the brain- the chemical responsible for regulating our mood. This is what highly increases the chances of depression in alcohol dependent people. This is also the explanation as to why suicide is highly correlated with alcohol use. An individual is about 5 times more likely to attempt suicide if they are heavy alcohol users.
Even though alcohol is a social drug, it does ironically have many negative social impairments. Alcohol drastically affects one’s personality – we all claim to either be a ‘good/happy drunk’ or a ‘bad/sad drunk.’ No matter the mood, these changes negatively affect our relationships. High school drop-out and low productivity as well as crimes such as robberies and sexual assault are all social issues mostly caused by alcohol use within our community.
The economic effects can be seen just by re-reading the above. Heavy alcohol use causes medical bills, lack of productivity, loss of money within the family etc.
People think that it’s funny when their friend does something silly because of alcohol. This could be anything from calling an ex- partner to falling down. It seems funny at the time but there isn’t anything funny about impaired judgement. There isn’t anything funny about not being able to control what we do or say. Impaired judgement is what causes aggression, which lead to physical fights, resulting not only in personal injury but also injury to innocent bystanders. In cases of domestic violence, alcohol is more often than not a casual factor.
Impaired judgement is what leads to drunk driving with additional impaired coordination. Impaired judgement leads to the contraction of HIV, STD’s as well as unwanted pregnancy.
People think it’s funny when they cannot remember anything the next day and they need to call their friends to remind them. When drinking alcohol, your regular brain processes slow down and therefore stops recording into the ‘memory bank’. This is short term and doesn’t necessarily damage any brain cells but long term use can have permanent effects. It isn’t that funny when you really think about it.
How do we cut down our alcohol use?
I’m not going to lie, it is incredibly difficult to stop drinking alcohol. It is physically and mentally easier to come off of crack cocaine than it is to come off of alcohol. Let that sink in. This is true for many reasons- alcohol is socially acceptable, easier to obtain, has a longer withdrawal period and so many other reasons.
Even with all my research, I have never realised how hard it was to stop until I tried. One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to only drink alcohol on special occasions. I have been successful so far but if I’m honest, it has been surprisingly difficult. It is hard for me not to drink when everyone else around me is drinking – I become anxious and a bit irritated and I have never had a problem with alcohol consumption. I urge everyone to do this. Challenge yourself, even if for a week, to stop drinking alcohol and see for yourself how tough it is. How dangerously close most of us are to addiction.
The harsh reality is that even though we may be educated on all the harms stated above, it is not enough to push us to stop drinking. That’s how powerful alcohol is- but it doesn’t have to be.
If you need the extra push, here are some tips that will help lower alcohol use.
The first thing you need to do is keep track of your alcohol consumption. Count how many drinks you have per week, how you feel before you drink and how you feel after. For example, did you feel stressed or sad before consumption? Did you feel that way after? It’s important to know these things in order to determine why you drink or what would be a good substitute.
When you know your exact drinking patterns, you can decrease use from there.
Make a pros and cons list. On one side, list the personal benefits of alcohol and the harms on the other. I guarantee the harms will be much longer. Keep this list in a place where you can re-read it every day.
Do not keep any alcohol in the home- or any place that you frequent. Accessibility is a major reason for use or relapse.
Always eat before you drink. This automatically reduces the intake as well as prevent intoxication.
Switch to a beverage with a smaller alcohol content. For example, switch from vodka to beer. If you absolutely cannot do this, you need to decrease the current amount of your desired drink by half.
Have a tall glass of water or juice between every 2 drinks.
Avoid triggers- what makes you want to drink. This could be certain places or people. Do activities that do not usually include alcohol. Example- gym or movies.
Put all the money that you save (weekly) on alcohol aside. Buy something nice for yourself (not alcohol!)
Finally, let your friends and family know of your hope and attempt to lower alcohol consumption. If they are good influences, they will support your decision and even make it easier for you.
I would like to say again that if your drinking is severe, please go in to see a professional to form a proper and healthy quitting plan.
Thanking you for reading. Please keep sending any topics you’d like to talk about to firstname.lastname@example.org Or come in to see me at:
Georgetown Public Hospital: Psychiatric Department:
Monday- Friday – 8am- 12pm
Woodlands Hospital: Outpatient Department
Drug and Alcohol group meetings – Mondays 4:15
Good mental health group meetings- Wednesdays 4:15
Suicide Prevention Helpline numbers: 223-0001, 223-0009, 623-4444, 600-7896
Say Yes to Life and No to Drugs! Always