Alcoholism is a disease that affects thousands of Americans. If not caught at an early stage, it can lead to social, financial and health problems.
There are several reasons why alcohol abuse is a common problem, according to Lori Alvarado, alcohol and drug prevention specialist with DCCCA, a Lawrence drug and alcohol counseling center. These include the fact that alcohol is legal for those over 21 years of age, plus the fact that it's accessible and socially acceptable.
"It's the drug of choice of most Americans, outside of nicotine," she said.
So what's the difference between someone who likes to drink versus someone who feels they have to drink? Health specialists said there are several warning signs: increased tolerance level, blackouts, loss of control and repeated arrests for driving under the influence.
"One DUI can be bad judgment," Alvarado said. "But when you start getting repeated DUIs, you have people who are having some serious judgment issues that are probably clouded by the use of alcohol."
Anyone can become an alcoholic, she said, although some people are more prone to the disease.
"Alcoholism does have some genetic factors, and we do know that it also has some environmental factors," Alvarado said. "If you grew up in a home where someone was alcoholic, you probably will have a genetic predisposition to alcoholism."
But, she added, the disease does not discriminate.
"Actually, the people who become alcoholic are those who drink often enough," she said. "Anybody can become alcoholic."
About 2,000 adolescents in Kansas are currently undergoing alcohol treatment, she said. Many teen-agers often get the message from society that using alcohol is OK.
"It's what we use in our society to celebrate or to drown our sorrows," she said.
But the more we use it, the higher our chances become of abusing it.
"It's physically addictive and emotionally addictive," Alvarado said.
Those who stop drinking typically experience withdrawal symptoms.
"If you've been alcoholic for a while and you take that out of your system, what happens is a lot of times a feeling of depression," Alvarado said. "What alcohol does is it replaces the endorphins in your system, so your natural endorphins have to relearn how to make you feel good without the intervention of a chemical."
Although the road to recovery is not easy, she said, it is worthwhile.
"Most people recognize if they want to change their behavior, they can," Alvarado said. "They're lifetime changes. They can't make them for a couple of days or a couple of weeks or months and be done. Recovery is something that becomes a lifetime process."