When drinking becomes a problem

Local resources available for those seeking help

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— "The only way to know if drinking alcohol has become a problem for you is when it causes a problem for you," says Tom Traynor, Ph.D., a Steamboat Springs psychologist who specializes in addictive behaviors. "In other words, there are people who drink every day and don't have a drinking problem. But when you wake up having thrown up on yourself, you wreck a car or you lose a job or an important relationship, then it's a problem."

Alcohol-use disorders (AUDs) are probably the most common mental disorders in the United States, according to WebMD Medical News. Nearly one person in seven suffers from an AUD at some time in his or her life. Men are three to five times more likely to have alcohol-related problems than women. Alcohol is linked to gastrointestinal problems (nausea, vomiting and nutritional deficiencies from decreased vitamin absorption), cirrhosis of the liver, cardiac disease, sexual dysfunction and complications involving pregnancy (fetal alcohol syndrome in the child).

April is National Alcohol Awareness Month. To seek local resources for yourself or someone you know, you may call Alcoholics Anonymous at 879-4882, the Routt County Alcohol and Drug Abuse Council at 879-7708 or your primary-care provider or counselor. The national Alcohol and Drug Treatment number for inpatient referrals is (800) 454-8966.

Health-care professionals don't always agree on the cause of AUDs, but the problem appears to be the result of the interaction of genetic, psychological and social factors. Some types of AUDs run in families. Some people with AUDs struggle with high anxiety, unresolved relationship problems or low self-esteem. Contributing factors include the availability of alcohol, social acceptability of alcohol consumption and peer pressure.

Alcohol-use disorders thrive on denial. If a person wants to continue to drink, he or she can explain away negative events, Traynor said. "Someone gets a DUI and they say that they were unlucky, had a light out, met up with a bad cop. The truth is, by the first DUI, there's a greater than 30-percent chance that there's been an alcohol disorder for three years or more. The challenge is to look at it differently. People need to say to themselves, 'I drink and I don't like how I behave.'"

People who wonder if they have a drinking problem can take the "CAGE" test, a common questionnaire in physician's offices:

C: Have I made attempts to Cut down on drinking?

A: Do I get Annoyed with criticisms from others about my drinking?

G: Do I feel Guilty about my drinking?

E: Do I use alcohol as an Eye-opener in the morning?

If the alcohol problem is not too advanced, people are often successful in their attempts to quit. "Research seems to indicate that 80 percent of people with an alcohol disorder self-correct," Traynor said. "But we usually don't hear about them so we don't know how they accomplish this, what's working, how to generalize for others."

Traynor suggests seeking help from friends or people who have succeeded in similar situations. Alcoholics Anonymous and Moderation Management are examples of self-help groups primarily made up of recovering alcoholics.

Brief counseling can be helpful in turning from a drinking problem, and a complete physical with your primary-care provider can pick up physical or psychological disorders that factor in as well.

"Don't think that every time you've tried to stop drinking before was a failure," Traynor said. "Each time, you've learned something."

Carrie Burggraf, P.A., is a physician assistant and wellness counselor for the Yampa Valley Health Plan.

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