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Alcohol Abuse and the Holidays: Warning Signs and How to Seek Help

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The holiday season is a time for merriment and celebration, but it can also be marked by stress and grief, especially this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic casts a shadow over customary gatherings and traditions. As such, many people who turn to alcohol—either for added cheer or to cope with loss—find themselves filling their cups more regularly during the winter months. While the additional glass of wine or cocktail (or two) isn’t harmful in and of itself, experts warn that dangerous drinking habits can form quickly and unexpectedly, so learning the signs of alcohol abuse is critical for everyone—drinkers and teetotalers alike. 

“The most important element I think a person can look out for if alcohol abuse is suspected is, how much trouble is this causing me? Am I lying? Am I manipulating? Am I hiding things from people who I care about or who care about me? In other words, is this causing problems in my life?” said Otiz “O.T.” Porter-Fisher, Ph.D., LCDC, a substance abuse counselor at Memorial Hermann Prevention and Recovery Center (PaRC). 

Porter-Fisher noted that these answers don’t always come easy. 

“For some people, it’s hard to see it, especially when they are in the haze of their addiction,” he said. “But, if in a sober moment you can recognize that you’re hiding alcohol or you’re being dishonest with your spouse—or any person you care for—about your drinking, then maybe it’s time to really evaluate what it is you’re doing.” 

While the holidays are an especially vulnerable time for many, Porter-Fisher said that the pandemic has added another layer to what is already a stressful and difficult season—and it’s simultaneously shed a light on many individuals’ alcohol abuse issues. 

“People are isolating because of COVID-19, and a large part of many people’s substance abuse includes isolation,” Porter-Fisher said. “We’re currently forced to isolate and be at home, alone for many people, more than ever before—and our family and our jobs are checking in. There are more opportunities for abusing substances in isolation. The pandemic has forced us to rethink how we interact with each other, and I think substance abuse is more easily identified right now because of the many check-ins and extra downtime we have to examine behaviors.” 

If alcohol abuse is suspected—in either yourself or someone you care about—Porter-Fisher said that person should seek help immediately. 

“Very often, people believe they can do it on their own, especially people who have been successful in other areas of their life, because they are used to setting a goal and achieving it,” he explained. “But you should treat substance abuse like you treat any other disease—if you had cancer, you wouldn’t go and give yourself chemo, you’d go to a specialist and you’d seek help.” 

Porter-Fisher likened alcohol abuse to a centrifugal force, and while it’s nothing to be ashamed of, he said it is something that requires outside, professional support to overcome.  

“Substance abuse doesn’t need you to actively do anything to continue to deteriorate your body because it’s going to continue to force you into cravings,” he added. “It’s going to continue to give you these intrusive, obsessive thoughts, and that’s going to continue to trigger your using. You need help to get around that because if you could stop on your own, you wouldn’t be an abuser.” 

For anyone who may be questioning whether or not they fall into that category, Porter-Fisher said it’s important to be as honest as you can with yourself. 

“Honesty can be extremely hard for people with substance abuse issues, and honesty begins internally,” he said. “Ask yourself, ‘Can I honestly say I have a problem? Can I honestly say that this problem is not under my control? Can I honestly say I need help? Can I be honest with the people who I care about and say, ‘I’ve been lying to you, I’ve been manipulating you, and I’ve been hiding things from you’? Can I be honest about what I’m feeling that is causing me to try to fill a void with substances, or trying to numb a feeling with substances?’”

He said that if a person can arrive at a place of transparent honesty, where he or she can vocalize exactly how they feel or what they need, that is the first step. 

“Treatment is very individualized—there’s no cookie-cutter approach—but if you can be honest, then we can create a plan that can help you get to a place of sustained recovery,” Porter-Fisher said. 

Unfortunately, he added, those breakthroughs are made more difficult by the continued stigmatism surrounding substance abuse. He said that if he could impart one message, it would be that people with alcohol abuse issues have nothing wrong with them. 

“The main thing wrong with my patients is that they are maintaining the belief that something is wrong with them in the first place,” Porter-Fisher said. “If we just recognize that other people have problems, and maybe we’re just experiencing those problems differently than other people, then maybe we can have a breakthrough. Holding onto the belief that you’re a bad person because you did something bad is what drives addiction—it creates guilt and embarrassment and shame. You have to find a way to let all of that go and recognize that there’s nothing wrong with you, you just need help. And we are here to provide you with that help.”

To learn more about Memorial Hermann Prevention and Recovery Center, go to www.parc.memorialhermann.org.

By Alexandra Becker

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