Posts Tagged ‘alcohol’

Shedding Some Light on Blackouts

Thursday, October 4th, 2018

Addiction and Recovery

Note: In light of the recent testimony and controversy over the youthful drinking and behavior of Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, I thought I would post my most recent Addiction and Recovery column on alcohol-induced blackouts on this blog.  I hope it answers some questions.

By Bob Gaydos

 AA8D800B-40C4-49FD-9FA2-33C3E62B429EThere are two enduring views about alcohol-induced blackouts:

  1. They don’t exist. They’re just an excuse for inappropriate behavior.
  2. They exist, but they’re just a harmless, often humorous, occasional price to pay for a night of fun.

Both views are wrong — dangerously so — for the same reason: Denying the existence of blackouts or minimizing their significance could lead to serious consequences (health, legal, personal, professional) for the persons experiencing them and others. If you’ve experienced blackouts or know someone who has and are not concerned about them, you should be.

To start with, blackouts are not the same as passing out. That’s a common misconception. People who drink too much and pass out stay put. They wake up in the same place they passed out and remember, maybe with a hangover, how they got there. People in blackouts can wind up in different states, strange beds, wrong apartments or behind bars when they come to and not know how they got there. “How did I get home last night?” is a common question for blackout veterans. “Where’d I leave my car?” is another.

Many recovering alcoholics who recall their drinking history in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings point to blackouts as one of the “healthy fears’’ that help them stay sober. After all, it can be frightening to find out about some reckless behavior that happened apparently in a blackout and to wonder what else may have happened without your being aware of it.

Some local examples:

— Jordan, a 50ish man from Orange County, who has been sober more than five years, says he once spent a four-day business trip in Texas in a blackout. Airport-to-airport. He did come out of it briefly, he says, to call his boss on Day 2 to tell him he wasn’t feeling well.

— Whitey (all names used are fictitious), who drives for a living, says he regularly drove between New York and Virginia in blackouts.

— John, retired in Sullivan County and sober more than two decades, says he’s positive he was fired from an excellent job because of remarks he made to his boss’s wife while in a blackout.

— Marie, a chef sober less than a year, says she has no recollection of a phone call in which she was extremely rude and insulting to her husband’s sister, other than what her husband and sister-in-law told her. She’s embarrassed by the incident.

— Sunshine, a nurse sober half her life, recalls with a mix of horror and shame coming out of a blackout “as a guy was trying to have sex with me.” She says she fought him off. But she didn’t immediately stop drinking.

That’s often the case — not stopping drinking despite risky or embarrassing consequences. As an isolated incident, a blackout may not signify anything except drinking too much, too fast. Something you might want to avoid because of potential embarrassment or worse. As a pattern, it could be a sign of a more serious problem.

While it’s not just alcoholics who experience blackouts, the connection between blackouts and alcoholism or alcoholic use disorder is real and knowing some facts about the symptom could help dispel some of the myths and avoid more serious problems.

For a long time — most likely from whenever humans first discovered the mood-altering effects of wine until modern science started doing research on the brain and behavior — blackouts were regarded as just one of the possible side effects of drinking alcohol. A little fuzzy memory. No big deal. Just drink less.

When researchers began studying blackouts, however, they soon discovered that persons experiencing them didn’t have just a little amnesia. Rather, they had no recollection of certain events and, try as they might, even when told the details many times over, they had no memory of them. Their subjects didn’t forget, researchers concluded; they never formed a memory in the first place.

The prevailing accepted science, as cited by the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse and other similar agencies, is that persons experiencing a blackout can function and appear to be “normal” to others because their brain is operating on stored, long-term, procedural memory, but the short-term memory of what they are experiencing never gets to the hippocampus, the part of the brain that processes long-term memory. Alcohol — especially a lot of it in a short period of time — short-circuits the process.

According to the NIAAA, “As the amount of alcohol consumed increases, so does the magnitude of the memory impairments. Large amounts of alcohol, particularly if consumed rapidly, can produce partial or complete blackouts.”

More about blackouts:

— It’s not what you drink, it’s how much alcohol gets into your bloodstream and how fast it gets there. This means it’s possible for anyone to black out if he or she drinks enough alcohol quickly enough.

— People who have a low tolerance for alcohol are not necessarily more likely to black out. On the other hand, those with a high tolerance for alcohol are often able to drink heavily and carry on conversations, drive, etc. while in blackouts.

— Women may be more susceptible since they tend to be smaller than men, meaning each drink has a greater effect on the body’s blood alcohol content.

— Drinking on an empty stomach can make blackouts more likely, again because of a more acute impact on the blood alcohol concentration.

— People sometimes have glimpses of memory of an event, but not total recall. These partial lapses are called “brownouts.”

— Blackouts are the product of consumption of an amount of alcohol that affects motor coordination, balance, impulse control and decision-making. This is bad enough when someone is not in a blackout, never mind being unable to recall any risky, self-sabotaging behavior that may have caused serious harm to others.

— Some researchers suggest that people in blackouts, operating on procedural memory and little more, have little impulse control and are more likely to do things they would not otherwise. (See examples above.) This presents embarrassing, sometimes dangerous situations for the person in a blackout, family, friends and even strangers.

— Blackouts are often the unrecognized explanation for someone’s uncharacteristic actions. “Why did you (say/do) that last night?”

— Because of a shortage of evidence-based science on the subject, there is considerable difference of opinion on the use of blackouts as a defense in criminal trials.

So, what to do if you have blackouts? Take them seriously. Maybe talk to a professional health provider who knows about them. While blackouts are not solely the result of years of heavy, alcoholic drinking, they can be a sign of an existing or potential alcohol problem. Even one or two — perhaps the product of binge drinking in college — should be enough to cause concern since not being aware of what one has done is not considered acceptable to most people.

Being the unaware “life of the party” may be tolerable as a one-time experience, but repeated bizarre behavior of which you have no memory is nothing to laugh at.

rjgaydos@gmail.com

Alcoholics and Excuses, a Familiar Mix

Thursday, May 4th, 2017

By Bob Gaydos

The first 100 days of you know what have been disturbingly familiar to me, but I haven’t been able to put a finger on why until now. For the past decade, I’ve been writing a regular column called Addiction and Recovery. Self-explanatory. As I was writing my recent column, it came to me what that disturbing feeling was all about. I’ve actually written about it before in connection with you know who, but I think information on this subject can’t be repeated too often. So, here’s my latest Addiction and Recovery column. I think you’ll make the connection.

 ***

"I'm a single mom. I work hard. I deserve it."

“I’m a single mom. I work hard. I deserve it.”

Alcoholics are, among other things, creative people, especially when it comes to dreaming up excuses to justify their drinking. Living with an alcoholic can be a whirlwind of confusion, disappointment, and frustration. And that’s the good stuff. It is likely there will also be some combination of pain, anger, resentment, loss, anxiety, or sorrow.

And yet, the alcoholic will insist that his or her drinking is not the cause of any problems. In fact, may well insist that he or she needs to drink because of the problems: “If you had my life (wife, job, luck), you’d drink, too.” Sound familiar?

Alcoholics are also masters of justification when it comes to threatening to take away the one thing that, while it may well be killing them or doing other serious harm, seems to make life worth living. That makes it crucial for those whose lives are directly affected by an alcoholic to know when they’re hearing excuses that belie what they have seen and heard with their own eyes and ears.

Following are some of the common excuses alcoholics use when their drinking is called into question:

  • “My favorite excuse was always that I work very hard and I deserve to play very hard, too.” … So says J.T.E., a middle-aged Orange County, N.Y., man 30 years sober. It’s the  “bring-home-the-bacon” excuse. It ignores the fact that most people are working hard to bring home the bacon, or vegan substitute, but not everyone is drinking to excess (and maybe ignoring family responsibilities) to reward themselves for being such wonderful providers.

        This excuse is not exclusive to males. G.P., who also lives in Orange County, says, “My biggest excuse was simply that I deserved it. I was a single mom who worked very hard to climb the ladder of business success without an education. I also had my cars, home and never had a ‘run in’ with police. That being said, I deserved to binge drink my weekends away. I was a hardworking mom and nobody could tell me different. I’ve been sober since September, 2015.”

  • “It’s my life (my body, my health, my future), I’m not hurting anyone except myself.” … Alcoholics are also self-centered and egotistical. It may be hard for some to admit that their behavior is having serious negative effects on the lives of people closest to them, those who care the most for them. Hard as it is to believe, they may not even notice it. Denial is a powerful foe.
  • “I only drink to relax, to relieve the stress.” This is often an extension of the “bring-home-the-bacon” excuse. Again, the alcoholic likes to think he or she is unique — the only one with a stressful job. Drinking or using drugs to relieve stress because of a pressure-filled job is not uncommon, but is not necessarily the healthiest choice available. For some, it’s the worst choice and can lead to even more stress at work. Exercise and meditation are a couple of more healthful stress-relief alternatives.
  • “Everyone I know drinks. Why pick on me?” … Well, yes and no. It’s unlikely that everyone the alcoholic knows drinks the same way (as often, as much, as routinely) as he or she does. But if they do, then he or she needs to find a new group of friends to hang out with.
  • “I’m not an alcoholic. Now Joe, he’s an alcoholic.” … There are stages of alcoholism and Joe may well be an alcoholic who has used all these excuses to deny his problem and avoid getting help. It’s not necessary to compare and look for a lower bottom. The stereotype of the alcoholic as a wino with a paper bag no longer prevails, but it can still happen if someone is unable to admit the truth.  
  • “It’s expected in our society. I only drink to be sociable.”  … John (not his name), a man in his 70’s from Sullivan County, N.Y., with more than 30 years of sobriety, recalls how surprised he was in early sobriety to notice that not everyone at a wedding, dinner party, or banquet was drinking alcohol. In fact, some people never went near the cash bar. Again, wrapped up in themselves, alcoholics see only what they want to see. Alcohol may be a social lubricant, but for some it can also have the counter-productive effect of driving people away.
  • “I’m not an alcoholic, I can stop any time I want.” … Any time except right now. This is the classic stall. It’s often paired with, “This is not the right time.” Because you couldn’t possibly not drink during the holidays, on vacation, on St. Patrick’s Day, or next Tuesday. It’s never the right time, so why not just go ahead and prove you can do it?
  • “I only drink beer (or wine), not booze.” ,,, This excuse has been watered down in recent years as more people have become aware that, in whatever form, alcohol is alcohol. You drink enough, you get drunk. This is cousin to, “I only drink on weekends.” It’s not what you drink that matters, or even how much or how often; it’s the impact it has on your life. Alcohol and trouble. That’s why people are talking about your drinking.
  • “I drink a lot of wine (craft beer) because I really like the taste.”Please.

***

‘I changed my mind …’

Alcoholics are also good at justifying their drinking to themselves, not just others. M.G., a sober woman who lives in Orange County, says, “Some of my go-to’s were, they’ll never find out, just one, just one more, just for the summer — I have to get the need out of my system.

“One I didn’t realize until years into recovery was when I would set out, having told myself and usually also promised my family that I wouldn’t drink that night, when I’d get in front of alcohol I’d always drink it and say I changed my mind. Fact was, I couldn’t be around it without drinking it. I had no defense against the first drink. I wanted to feel good, to be cool, just one last time.”

rjgaydos@gmail.com

 

Whitney and Josh and Their Disease

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

Josh Hamilton

Whitney Houston

By Bob Gaydos
In a week filled with sometimes lurid, often fawning stories about the death of Whitney Houston, it was once again evident how little most Americans know about addiction or, in fact, how little they seem to care to know.
The pop icon’s longtime battle with drugs was well-known, yet when she died in unusual circumstances, the two most popular theories put forth were that she had suffered from a drug overdose or that her doctors — the new media favorite suspect since the Michael Jackson case — had somehow killed her by messing up prescribed medications.

 

Both are possible, of course. But it is also quite plausible that the years of abusing her body with drugs and alcohol had taken an early toll on her, as they had with an even younger Amy Winehouse. But the only fact of which anyone is certain right now is that no one will know what killed Whitney until an autopsy is completed.

At the same time, there has been a noticeable lack of criticism aimed at Houston for her drug-filled lifestyle while her fans ease their grief by remembering her in better times, on stage, in recordings, in the movies. It’s as if Whitney the superstar, in death, was now finally beyond rebuke and, officially and irrevocably, a victim of addiction.

That’s an awfully steep price to have to pay for society to at last acknowledge your disease. Unfortunately, it’s not at all uncommon. People who struggle with addiction and who relapse — but do not die — are more likely to feel the sting of society’s tongue. Indeed, for those not afflicted with alcoholism or drug addiction, probably the least understood aspect of recovery is the relapse, especially when it follows a significant period of sobriety. The same questions inevitably come up. How could he drink when he knows how much he has to lose? How could she use drugs again knowing it would hurt her family?

The questions themselves define the disease of addiction. Quite simply, relapse, while not a requirement of recovery, is nonetheless a part of it for many people. Houston herself was an example. Addicts do things that defy reason and common sense, often to the harm of themselves and those close to them. That’s why recovery programs stress the need for addicts to develop a new way of thinking, a new way of living, a new image of themselves that does not include using alcohol or drugs.

It is not easy to make this change, but with time, the support of loved ones and constant attention to the new behaviors suggested as a way of living a sober life, it gets easier. It becomes the addict’s new normal way of living, in good times or bad.

Recently, another celebrity — although not in Houston’s orbit — apparently forgot that basic fact of recovery life. Josh Hamilton, the star outfielder for the Texas Rangers and probably the best-known admitted addict in baseball, acknowledged that he had relapsed. He apparently had several drinks in a bar with “friends,” called a teammate who talked with him and dropped him at home, then went out again and had a few more drinks. Hamilton said at a press conference the next day he had had a ”weak moment” and was drinking over “personal reasons.”

Being a high-profile professional athlete, Hamilton’s history with addiction and recovery has been well chronicled. He has been dealing with it for 10 years, even being suspended from baseball for two years for alcohol and drug abuse. But he had been clean and sober for two years before his “slip” and his public honesty about his disease has been praised. At the same time, Hamilton has received a lot of criticism among sports reporters for his slip, mostly of the “how could he do that?” variety.

But the fact of the matter is that celebrities must deal with the same challenges in recovery as the businessman next door, the veteran teacher, or the local plumber while living in a pressure-packed public bubble. There is no anonymity for Whitney Houston or Charlie Sheen … or Josh Hamilton. There is no way for them to try to justify their risky behavior as acceptable just because nobody saw it. This means Hamilton, and other athletes and celebrities who live with addiction, must be even more diligent in following their sober routine — in accepting their disease — if they want to avoid relapse.

One of the striking facts in the stories about Hamilton’s relapse is that he no longer had an “accountability partner” assigned to him by his team. The “partner,” the equivalent of a sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous, went everywhere with Hamilton when he wasn’t playing ball or at home. But the coach who had the job recently took a job with another team and Hamilton was doing it on his own.

That may be possible for people with several years of clean and sober time, but it is not recommended. Besides, Hamilton’s recovery has been a series of relapses, suggesting he still hasn’t fully surrendered to the concept of addiction. That’s not unusual, but many people who have trouble staying sober and who relapse several times do eventually get sober and lead fulfilling, contented lives. For every Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse there are dozens of sober celebrities who are leading contented lives, not creating headlines..

That’s why it’s important when an addict relapses to resist the easy temptation to question and criticize him because “he has so much to lose” or “he let down so many people who care about him.” Yes, it is about taking responsibility for one’s actions, but recovery is also often about second or third chances. The Texas Rangers, with a manager who is also a recovering drug addict, appear to understand this. They assigned Hamilton a new accountability partner.

Hamilton also apologized to “fans, kids, people who have addiction who look up to me.” That’s all well and good. But he’s been dealing with addiction long enough to know that other recovering addicts aren’t putting him or any other celebrity addict on a pedestal. There are no all stars in the battle and there is no “I” in recovery. But no addict living with what is often a fatal disease should have to die for the rest of the world to finally get it.

Bob Gaydos also writes a regular column on addiction and recovery. bob@zestoforange.com