Nobody ever takes their first drink with the intention of one day becoming an alcoholic. Dr. Alan I. Leshner, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, explains that addiction is something that sneaks up on most people: “This unexpected consequence is what I have come to call the oops phenomenon. Why oops? Because the harmful outcome is in no way intentional.”
Unintentional though it may be, alcohol addiction does indeed cause great harm. Wendy’s story is an example of how alcohol can ruin a life. Wendy had her first drink at age thirteen at a school dance on her first date. Her initial experience with alcohol was so enjoyable that she kept drinking. Within three years her life had changed — and not for the better. Wendy explains:
At first [drinking] was on a rare basis. And then it became almost a daily thing that you start looking forward to. I mean, it just slowly takes over your life. You don’t know that it’s beginning to take a priority, except one day you wake up and you know you’ve got to have it, because you can’t function [without it]. Alcohol gradually replaced everything in my life that I loved.
Wendy had become an alcoholic. In the process, she was transformed from good student to dropout. She lost most of her friends and hated herself for what she was doing. When people become addicted to alcohol they not only lose control over their drinking, but they also lose control over themselves.
The long-term effects of heavy drinking are dangerous, debilitating, and deadly, and they can ruin lives in many ways. Prolonged, excessive drinking can destroy a person’s health by causing a host of illnesses including cirrhosis of the liver, a disease that is often fatal. Alcohol tears apart families and weakens or destroys personal relationships, impairs job performance and can lead to dismissal from work, and creates a host of problems ranging from trouble with the law to financial ruin.
A Progressive Disease
Alcoholism is a progressive disease, one that grows stronger the longer that people drink heavily. Although most of the devastating consequences of heavy drinking take time to develop — usually many years, people can start having problems right away. John grew up in a nondrinking home, but on his first night away at college he had a chance to drink for the first time. The experience was a disaster:
I went to what they called a “kegger.” Some older students had bought a keg of beer and set it up down by a river. It was the first time I ever had a beer and I drank so much I passed out. My roommates had to carry me back to our dorm. I was never so sick as I was that next day. Passing out like that scared me, sure, but a few days later I went to another one.
Even though John’s initial experience was frightening, he kept on drinking. Eventually, he became an alcoholic. Like many young people who drink for the first time, he did not realize how dangerous it is to consume large quantities of alcohol. This lack of knowledge can lead to disaster. During the 2000 fall college semester, at least eleven students died from alcohol-related causes at Colgate University in New York, Old Dominion University in Virginia, the University of Michigan, and Washington State University.
Once a person begins drinking, the progression into alcoholism will be different for everyone. Some people drink heavily every day, others binge several nights a week, and a smaller number go on extended drinking sprees months apart. No matter which path an alcoholic takes, there comes a time when the urge to drink becomes compulsive. Michael, who drank for more than twenty years, explains: “In the end, I’d drink by myself. I’d hide beer in the closets, under the porch of the house. It wasn’t fun anymore. It went from a luxury to a must.”
Alcohol and Crime
Research shows that alcohol use is involved in one-half of all crimes committed in America. A study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) estimated that in 1992 the cost to U.S. society of crimes attributed to alcohol, ranging from robbery to homicide, was $19.7 billion. That included medical bills and lost work days for victims, damage to property, and the cost to incarcerate offenders. Almost one-quarter of the 11.1 million victims of violent crime each year report that the offender had been drinking, and studies show that the amount of alcohol consumed is related to the severity of the subsequent violence.
Research figures in the Tenth Special Report to the U.S. Congress on Alcohol and Health indicate that people who were intoxicated committed 15 percent of the robberies, 26 percent of the aggravated and simple assaults, 37 percent of the rapes and sexual assaults, and 32 percent of the homicides in cases studied. Figures showed that more people committed crimes while under the influence of alcohol than while using any other drug: “Thus, despite the popular conception that violent crime is strongly linked to drug use, there is actually a much greater probability that any given violent incident will be related to alcohol use than to [other] drugs.”
Alcohol can ruin innocent lives as well as those of alcoholics who, drink by drink, take part in their own destruction. Enoch Gordis, director of the NIAAA, says simply that “alcohol is the most widespread and damaging substance we have in society.”
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