What comes to mind when someone mentions alcohol? For many, alcohol is often associated with the temporary avoidance of daily struggles. Whether or not we have the habit to drink, it is a known fact that people may tend to have “blackouts” whenever they’re really drunk – and are unable to recall anything during these periods of time. As for young adults, perhaps it could also be attributed to their keen desire to look “cool” and to show off their high alcohol tolerance to their friends. However, alcohol can be addictive, and frequent heavy drinkers run the risk of becoming alcohol-dependent and hence developing alcohol use disorders. But what actions can we take if we find ourselves constantly wanting to submit to such an altered state of being, and seeing the appeal in losing control of ourselves as a form of escapism?
What is an Alcohol Use Disorder?
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.;
DSM–5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013), an alcohol use disorder is essentially characterised by “a problematic pattern of alcohol use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress as manifested by at least two of the following, occurring within a 12-month period”:
Alcohol is often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended.
There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control alcohol use.
A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain alcohol, use alcohol, or recover from its effects.
Craving, or a strong desire or urge to use alcohol.
Recurrent alcohol use resulting in a failure to fulfil major role obligations at work, school, or home.
Continued alcohol use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of alcohol.
Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of alcohol use.
Recurrent alcohol use in situations where it is physically dangerous.
Alcohol use is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by alcohol.
In regards to the disorder’s severity, it is safe to say that an individual categorised under the ‘mild severity’ category would display two to three of the above symptoms, while those under ‘Moderate’ would display four to five. For persons who develop six or more of such symptoms, they would, unfortunately, be diagnosed to be severely alcohol-dependent.
In the development of alcohol abuse, we need to recognise that the physiological and psychological reward system in our brains are what contributes to the clouding of negative consequences and effects associated with alcohol dependence and addiction. In other words, the possibility for change is tough, and the learnt habit can be hard to kick. Positive and negative reinforcements play a major role, especially in the beginning stages of alcohol abuse. Positive reinforcement occurs when the chances of an individual performing an activity (in this case, drinking) is heightened due to his previous experience of feeling rewarded by the “high” he or she obtains when getting drunk. On the contrary, negative reinforcement occurs when the probability of alcohol-seeking behaviour increases upon allowing the drinker to avoid certain situations or negative stimuli. Therefore, it can be said that alcohol abuse is fuelled by the physiological and psychological reward system, thus increasing one’s motivation to consume more alcohol, though sometimes a little too much.
Alcohol addiction can be greatly detrimental to our lifestyles, as well as to our physical and mental health. Known to be a depressant, alcohol can have a significant impact on our brain’s activity. If you’re drinking unhealthy levels of alcohol in an attempt to manage other mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression, stop it immediately! Alcohol affects neurotransmitters in your brain, potentially worsening your pre-existing condition. As such, it is crucial that we help people with alcohol use disorders to move past their addiction to a more fulfilling lifestyle.
What forms of treatment can I consider?
Alcohol abuse can be treated with psychiatric or psychological intervention, sometimes a combination of both.
When it comes to psychiatric medications, psychiatrists may prescribe medications used primarily to treat alcohol withdrawal by targeting the GABA neurotransmitters in the brain, allowing the brain to restore its natural balance when the person abstains from alcohol. Another common medication prescribed mainly affects the individual’s alcohol metabolism. The drug increases the concentration of acetaldehyde, a product formed when alcohol is broken down. The buildup of this acetaldehyde induces undesirable effects such as vomiting, hence holding the person back from consuming large amounts of alcohol. However, despite these drugs being the commonly prescribed medications, it is extremely dangerous for one to source and consume them without first consulting a professional psychiatrist. Everyone’s case is different, and people may have differing medication needs.
Another form of treatment one can consider is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT is an effective method which focuses on helping one identify and uproot negative or irrational thoughts and/or behaviours. Being highly solution-focused, such forms of therapy can include trying to help these individuals to recognise situations in which they are inclined to drink, and how they can better repress themselves. As such, the main goal would be for these people to recognise their problematic behaviour, and subsequently cut down on and adhere to healthy alcohol consumption levels. Since the impact of alcohol abuse is usually not limited to the individual, family therapy may also be recommended at times, especially if the individual’s alcoholic behaviour causes others distress.
Predictive algorithms, the creation of alternate realities in which we are unlimited by the constraints of the real world we live in – such methods are extensively practiced by the gaming industry to draw players in. Gaming is undeniably a popular and widely-adopted mode of de-stressing, but how much is too much?
In May 2019, the World Health Organisation officially recognised “gaming addiction” as a mental health condition. It is diagnosed when a person displays a gaming behaviour pattern that causes significant disruption to their daily life for a period of 12 months. Meanwhile, a study showed that Singaporeans aged 18 and above spend a weekly average of 7 hours and 26 minutes playing video games, and that approximately 10 percent of Singaporeans game for more than 20 hours per week. This ranks us as the highest in Asia, and third highest in the world, falling only behind Germany and the United States.
What leads these addicted individuals to their compulsive gaming behaviour? Besides the prevalence and ease of access to games on various gaming platforms, video games often act as a form of escapism for many players. As a shining proponent of the alluring, edge-cutting virtuality, games allow for players to throw themselves into a virtual landscape that is contrasted from their – comparatively – mundane everyday lives, and can serve as a distractor from real-life problems that they are unconfident or reluctant to face. Moreover, it can be easy to fall into the trap set by game creators. Game designers construct games in a way that applies principles of behavioural economics as well as psychological mechanisms to explore stages and levelling up processes that trigger the brain’s reward system. In-game statuses matter a lot to gamers – the higher the rank you possess, the more pride and self-esteem you hold, knowing that you can show it off to your friends or gaming counterparts. As a result, individuals are often inclined to continue striving to climb the virtual hierarchy.
Naturally, excessive gaming has its consequences. When an individual develops a gaming disorder, his lifestyles can be disrupted in more ways than one. What is also important to take note of, is that the harmful effects of gaming addiction is not only limited to the individual alone, but could also affect the people in his or her social circle. Some of these adverse effects can include:
Obsessive Behaviour Individuals who are addicted to video games are always anxious to get back to games and will often display irritable, bad-temper aggressive behaviour whenever they are separated from their games unwillingly.
Increased Social Isolation With extended periods of intense gaming, these individuals become more withdrawn and disconnected from family, friends and colleagues, causing them to drift away from their loved ones.
Other Mental Health Conditions Gaming addiction can eventually lead to other issues that include depression or anxiety disorders. Sometimes, depression may follow due to the prolonged social isolation.
Other Physical Health Conditions A gaming addiction can also have a number of physical effects. When one devotes an excessive amount of time to the gaming activity, this can lead to physical conditions such as the carpal tunnel syndrome, migraine, back-aches or eye-strain. Extreme addiction may cause gamers to skip meals and rest, or neglect their personal hygiene as they lose control of themselves and can’t resist the desire to play more and more.
Gaming addiction is a serious matter, and can be degenerative if not addressed in the early stages with the initial symptoms and signs. Habits, including unhealthy gaming habits, can be formed anytime between 1 to 3 months, and it will be significantly easier to curb such self-destructive behaviour the earlier we try to tackle it.
While we are concerned with the various health risks and conditions commonly associated with gaming addiction, we cannot deny that video games are also undoubtedly entertaining and can be a good way to de-stress. However, as the risk of gaming addiction increases with increasing time spent gaming, what we want to advocate is moderation, rather than complete avoidance. With that said, if you are someone who is battling gaming compulsion, try to keep the amount of time spent gaming under control by setting time limits for play and stick to them. If possible, try reducing your playtime gradually by setting a timer on your phone, or use softwares such as ‘Cold Turkey Blocker’ to help you do this by blocking access to websites or applications so that you can get offline when you need to.
Like other forms of addictions, don’t try to go cold turkey at one go. Stopping altogether may cause you to feel as though there is a huge void in your life, hence increasing the likelihood of a relapse instead.
Episode 7 of En Ullae S2 is a harrowing tale of Ramesh’ descent into utter despair due to his alcohol addiction. After the lilting trill of a happy alcohol buzz wears off, people in the throes of addiction often experience a sense of bitterness and desolation. It’s an artificial stimulant that when consumed, releases endorphins, neurotransmitters that promote a feeling of euphoria and help reduce stress.
Some instances of alcoholism are undergirded by an anxiety disorder, according to Dr Rajesh Jacob. He posits that people attempt to “treat” symptoms of anxiety by self-medicating with alcohol, ameliorating the discomfort of social situations through chemically induced disinhibition and happiness. They become chattier, and won’t choke during conversations – an alluring prospect for chronically anxious people.
Ramesh, now advanced in age, wistfully recounts how he fell into alcoholism. At 15, he and his friends would entertain themselves with drinks and idle chatter at a ‘kopitiam’, a Singaporean colloquialism for ‘coffee-shop’. Dr Jacob reminds us that despite being a stimulant, long term alcohol abuse invariably leads to depression or anxiety. Alcohol addiction can stem from a variety of factors – from the ‘angry, drunk father’ to early over-exposure to alcohol, and everything in between. Hassan Mansoor, a recovering alcoholic, confesses that his first foray into Bacchanal pleasure was during his secondary school years(junior high) for you Americans). He doesn’t remember the time with rose-tinted glasses, though – his adolescent years were marked by incessant violence, physical altercations and poor academic performance. He’d thought it made him look “cool”. Beer, whiskey, “Boon Kee Low”, “Paddy”, its name derived from its roots as a rice wine, and “Deer”. All of them cheap highs.
We’re then treated to a vignette in which a listless Ramesh, rake thin, gets into an argument with his doe-eyed girlfriend over whether wine should be drunk at lunch. Both of them are adamant that they hold the moral high ground – Ramesh, with his insistence that wine is “not hard liquor”, and Reena, with the awareness that his alcoholism is ruining not only their relationship but himself. We learn that the long-suffering Reena has tolerated Ramesh’s equivocations and excuses for four years, and she’s at the end of her tether.
(Click on the link for a version with English subtitles. Remember to click on the ‘Settings’ button to reveal the English subtitle selection. https://www.mewatch.sg/en/series/en-ullae-s2/ep7/954631 ) Dr Jacob explains that genuine awareness of an alcohol problem can only legitimately come from within, and external criticism is met with a wall of anger and irritation. In the early stages of alcohol addiction, one usually does manage to induce some level of happiness. As the disease progresses, drinking no longer “feels good” and chemical dependence means that consumption is imperative to avoid withdrawals. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms include hand tremors, which can set in as quickly as 4 – 6 hours from the last drink, insomnia, anxiety, psychological cravings, palpitations and sweating. Alcohol addiction is a vicious cycle, according to Dr Jacob.
Most people suffering from alcohol addiction start off with social drinking, which isn’t a problem in itself. However, addiction is a chronic, progressive disease which Dr Jacob measures with three factors of varying severity: drink frequency, duration of drinking, and cravings. Ramesh admits that his family life and relationships suffered. Getting blackout drunk was a nightly affair, which left his wife paranoid of his infidelity, when in fact he was unconscious in a ditch somewhere. He wouldn’t remember the events leading up to the loss of consciousness, a form of anterograde amnesia. Eventually, his wife takes out a Personal Protection Order (PPO) against him, the Singaporean variant of a restraining order.
The spiral into full throttle addiction isn’t a pretty sight. Just being in the presence of his drinking buddies would catalyse a night of binge drinking, invariably followed by a hangover in the morning made all the more unbearable by guilt over the slow rot of his cherished relationships. Work performance suffered, many a medical certificate was sought, culminating in joblessness.
Dr Jacob explains that addiction leads to productivity impairments at work. A sure sign of dependence is the need for a drink in the morning to curb tremors and imbibe him with enough energy to perform as a barely functioning alcoholic. Day drinking and surreptitious alcohol breaks are common. When in active addiction, one’s happiness (in the form of craving relief) takes precedence over that of others, and empathy goes out the window. Ramesh is reduced to a pitiable state, cajoling once close friends to spot him the occasional tenner – in their eyes, he is reduced to a shadow of his former self. Now jobless and without an income, he burdens his children with the restitution of his loans – he is now too functionally impaired to perform any meaningful work. His wife is now the sole breadwinner, and the guilt in his voice is apparent, even today.
Ramesh only manages to stop drinking for some length of time at 48 due to chest pains. After a successful heart bypass, he turns to drink again. Then comes the second bypass, which he sullies with an infection brought on by his inveterate drinking. Alcohol and heart medication should not be taken together, but his addiction blinds him to a sanguine truth. It is only after last-ditch surgery is performed that he cultivates some restraint, managing to abstain from drink when he recuperates for a month in the hospital. He is 68 when he finally gets into recovery.
All manner of physical ailments accompanies alcohol addiction. “From the head to the feet”, Dr Jacob says. The brain is atrophied such that fits, falls, bleeding, subdural hematomas and dementia become common. Liver cirrhosis brings about jaundice and bloody stool. Peripheral neuropathy, a feeling of pins and needles in the hands and feet arises from damage to nerves outside the brain and spinal cord. Even sexual performance suffers. If diabetes is comorbid, the body becomes much poorer at sugar control.
Dr Jacob recommends a ‘biopsychosocial’ model for treating alcohol addiction. “Bio” refers to medical treatment in the form of total abstinence (detoxification) and medication. “Psychosocial” refers to psychological counselling to treat addiction, medication to reduce cravings, and therapy sessions with the family. In short, a treatment model that aims to target likely risk factors for relapse.
Nobody takes their first drink and thinks, “This’ll be the death of me”. Fortunately, if people suffering from alcohol addiction take a step back and consider their mind, their physical body, and their loved ones, and combined with proper support and therapy, recovery is possible.