People affected by alcoholism (i.e., alcohol dependence) have undergone long-term, damaging changes in their normal brain activity. During treatment, these changes pose a real challenge for doctors and their patients. Still, it’s possible for even long-term, severe alcoholics to establish sobriety and recover at least some of their key brain functions. A crucial step in recovering from alcoholism is enrollment in an inpatient or outpatient program that follows up-to-date, evidence-based treatment principles. These principles include the use of alcohol-specific medications and any one of several forms of behavioral psychotherapy.
What Is a Recovering Alcoholic?
Anyone affected by alcoholism is dealing with the lasting mental and physical consequences of alcohol dependence. This dependent state occurs when the brain adapts to the many chemical changes produced by the frequent presence of heavy amounts of alcohol in the bloodstream. A recovering alcoholic is anyone trying to address the damaging effects of alcohol dependence and regain sobriety. The term commonly applies to people receiving treatment in an alcohol-oriented substance treatment program. It can also apply to people who have completed active treatment and returned to their everyday lives. In some respects, recovery from this chronic brain disease continues long after excessive alcohol consumption comes to an end.
Stages of Recovery from Alcoholism
Before entering formal treatment programs, people seeking to recover from the effects of alcoholism typically stop drinking and go through a period of medical detoxification. This supervised process provides an appropriate environment for safe alcohol withdrawal. Such an environment is especially important for severe, long-term alcoholics, who have a significant chance of developing seizures, delirium tremens (the DTs) or other major withdrawal complications. Without the proper professional oversight, these complications have the potential to lead to fatal consequences. Regardless of the severity of symptoms, experts recommend medical detox for all alcoholics.
After successful completion of detox, the next steps of alcohol recovery take place in inpatient or outpatient treatment. Inpatient treatment is the usual option for people with moderate or severe alcoholism symptoms. People with mild-to-moderate symptoms may be able to recover while enrolled in an intensive or standard outpatient program. Whether treatment is inpatient or outpatient, it frequently involves the use of one of the three medications approved for use in cases of alcohol dependence:
Disulfiram (branded as Antabuse) helps deter drinking during treatment by intensifying alcohol’s toxic, unpleasant physical effects. Acamprosate (branded as Campral) helps promote abstinence by correcting some of the chemical brain imbalances that support alcoholism. Naltrexone creates a chemical blockade around sites in the body called opioid receptors. In so doing, it reduces the pleasure of drinking and helps tame alcohol cravings.
While enrolled in treatment, recovering alcoholics also frequently receive help in the form of behavioral psychotherapy. This active therapy has two main purposes:
- Identifying the thoughts and behaviors that contribute to excessive alcohol use
- Creating substitute thoughts and behaviors that don’t contribute to excessive alcohol use
There are several effective forms of behavioral psychotherapy for people in alcohol recovery. Options with backing from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) include:
- MET (motivational enhancement therapy)
- CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy)
- Family therapy
- Marriage therapy
After completing primary treatment, people in recovery still have clear risks for relapsing back into dangerous alcohol use. In fact, some studies indicate that four out of every five recovering drinkers will experience a relapse within a year of program graduation. Enrollment in a continuing care or aftercare program can help reduce the risks triggering a relapse. This type of program typically requires periodic check-ins for health assessments and participation in some form of therapy.
How Long Does It Take to Get Sober?
No one can say for sure how long it will take an alcoholic to complete detoxification and establish initial sobriety. Factors that affect the required amount of time include:
- The length of involvement in excessive drinking
- The severity of alcoholism symptoms
- The severity of withdrawal symptoms experienced during detox
Most people make it through withdrawal in about five to seven days. However, the process can last for 14 days or more. Also, some people experience a lingering condition called protracted withdrawal or post-acute withdrawal syndrome. Symptoms of this syndrome include restlessness, anxiousness, sleep disruption and a general feeling of uneasiness.
As noted, most people recovering from alcohol dependence will relapse at least once before they finally achieve sobriety. However, it’s critical to note that addiction experts view relapse as a temporary obstacle, not a permanent problem that prevents recovery. Also, the longer people stay sober, the less chance they have of ever relapsing. The majority of people who remain abstinent for five years will maintain their sobriety for life.
How Long Does It Take to Recover from Alcoholism?
Attaining sobriety is crucial for alcohol-dependent drinkers. However, in important respects, sobriety does not equal alcoholism recovery. This is true because of the wide-ranging harm that chronic heavy drinking has on mental and physical health. The long list of problems associated with alcoholism includes:
- Changes in the shape, size, and function of multiple structures throughout the brain
- Alcohol-induced liver disease (i.e., fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, and cirrhosis)
- A form of heart failure called alcoholic cardiomyopathy
- Heartbeat irregularities in the upper or lower chambers of the heart
- Hypertension (i.e., high blood pressure)
- Ischemic or hemorrhagic stroke
- Progressive kidney failure
- Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
- Immune system disruption
- Increased changes of developing cancer of the breast, esophagus, mouth, larynx, liver, and pharynx
Lasting changes in the brain’s size and function help explain the high rate of relapse in people attempting to gain their sobriety. And in a worst-case scenario, untreated problems in the liver, kidneys or heart can lead to deadly organ malfunctions. Also, any alcohol-related cancer can produce a fatal outcome.
Despite these daunting facts, people can and do recover from alcoholism, or at least some of the disease’s harmful secondary effects. The NIAAA notes that anyone who maintains abstinence for several months or longer may experience a significant improvement in some of the key brain functions that are damaged or altered by chronic heavy drinking. Fatty liver, the least severe form of alcohol-induced liver disease, can be reversed if alcohol use comes to a halt. The same fact also holds true for some cases of alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis. However, the best way to avoid some of the worst health repercussions of alcoholism is to seek alcohol treatment as soon as possible. Once they appear, many of the most severe problems may not improve even with expert medical care.
Can Alcoholics Recover?
The road to alcohol recovery can be long and challenging. Still, every day, people across America receive the help they need and start their successful journey back to sobriety. Perhaps a bigger issue is how few people seek professional help for their serious drinking problems. Current statistics from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration show that less that 20 percent of all Americans affected by substance abuse/addiction receive treatment for their symptoms. An even smaller percentage of affected adults and teenagers receive treatment in a dedicated facility run by addiction specialists.
Successful alcohol addiction recovery requires a multi-step process that includes medical detoxification, participation in inpatient or outpatient treatment and follow-up enrollment in some type of continuing care. While relapses happen frequently, they don’t prevent recovering alcoholics from eventually achieving sobriety. And once long-term sobriety is established, there’s a good chance of avoiding any further problems for the remainder of a lifetime.