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AlcoholAre you drowning in sorrow and loss? The death of a spouse, whether expected or not, changes everything from your future plans and financial stability to the way you sleep, eat, and get on with the everyday chores of life.

You wake up alone. You figure out how to do the things your spouse used to do. Your mail still arrives with your spouse’s name attached. You explain to people who haven’t seen you recently what has happened, sometimes over and over again. You face the next big holiday, and then the next after that, without your spouse. So many adjustments, big and small, wash over you in waves, and if you haven’t had time to plan or prepare for them—or sometimes even if you have—they can make you sink into a depression.

Grieving after a loss is normal, but if you find yourself unable to get out of bed in the morning or to function through the day, if you’re experiencing changes in appetite or sleep habits, difficulty concentrating, low energy, an excessive amount of guilt, or inability to care about anything, you may be clinically depressed. If this sounds like you, seek the help of a licensed therapist who can help you recover from depression and process your emotional issues.

In a time of deep sorrow, it’s not uncommon to have a drink to forget, to numb emotions, to cope, or to sleep. You may stop at the bar on the way home to be in the company of others or to avoid being home too long. You may begin to drink at home, in isolation. But if you find yourself drinking more often, or if you become aware that you are gradually drinking more, you may be trying to drown your sorrow in alcohol.

Having done substance abuse recovery work for years, I am amazed both by what most people don’t know about alcohol and by what some people think they know about alcohol, but don’t really. Prior to working with recovering alcoholics, I didn’t know either. I have seen the same patterns over and over again. You don’t see alcohol dependence coming. Alcohol is a sneaky substance in that, as you drink more for whatever reason, there comes a tipping point where you lose track of how much you have consumed and just continue drinking. Although you may not be aware of your pattern of drinking more, gradually it begins to impact your life in negative ways. That’s why I feel it’s imperative to share some facts about alcohol.

Who is an alcoholic? An alcoholic is someone who has become physically and psychologically dependent on alcohol. An alcoholic drinks to excess, suffers physical, family, work or legal consequences of the behavior, feels remorse and shame, and yet repeats the behavior anyway. Alcoholics crave alcohol, think about it often, and look forward to their next drink. Alcohol becomes their best friend, but then it begins to disrupt and dominate their life in a number of different ways, including developing family, legal, work, or health problems.

There are many myths about alcohol, so let’s debunk some of them. Not all alcoholics are bums in the street. Most are average people who think they are normal drinkers. Not all alcoholics drink every day; some are binge drinkers. They may drink only on weekends, but they drink to oblivion. It’s not true that you can’t be an alcoholic if you “only” drink wine or beer. Wine and beer contain plenty of alcohol and are as addictive as any other form. Wine connoisseurs are just as vulnerable to addiction as anyone else. Just because it’s rare or expensive doesn’t mean it’s any safer in large quantities. Some of the early signs of an alcohol problem include blackouts (not remembering all or part of what happened while you were under the influence), family arguments about your drinking, nausea, vomiting, and an increased tolerance for large quantities of alcohol. If you can drink a lot of alcohol without feeling drunk, it means that you have developed more tolerance and are closer to becoming addicted. If other people express concern about your drinking, chances are that you are abusing alcohol.

Since alcohol addiction is a gradual process, you may not be aware of the problem, so you ought to trust that if your loved ones and others are all saying the same thing about your drinking, you need to address the problem. If you have had a DUI, domestic incident or other legal problem that involves alcohol, then it is surely a problem for you. If all your friends are heavy drinkers, you may want to reconsider the company you are keeping. If you are losing friends because of your drinking, it is a problem. If you fall and injure yourself while drinking, it is a problem. If you drink and drive, that’s a problem.

Never drink to escape from an emotional problem. That is called self-medicating behavior. Those times when you are grieving, angry, overwhelmed, or under stress are the worst times to drink, because not only are you more likely to drink too much, but you are not doing any real problem-solving in regard to the issue. And guess what? When you sober up, the problem will still be there. The longer you self-medicate a problem, the fewer coping skills you develop toward solving it. Instead, you create a vicious cycle that, if allowed to continue, can result in addiction.

Make no mistake about it. Alcohol is a drug, and it is an addictive drug. Since it happens to be legal, people mistakenly see using it as harmless or “normal” adult behavior, a rite of passage, if you will. Since alcohol is addictive, you should always handle it with care. You wouldn’t play with fire as if it is harmless. Why would you play with alcohol?

If you choose to drink, ALWAYS be aware of how many drinks you take. If they’re mixed drinks, make sure you know how many shots they contain. Pay attention to how many drinks it takes to make you feel inebriated, and next time stop prior to that point. That is responsible drinking.

NEVER drink shots, a dangerous behavior that can lead to alcohol poisoning. Never allow others to continue to buy you or pour drinks you haven’t asked for. You can refuse them and say, “Thanks anyway, but no.” That is responsible drinking.

Remember also that you will be drunk long before you feel drunk. That’s why some people insist on driving, even though those around them can see that they are inebriated. If your goal in drinking is to become as drunk as possible, you may have a problem.

Ask yourself these questions: “Why do I need to be in an altered state of mind? What do I need to escape from? What feelings am I masking?” You have to face your problems before you can solve them.

It’s okay to cry, to be angry (as long as you don’t take it out on someone), scared, or insecure about living without your spouse. Find someone who will listen and talk with you about it. Sometimes friends or relatives want to help but they don’t know how, so they can offer only sympathy. A widow/widowers’ support group can do wonders because you are in contact with other people who share your feelings and the reasons for those feelings. Some of them can become lifelong friends. It’s also comforting to know that you’re not alone.

If you’re uncomfortable in a support group, see a professional counselor who can help you through the process of change. If, in reading this article you recognize yourself as a problem drinker, don’t hesitate to go to Alcoholics Anonymous, where people understand, don’t judge, and know how to help. There is definitely hope. People recover all the time.

Don’t drown in your sorrows. Face your challenges, accept the help that’s offered, and ask for help if you need it. Do not fear. Perhaps it’s time to make some changes. Be open to the changes and see what they have to offer you.

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