There was a time when people joked that alcoholics saw pink elephants and ants crawling on their skin. In our more enlightened times, we now understand that alcoholism is a chronic disease and that visual and sensory hallucinations are a very real part of that disease.
An alcoholic who abruptly stops his alcohol intake will endure a difficult period of withdrawal that includes hallucinations and many other potentially dangerous symptoms, including tremors, seizures, nausea and vomiting, psychotic episodes, and nightmares and insomnia. These withdrawal symptoms can endanger a recovering alcoholic’s long-term health and his prognosis for a successful recovery and, accordingly, alcohol withdrawal and detox should be supervised by physicians and qualified medical attendants.
Understanding Alcohol Withdrawal
The most severe and, accordingly, the most dangerous period of alcohol withdrawal will occur within the first forty-eight hours after an alcoholic has consumed his or her last drink. Symptoms that at first feel like a bad flu will transform into tremors and hallucinatory incidents. When these symptoms pass, a minority of recovering alcoholics will experience some level of delirium tremens (the “DT’s”) for up to a week after their last drink. This condition is characterized by reduced blood flow to the recovering alcoholic’s brain and other body systems, which can further lead to seizures, confusion, loss of consciousness, and violent psychotic episodes.
Alcoholism and the Brain
As with other addictive drugs, alcohol changes an individual’s brain chemistry. Alcohol is a depressant, and to compensate for the effects of alcohol, an alcoholic’s brain will produce large amounts of stimulants, such as norepinephrine. When an alcoholic stops drinking, his or her brain continues to produce large quantities of these stimulants, leading to these dangerous withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms mimic the withdrawal symptoms that drug addicts will also experience, but with alcohol withdrawal, they can be deadly for the recovering alcoholic.
Physicians might prescribe one or more pharmaceutical treatments (primarily benzodiazepines) to remediate the worst symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, but the generally preferred methodology is to provide psychological and other counseling for an alcoholic who is going through detox and withdrawal rather than introducing other chemical or medical substances into the alcoholic’s system. In addition to helping a recovering alcoholic to endure the worst of the withdrawal symptoms, in-patient clinics can also provide proper nutrition to address vitamin deficiencies and dehydration problems that are frequently see in alcoholics.
Recovering from Alcohol Abuse
When a recovering alcoholic’s detox and withdrawal are not supervised, the withdrawal symptoms can be so terrifying that the alcoholic will give up and return to drinking alcohol to banish those symptoms. Alcoholics also face a constant risk of relapse after they have completed a full detox and withdrawal. Vestiges of the chemical brain changes that alcoholics experience will always be present. Alcoholics who have successfully passed through detox and withdrawal will need continuing therapy and group support to remain free from further bouts of alcohol dependency.
The counselors and therapists at the Last Resort Recovery Center (near Austin, Texas) have extensive experience with assisting alcoholics in detox and withdrawal. Please call us at 512-360-3600 for information and consultation on how we can help you to defeat your problems with alcohol and to get on a path to lifelong sobriety.