According to the National Institutes of Health, alcoholism comes with four symptoms: cravings, loss of control, physical dependence and tolerance. The disease takes root in the primal brain – the area of the mush inside our heads that orders us to do the things that keep us alive, such as breathing, eating, breeding and drinking fluids.
In about 10 percent of those who drink alcohol or abuse substances, it triggers something that causes the brain to embrace that substance – be it booze, cocaine, heroin or cigarettes – as a necessity for survival.
And to truly understand addiction, eschew all notions of willpower. The disease robs you of willpower – a humbling thing to accept.
"One of the biggest misconceptions about alcoholics and addicts is this issue about willpower," says Dr. Paul Earley, medical director of the Talbott Recovery Campus in College Park. "In truth, people who are alcoholic often have very strong wills to do many things in life. It's just that they don't have any control once they get involved with any kind of addiction process. It's connected in a deeper part of your brain that doesn't have anything to do with choice or the decision process."
Look at a brain scan of an alcoholic during a craving and you see the "emotion" part of the brain, where thoughts are hashed up and analyzed, and it hums a cold blue. The primal brain is alive, a fire red, bristling with desire and sending alerts that if alcohol is not consumed, the body will die.
Although classified as a disease by the American Medical Association in 1956, addiction's had a tough road to acceptance in the medical community and society as a whole. Colored by the stereotypes of hesitant partyhounds who just don't want to grow up and streetpeople who prefer to live in a stupefied haze rather than get a job, alcoholics and addicts have instead stayed hidden in the shadows.
But addiction is neither an albatross nor a scarlet letter. It's a chronic, lifelong illness like diabetes or asthma – a manageable affliction that still allows those diagnosed to live healthy and happy lives. And for all the casualties – the gutter poets, the elder statesmen, the mothers, the children, the people in our lives – there's a little bit of hope.
A lot of that success depends on the wherewithal of the debilitated to follow through. Much like a diabetic has to monitor his or her blood sugar, an alcoholic has to follow a regimen. For some, it's going to 12-step meetings and staying honest, vocalizing your inner thoughts and secrets to flush yourself of their power. For others, it's medications that block the intoxicating effects of alcohol or cause nausea if the substance is ingested.
This is not a complete list of the options and CL does not advocate or represent any certain approach. But if you feel you or someone you love has a problem with alcohol or addiction, resources are available.
There are more than 1,000 meetings for various addictions and dependencies every week in metro Atlanta. Here are some jumping-off points:
Atlanta Central Office
127 Peachtree St., Suite 1310
Atlanta, GA 30303
Georgia Regional Service Committee
PO Box 420615
Atlanta, GA 30342
Al-Anon/Alateen (support program meant for families and spouses of alcoholics and addicts)
Metro Atlanta is home to many treatment and recovery centers. Here are several:
Atlanta Union Mission
2353 Bolton Road, Suite 300
Atlanta, GA 30318
2815 Clearview Place, Suite 100
Doraville, GA 30340
Talbott Recovery Campus
5448 Yorktowne Drive
Atlanta, GA 30349
3995 S. Cobb Drive
Smyrna, GA 30080
Sober-living facilities are often staffed by certified counselors and offer a substance-free and group environment:
Hope Homes Recovery
1741 Spring St.
Smyrna, GA 30080
2151 Cumberland Parkway, Apt. 915
Atlanta, GA 30339