How long does it take to get over alcohol addiction?
How long does it take to get over alcohol addiction?
Acute withdrawals take 5 to 10 days. Staying sober takes 1 day every day.
Alcohol addiction is a relapsing condition. Our resolutions are broken. Or we go up the wall in frustration. Recovery, having peace of mind in spite of unsolved problems, requires a lot more than abstinence.
In my inpatient rehab, I detoxed over 1,500 patients from their alcohol addiction and another 1,500 from drug addiction.
Our nursing unit was well equipped, appropriately and pleasantly furnished, and excellently staffed. It had to be. Patients’ lives were at risk.
But there were two particular challenges
Nursing staff wanted to do counselling work.
Patients wanted to run away as soon as they felt well enough to get out of bed.
Counselling is a profession, distinct from medical and nursing skills. It requires far more than a knowledge of the medical risks of addictive substances. And it involves far more than giving sensible advice and warm encouragement. Doctors and nurses can be relied upon to do both of those things responsibly.
But counsellors have to understand that patients have very short term goals. They want to get out of trouble. Then, as soon as possible, they want to get back to doing what they were doing before – hopefully without getting into more trouble.
For doctors and nurses to be able to understand alcoholism, drug addiction and any other form of addictive behaviour, we very often need to un-learn what we were taught in medical and nursing school.
Those of us who are addicts, of one kind or another, and now no longer using mood-altering substances and processes of any kind, are in a strong – perhaps vital – position to be able to help addicted patients. Addiction treatment follows the same general approach when treating patients for any form of addiction.
Those of us who are addicts ourselves understand that very well. After all, it didn’t matter much to us what we used – provided it hit the spot emotionally. Consequently we know instinctively where our patients are coming from. We understand their fears, confusions and hopes from the inside. And we know that drinking alcohol alters perceptions as well as mental and physical functions.
One patient of mine opened the window of his room (he would have broken it otherwise) and legged it across the fields 9 times. I explained to him something he already knew: the door was open and the drive was surfaced with tarmac. He wasn’t running away from us. He was running away from himself.
But he took himself with him – which is why he came back 10 times.
On one occasion he finished up in his pyjamas and greatcoat, in Victoria station, begging the price of a meal – or more probably a drink or drug. This was not the most dignified behaviour for a professional man but the call of his addiction was too strong. Today, 20 years later, he has a degree in psychology and he works with alcoholics and addicts, encouraging them to follow the road that led him to his recovery. I do the same.
My own training in pharmacology and therapeutics was excellent. But pretty well useless – apart from in the initial detox process – in a rehab. My counselling skills, such as they are, came from being an addict myself. They still do. Even though I have not used any mood-altering substance for 32 years, I’m still an addict by nature. And I’m still allergic to bee stings, nuts and pollen. That’s all part of me.
It is this fundamental point that non-addicts find so difficult to grasp. They believe – just as the addicts hope – that addiction goes with the substance rather than the person.
I’m not ashamed of being an addict but I feel very guilty over many things I’ve done. I do preventive things each day in order to reduce the risk of relapse back to my former behaviour.
I emphasise this because it’s precisely the insight that I asked my counselling staff to give to new patients in the nursing unit.
Alcoholics and addicts of any kind fight a civil war with themselves, with the softer voice saying, ‘Help me’ and the louder voice saying, ‘Get away from me’. It takes time – and more pain – for the softer voice to be heard.
With the support of counsellors in the detox unit, while the doctors and nurses are getting on with what they do best, the patients take on board that they are spiritually ill rather than intellectually inadequate and morally depraved.
This illness of the human spirit affects their capacity for hope, love, trust, honour, innocence and all the other beautiful abstracts that give life its essence. In recovery we get it all back. That’s what benefits us in the long term. That’s what ‘recovery’ means. It starts in detox but it continues, if we put in the daily footwork, for life.
The nuts and bolts of medical detox are both straightforward and tricky. The pharmacology is straightforward but the individual patients are tricky. Giving patients reducing doses of Chlordiazepoxide (Librium) for 5 to 10 days gets them through the shivers and shakes and other alcohol withdrawal symptoms they would otherwise suffer as a result of alcohol addiction. The body and mind have to be cared for day and night. Symptoms and signs have to be noted carefully.
Giving Vitamin B6 (Thiamine) and multivitamins daily for a month reduces the risk of withdrawal seizures and vitamin deficiency states. And that’s about it.
Ha! Except that the patients don’t always tell you what else they’re on and what their scheming minds are up to. Again, counsellors can help the medical and nursing staff when the patients are sending confusing signals.
Even better, finding a ‘buddy’, one of the current patients, to take the newcomer under a wing, is very helpful – from a non-staff member with no axe to grind – in helping insecure patients to stay on board.
The purpose of a detox unit is therefore to do far more than helping people to get through the initial stages of recovery from alcohol addiction. It is helping patients to get just a glimpse of what it will be like to get their lives back.
Hopefully they discover that they can do this alongside other recovering alcoholics and addicts and have really rewarding personal and professional lives.
The alternative, believing in short ‘magic fixes’ but going through one relapse and detox after another, doesn’t bear thinking about. The message of hope, from a recovering alcoholic or addict of any kind, is what needs to be heard.
We give it because that’s how we ourselves stay clean and sober. In recovery terms we keep what we give away.
Nowadays, in my outpatient rehab, I use every bit of my personal and professional experience. I do the most rewarding work I’ve ever known. Of course it has its challenges and heartbreaks. But that’s what I’m paid to help people through.