By the grace of God, I am currently in recovery. I spent 20 years as a binge drinker beginning at the age of 18. Toward the end of my drinking, I was starting to consume alcohol in the morning and would drink throughout the day. This habit formed due to the horrible withdrawals I would experience when I woke up after a binge. I learned that the immediate consumption of alcohol upon waking would lessen the misery I was feeling. This is because alcohol was then in my system so the pain would be alleviated. Of course, once I started drinking, I would find it difficult to stop. This created an endless cycle that became difficult to break.
Hangovers or Withdrawals?
For so many years I did not recognize the symptoms I was feeling after a drinking binge as withdrawals. I would complain of hangovers. I saw myself as one who was just unlucky in the fact that I had to suffer the morning after. It is interesting because I worked in healthcare and was a registered nurse at the time. We are educated on alcohol withdrawal in nursing school but not extensively. I certainly did not associate the hangovers I experienced after a binge as alcohol withdrawals. It wasn’t until I went to treatment in 2017 that I learned the true symptoms. What I thought was a hangover for so many years was not.
I have not only become educated but embraced the reality of what I was truly experiencing. Alcohol withdrawal mirrors hangover symptoms but there is something much more going on in the body. Symptoms can vary in severity. They resolve within a few days to a few weeks. In very severe cases, alcohol withdrawal can be life-threatening.
Alcohol withdrawal is caused when someone stops using alcohol after a period of heavy drinking. The signs can begin after just a few hours after stopping use. Some of the initial symptoms may be headaches, nausea, anxiety, insomnia or elevated blood pressure. Of course, people just label these as a hangover and ignore the fact that your body is in withdrawal. Most of the symptoms peak about 24-48 hours after the last drink. I suffered incredible anxiety and insomnia for years following drinking binges. So much so that I was put on sleep medication and benzodiazepines. I hid that fact I was a drinker from my health care providers. This was the true cause behind my suffering.
More serious symptoms include tremors, hallucinations, and seizures. Thankfully, I never experienced an alcoholic seizure though I witnessed them in a significant other I was dating. I even sat with patients in treatment who went into a seizure. One man in treatment had a seizure a week after his last drink.
“It Didn’t Stop Him From Drinking Again”
My ex had seizure six hours after his last drink. His eyes rolled back, he was twitching, and not conscious. It lasted for nearly 20 minutes and took a full hour for him to recover in the post-seizure state. I then convinced him to let me bring him to the hospital. To my surprise, they did not keep him. At that point, his vital signs had stabilized, and he was fully alert. However, it did not stop him from drinking again. I ended the relationship soon after as I could not watch him self destruct and it was jeopardizing my efforts to get sober.
The truth is he could have died. Once you have an alcoholic seizure you are more likely to experience another. The damage done to the body is compounded. In truth, if you or someone you are with has an alcoholic seizure, medical treatment must be sought. IV fluids, anxiolytic, and sedatives can be given. One can be introduced to resources that can be life-saving whether it be treatment, counseling or support groups if they are willing.
The most life-threatening withdrawal symptom is delirium tremens (DTs). I had learned about it in my nursing education but did not really understand what it was. I thought it was hallucinating bugs on the walls and itching your skin raw. Losing your mind due to alcohol. There is some truth to that, but it isn’t the whole picture. Delirium tremens often occurs about 48 hours after the last drink (Glabicsek, 2019). It results in confusion, severe shaking, hallucinations, and high blood pressure. It is uncommon but can cause death. Anyone experiencing delirium tremens must receive treatment at a hospital or detox.
I went years suffering from alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Prolonging the misery or justifying the symptoms as a hangover only makes it worse. It can be so serious and will not improve with time. The only real cure is to stop drinking. I think it’s time we start looking at it as a real health concern. It could save a life.
Galbicsek, C (2019, September 24). Alcohol Withdrawal. Retrieved from https://www.alcoholrehabguide.org/alcohol/withdrawal/