Almost every day I speak to people who want to recover from alcoholism, but who are terrified of the prospect of detox. They’ve watched old films in which alcoholics were locked up in psychiatric hospitals to go through wild hallucinations. Alcohol detox in the past could be deadly. But for many years now there are safe, medically supervised interventions that can help most people have a relatively mild detox experience, setting the individual up for a healthy, long term recovery.
Safely Detoxing from Alcohol
It is often the case that people get into trouble with alcohol long before they realize they have a problem. Alcohol abuse can be socially acceptable to a point. Moderate alcohol use makes social interactions easier. Mild alcohol abuse can be seen as “taking one’s comfort.” “If you knew what he’s been through recently, you’d toss back a few too,” well-meaning friends might say. But when alcohol is abused for any significant period, the abuse can lead to a host of problems. One of the most frightening of these can be withdrawal.
The complications of alcohol detox can be severe and can cause death. Under no circumstances should withdrawal from alcohol be undertaken alone. Separation from alcohol requires medical supervision. Doctors who specialize in alcohol detox can provide a range of supportive therapies and medications to minimize discomfort and prevent the most dangerous and life threatening symptoms. These symptoms can include cardiovascular collapse, hallucinations, seizures, and in some cases, death.
Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome
Alcohol detox is sometimes called “alcohol withdrawal syndrome.” Withdrawal symptoms can begin as little as two hours after a person has had their last drink and can come on rapidly. Symptoms are usually at their height approximately 72 hours after the last drink and can linger for weeks. Some symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are:
- Severe confusion or hallucinations
- Mood swings
- Increase in blood pressure
- Racing heart
- “DTs” —delirium tremens
- Cardiovascular collapse
Severe symptoms of alcohol detox are a medical emergency. If you suspect someone is trying to detox from alcohol on their own and has these symptoms, call 911 immediately. Get the person to the hospital right away.
Safe Medical Detox
There is never a guarantee that an individual will be complication free during detox from alcohol, but there are therapies available to treat or prevent the worst complications of alcohol withdrawal. Under a physician’s watchful eye, either inpatient or outpatient, individuals are monitored for signs of the DTs, hallucinations, severe anxiety, and cardiovascular distress. A whole range of medications may be used to manage symptoms like nausea or vomiting or anxiety. Anticonvulsants might also be provided, depending on personal history. In all cases, safe detox needs to be done under medical supervision.
The Positive Difference a Medically Supervised Alcohol Detox Makes in Alcoholism Treatment
When the symptoms of detox subside, a bond has begun to develop between the client and the members of his/her treatment team. There will be moments when the client is uncomfortable during detox, when feelings of anxiety or heart palpitations arise. As s/he communicates these issues to the treatment team and they are promptly dealt with, trust builds. This is the foundation for the compassionate therapeutic relationships a person needs to recover from alcoholism.
Alcohol detox alone is not addition treatment. The symptoms of detox will subside, creating the space for the truly transformative aspects of recovery to begin. Recovering from alcoholism will require holistic treatment—to help body, mind and spirit. In many cases, it will include an intensive psychotherapeutic component and a list of holistic adjunct activities which might include: yoga, massage, meditation, acupuncture, healthy eating, appropriate exercise, and spiritual work. Some people enjoy adding 12 step activities or other types of groups where they are supported in the life changes they’re making. No matter what an individual chooses, alcohol detox is only the first step in a lifelong way of living that involves holistic and intensive effort to create meaningful life change.