5 Types of Alcoholics

Experts in the field of addiction often run incredibly complicated studies in order to learn more about how people develop issues with the substances they abuse.

These studies can be educational for families who want to better understand the conditions their loved ones are facing, but they can also be quite informative for people who provide addiction care on a regular basis. Once these people know more about how the addictions tend to develop, they’ll also know more about how specific types of addictions can be successfully treated. With research, almost everyone can benefit.

In 2007, researchers at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) studied 1,484 people who met the diagnostic criteria for alcohol dependence, and they attempted to determine how these people were similar, and different, from one another. As a result of this research, experts now believe that people who have alcoholism can be differentiated into five distinct groups.

Each group will be defined and discussed in detail in this article.

Intermediate Familial Alcoholics

About 19 percent of alcoholics fall into the Intermediate Familial category, NIAAA researchers report.

The term might sound complicated, but the group of people it describes is quite easy to understand. In essence, people who fall into this group tend to be middle aged, and about half of them come from families who have a history of alcoholism. This isn’t surprising, as the Mayo Clinic reports that the risk of alcoholism is higher for people who grow up in alcoholic households. It’s unclear, however, if these people develop their unhealthy drinking habits because they watched alcoholic behavior unfold in the homes they grew up in, or if they have a genetic propensity to develop the disorder. Perhaps both issues are at play in some people.

NIAAA researchers also report that many of the people in this group also have mental illnesses, including clinical depression and bipolar disorder.

Mental illnesses and addictions often go hand in hand in this way, with mental illnesses pushing people to take in substances for relief, and substances causing chemical changes in the brain that make mental illnesses much more likely.

It is a common, and unfortunate, fact of addictions and it’s something that addiction treatment facilities work hard to address and amend with the care they provide.

Functional Alcoholics

NIAAA researchers report that 19.5 percent of alcoholics fall into the Functional category.

People who are functional alcoholics tend to violate many of the commonly held assumptions about people who are alcoholics. For example, people in this group tend to be well educated, and they also tend to have stable jobs and family lives. On the outside, these people may seem as though they have their lives completely under control, and their friends and colleagues might also not feel as though there are any risk factors for alcoholism that should be of concern. However, people with functional alcoholism might also have difficulty controlling how much they drink, and they might face some consequences from their drinking, including reprimands at work or fights with their loved ones.

Functional alcoholics might be difficult for outsiders to see, but their family members might be able to see the consequences of the issue all too well, as they see the person they love begin to retreat from them in order to spend more time drinking.

They might also find that they’re called upon to help the person to overcome the consequences of the addiction by handling more of the chores at home and other responsibilities on days when the alcoholic needs to recover from a binge.

Young Antisocial Alcoholics

young antisocial alcoholicsThe study places 21 percent of alcoholics into this group. These people:

  • Are in their mid-20s
  • Started drinking early
  • Come from families with alcoholism
  • Also use other substances, such as cigarettes, marijuana or heroin

Researchers at the NIAAA also found a link between alcoholism and antisocial personality disorder in this group of alcoholics. This is a result that’s been affirmed in other studies.

For example, a study in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry found that one specific serotonin receptor was associated with both antisocial behavior and alcoholism in human subjects.

It’s interesting to think that one small gene could have such a large role in the way people feel and the way that people behave, but studies like this seem to suggest that this is certainly the case. People in this group might use alcohol as a form of rebellion, drinking because it’s not something they should be doing. They might also use alcohol in order to numb their minds and distract them from the mental illnesses they face. Alcohol may help them to stay calm and collected, which they might find difficult to do when they are sober.

Young Adult Alcoholics

NIAAA researchers suggest that 31.5 percent of alcoholics fall into the Young Adult category.

These drinkers tend to be young adults, and they have relatively low rates of mental illness as well as a low family history of alcoholism. These might be the alcoholics that are most closely associated with the college party scene, drinking heavily on the weekends when in the company of their friends, but not drinking during the week.

There is some evidence that suggests that people who drink in this way tend to correct their own behavior, due to changing circumstances and emerging priorities.

A study in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol found that women in college tended to drink less as they moved through their schooling, as they started to spend time in smaller groups in more intimate surroundings, rather than in large party situations.

While it’s certainly true that some people who drink to excess when they are young adults need help in order to correct their behavior, studies like this seem to suggest that some people can and do stop the behavior before it becomes much too troublesome.

Chronic Severe Alcoholics

About 9 percent of alcoholics can be placed into this group, NIAAA researchers report, but people in this category tend to have issues that are extremely difficult to resolve or to deal with. Many people in this group are associated with mental illnesses, including:

  • Depression
  • Anti-social personality disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Anxiety disorders

They may also have addictions to other substances, including marijuana, heroin and cocaine. These statistics may seem dire, but the NIAAA report does contain a sliver of good news. About two-thirds of people who are in this group ask for help to overcome their drinking problems, which means they are the most prevalent type of alcoholic in treatment programs today.

Their problems may be severe and difficult to deal with alone, but they are asking for help in order to overcome these issues.

Shared Traits

While the severity of the symptoms these people struggle with can vary dramatically, people who fall somewhere along this spectrum have real and identifiable issues with alcohol addiction, and they may share some of the same characteristics. For example, people who have alcohol problems tend to be unable to stop drinking once they start. These are the people who claim that they will only have one drink with dinner, and then tend to finish the entire bottle. They cannot seem to regulate their choices when it comes to alcohol. Similarly, people with alcohol issues tend to keep drinking, no matter the consequences they face.

People might defend their drinking even when they’re facing arrest for drunken driving, or they might claim that they can simply stop drinking anytime they want to.

As the addiction progresses, alcohol can change the chemical makeup of the brain, keeping the cells in a state of sedation nearly all the time. When the person is not drinking, those cells may respond with alarm and cause tremors, nausea or panic. This is when the addiction is in full swing, as the chemical changes serve to lock the behavior in place and make it hard for the person to stop drinking without help.

What This Means

Learning more about the nature of alcohol addiction and how it is diagnosed and treated is always helpful for family members living with someone who is addicted. Armed with information, they can make good decisions about when to intervene and what kind of help they should offer the person who is struggling with alcoholism. It’s important to remember, however, that families aren’t responsible for formally diagnosing alcoholism, and that these labels might not mean anything to the person who is addicted. Telling the person that he/she is a “young adult subtype” won’t mean anything to the person who is living with the illness. Instead, it’s best to let this sort of information infuse the way the family talks to the addict, and the sorts of therapy the family investigates for the person to enter at the end of the intervention. A person who might seem to be a young adult drinker, for example, might benefit from outpatient counseling and might readily accept that help, while a person who is in the chronic severe subtype might need inpatient care and that care might span multiple issues. Knowledge truly can be power here, if it allows the family to approach the person in a loving and informed manner in an intervention.

Call us today with any questions you have regarding staging an alcohol intervention for your loved one. We can connect you with an interventionist who can help you through the process.

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