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What is Crippling Alcoholism?

Crippling alcoholism is also called high-functioning alcoholism. It is a term used to describe someone who is unable to function due to his or her alcohol consumption. Someone with crippling alcoholism has been a long-term, heavy drinker and the habitual use of alcohol has damaged his or her body.

When a person has crippling alcoholism, they spend the majority of their time drinking. There are both mental and physical health issues, including malnutrition and co-occurring mental health disorders.

Most people with crippling alcoholism no longer understand the damage they are doing to themselves. For many, it is the final stage or end-stage of alcoholism.

Recovery is still possible when someone has crippling alcoholism. However, the only safe option for recovery begins with medically supervised detoxification. This stage of alcoholism includes rapidly deteriorating health. After years of heavy drinking, the body lacks what it needs to repair itself.

A lot of people who have reached the point of crippling alcoholism experience a variety of negative health issues, including:

  • Hepatitis
  • Cirrhosis
  • Cancer
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Emphysema
  • Heart failure
  • Pneumonia
  • Tuberculosis

Characteristics of a High-Functioning Alcoholic

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the five most common characteristics of a high-functioning alcoholic include someone who:

  • Is middle-aged (around 41 years of age)
  • Has a steady job
  • Has a strong relationship and/or family bond
  • Has a family history of alcohol use disorder (AUD)
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Crippling Alcoholism vs. Regular Alcoholism

The difference between crippling alcoholism and regular alcoholism is the length of time a person has been a heavy drinker and the negative effects they have experienced due to their alcoholism.

Regular alcoholism is a terrible disorder, but it is possible for the body to recover and for a person to live a sober life.

It’s possible for an alcoholic who has reached the later stages to recover, but it’s unlikely their body will fully restore itself. Successful sobriety is far less common among those with crippling alcoholism.

To recognize the difference between crippling alcoholism and regular alcoholism, consider the stages of alcohol use disorder (AUD):

Stage 1

Pre-alcoholics or people who drink to eliminate anxiety, feel better, or dull their emotional pain. They use alcohol as a coping mechanism, but still maintain control over their alcohol consumption.

Stage 2

Early alcoholics or people who drink too much and experience being blackout drunk and other health problems related to their drinking. They tend to think a lot about drinking, drink too much when they drink, and lie to others about their drinking.

Stage 3

Middle alcoholics or people who begin to experience serious problems in their lives due to their alcohol consumption. Their drinking interferes with their responsibilities, including work or school.

In this stage, physical signs of alcoholism begin to present themselves, including weight gain, facial redness, bloating, and sluggishness. Many people in 12-step programs have reached this stage of alcoholism.

Stage 4

Late-stage or crippling alcoholics or people who are devoting their entire lives to drinking. They’ve sacrificed their health, their livelihoods, and their loved ones to drink. Attempts to stop drinking trigger hallucinations, DTs, and other serious side effects. 

Symptoms of Crippling Alcoholism

Symptoms of crippling alcoholism include:

  • Liver disease and failure — excess alcohol consumption damages the liver to the point where it can no longer do its job of metabolizing fats and proteins and flush out toxins.
  • Chronic pancreatitis — inflammation of the pancreas that causes radiating pain in the abdomen that for many makes it impossible to eat.
  • Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS, wet brain or alcoholic brain damage) — a brain disorder caused by a lack of vitamin B1 (thiamine) that causes dementia-like symptoms or alcohol psychosis, as well as vision changes and drooping eyelids.
  • Chronic brain damage — excessive alcohol consumption affects cognitive function even if WKS is not an issue.
  • Esophagus damage — excessive alcohol consumption puts you at a higher risk of developing Barrett’s esophagus, a precancerous condition, and full-blown esophageal cancer.
  • Alcoholic cardiomyopathy —excessive drinking causes damage to the heart that includes the weakening of the heart muscle, which then disrupts blood flow.
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Causes of Crippling Alcoholism

Causes of crippling alcoholism include:

  • Co-occurring mental health disorders
  • Drinking at an early age
  • Combining alcohol and medication or recreational drugs
  • Family history of alcoholism
  • Lack of access to treatment
  • Lack of access to an emotional support system
  • Stressful environment

Risk Factors of Crippling Alcoholism

Alcoholism can affect anyone, no matter their history or background. However, there are a few risk factors that can increase your risk of developing crippling alcoholism. These include:

  • If you binge drink regularly (more than 5 alcoholic drinks a day)
  • If you tend to drink more than 7 drink a week (women) or 14 drinks a week (men)
  • If you began drinking from an early age (before 15)
  • If you are surrounded by people who drink regularly
  • If you do not have high self-confidence
  • If you have recently had bariatric surgery (studies show that this surgery can increase the risk of alcoholism)
  • If you struggle with a mental health condition like anxiety or depression
  • If you are highly stressed or anxious
  • If you have a family history of trauma and/or alcoholism

How Does it Feel to be a Crippling Alcoholic?

Late-stage alcoholics deal with many health issues. It does not feel good or comfortable to reach this stage of alcoholism, but many do not realize how badly they feel because they are intoxicated.

Some of the most common issues a crippling alcoholic experiences include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Swelling in the legs, ankles, and feet
  • Weakness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss or weight gain linked only to alcohol consumption and not other dietary changes or health issues
  • Weakened or irregular pulse
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting

All of these symptoms might indicate alcoholic cardiomyopathy. It’s important to seek medical attention if you or a loved one experiences any of these symptoms. 

In addition to the symptoms listed above, late-stage alcoholics also experience:

  • Changes in their physical appearance
  • Loss of physical coordination
  • Confusion
  • Vision changes
  • Violent outbursts
  • Memory impairment

As a crippling alcoholic, you are likely to feel bad all of the time. 

Most people who have reached this late stage of alcoholism no longer remember what it’s like to feel healthy or even comfortable in their bodies. They self-medicate with alcohol so it’s easier to ignore their physical and emotional discomfort.

Consequences of Crippling Alcoholism

There are many social and health consequences associated with crippling alcoholism, including:

  • Health issues like poor digestion, heart disease, liver disease, stroke, cancer, high blood pressure, increased heart rate, and cirrhosis.
  • Damaged relationships with family, partners, spouses, and even coworkers.
  • Decreased cognitive abilities like memory issues, mood disorders, and the inability to focus/concentrate on tasks.
  • Legal issues caused by DUIs, violence, stealing, and/or injuries.
  • Financial problems due to the inability to keep steady jobs (and spending too much money on alcohol).
  • Mental health issues caused by heavy, long-term alcohol use (which changes brain chemistry and can lead to brain damage)

Help & Treatment for High-Functioning Alcoholics

Recovery and sober living are more challenging for those who have reached the stage of crippling alcoholism, but it is possible.

The first stage of treatment for crippling alcoholism is medically supervised detox. This helps the person overcome their physical dependency on alcohol and ensures they begin the recovery process as physically healthy as possible.

Remember, even if you or a loved one has reached the stage of crippling alcoholism, it is possible to recover and there are benefits to living a sober life. Despite the damage done to a late-stage alcoholic’s body, getting clean prolongs the person’s life beyond the length of time they would live if they continued heavy alcohol consumption.

Resources

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National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol’s Effects on the Body.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 14 Sept. 2011, www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohols-effects-body.

Harvard Health Publishing. “Alcohol Use Disorder (Alcoholism) - Harvard Health.” Harvard Health, Harvard Health, 24 Apr. 2019, www.health.harvard.edu/a_to_z/alcohol-use-disorder-alcoholism-a-to-z.

Winokur, George, et al. “Alcoholism IV: Is There More Than One Type of Alcoholism?” British Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 118, no. 546, 1971, pp. 525–531., doi:10.1192/bjp.118.546.525. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/the-british-journal-of-psychiatry/article/abs/alcoholism-iv-is-there-more-than-one-type-of-alcoholism/3E64A684156D35E3D5171D27B8A0EA11

Schuckit M, Pitts FN, Reich T, King LJ, Winokur G. Alcoholism: I. Two Types of Alcoholism in Women. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1969;20(3):301–306. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1969.01740150045007 https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/article-abstract/489912

BA;, Johnson. “Medication Treatment of Different Types of Alcoholism.” The American Journal of Psychiatry, U.S. National Library of Medicine, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20516163/.

BRADLEY, N J, and R J LUCERO. “Seasonal Variation in the Incidence of Severely Crippling Mental Disorders. II. Alcoholism.” The American Journal of Psychiatry, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 1959, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/13627262.

Hall, Wayne, and Claudia Sannibale. “Are There Two Types of Alcoholism? - The Lancet.” The Lancet, www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(05)65754-6/fulltext.

 

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