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Treating Alcoholism: From Detox to Recovery

Editor Dan Schimmel, LCSW, CAP
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So it’s time to quit drinking. What do you do first? Where do you turn? Should you go to rehab? Should you enter into a treatment program? What’s the difference between the two? Is counseling a viable option? How about full recovery? Is it even possible? How do you get there? We answer these questions and more.

Quitting drinking is tough.

Whether you’re a full-blown alcoholic, someone who drinks heavily but isn’t dependent on alcohol, or even a social drinker, quitting is hard. Alcohol is prevalent in our society, and there’s a glass or a bottle of something everywhere you turn. Plus, it turns out alcohol is one of the most addictive substances we know of. This isn’t because of the alcohol itself. Drinking is so addictive because of the changes that occur in the brain when you drink.

Drink to excess for long enough and those brain changes become nearly permanent.

There are hundreds of reasons to quit drinking. You probably know that. However, when quitting, the most important thing is to not do it alone. This is especially true for alcoholics, (those who are alcohol-dependent). Stopping drinking can be deadly when attempted cold turkey and without help. That’s why we’ve drawn up a comprehensive article on curing alcoholism.

Step 1 – Detox

Quitting alcohol always begins with detoxification. This is the dangerous part when attempted without proper supervision. For all addicts, detox is necessary before moving onto the next step toward sobriety. For alcoholics this is especially true, because of the changes alcohol makes in the brain. Even non-alcoholics who wish to quit drinking must detox first.

The main reason for detox is actually not sobriety, however. Being sober is the end game! Detox is mainly to reduce and/or eliminate withdrawal symptoms, such as sweating, shakiness, anxiety, nausea, headache, intense cravings for alcohol, and in some serious cases, delirium tremens. As a matter of fact, a combination of these and more symptoms is known as Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome.

If for one second you don’t think detoxification without help is dangerous, then please remember Amy Winehouse, the famed singer who died of alcohol withdrawal.

Professional detox usually takes 5-7 days, and provides constant medical care as needed. Should any complications arise from the process, help is available. Plus, during this crucial week, you are most at risk of relapsing, so being supervised is an invaluable benefit to professional detox. Another major benefit is that professional detox will resupply your body with vitamins and minerals it so desperately needs.

Step 2 – Rehabilitation VS Treatment Centers

For those who are truly not dependent on alcohol, sometimes a clear mind from detox is all that’s needed to achieve sobriety. For those who are alcohol-dependent, things aren’t so easy. Entry into rehabilitation and/or a treatment center is strongly recommended. Rehab can be short-term or long-term. A stay at a treatment center tends to be long-term. Although slight, there is a difference between rehab and a treatment center.


Both inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation generally last for less than a year. All alcoholics are at risk for a multitude of problems. That being said, rehab tends to be more appropriate for less severe cases of alcoholism. Treatment is given, and in the case of a medical emergency, help is readily available. Many variations of rehab programs exist, and some research should be done on which facility you choose.

Being in outpatient rehabilitation means travelling to the rehabilitation center for treatment and then returning home. Sessions, as they are often called, usually last one hour, but some programs require patients to be there for many hours, and other programs require only a half-hour.  Total time spent attending can last as long as the patient feels necessary.

Being in inpatient rehab means staying at the rehabilitation facility for an extended period of time, and usually overnight. Sessions can last hours, and you’re provided with a full network of support. Still, the major difference between inpatient rehab and being in a treatment center is the amount of resources.

*** Note: Partial hospitalization is a more intensive version of rehab. Patients who require consistent monitoring yet desire a stable life should consider partial hospitalization.  Usually three to five days a week, for several hours a day, patients will have the benefit of hospital resources, as well as all the aforementioned benefits of therapy, counseling, and intensive rehabilitation.  You would not live at the hospital. ***

Treatment Center

Addiction treatment – let’s break down the phrase. An addiction is a disease that causes you to depend on a substance, thing, or activity. Treatment is the medical combating of a disease or disorder. Well, there you have it. An addiction treatment center is going to go to war with your addiction. Think of it as an all-inclusive package.

At a treatment center, you’ll receive that necessary alcohol detox. You’ll receive medication, you’ll be taught behavioral methods to avoid alcohol use, and you’ll have a fully loaded support team, complete with doctors and other medical professionals. Counseling is usually available, and more often than not there are plenty of recreational activities offered, such as tennis, swimming, basketball, nature paths, etc.

Which One?

Honestly, that’s up to you. Only you understand the true depth of your addiction. Other can only see what you do and make judgment calls from there. Even doctors can only investigate your addiction so far. You know how addicted you are (or aren’t) to alcohol, and so make a decision based on this:

Do you maybe drink too much, but feel absolutely no dependence on alcohol? Outpatient rehab a couple of times a week is likely a good choice. Are you a problematic drinker, but still feel as though you have some control over alcohol? Perhaps inpatient rehabilitation is best for you.

Do you have to drink? Does the sound of a beer opening or the smell of whiskey make you feel as though to need alcohol? Are you finding yourself inside the bottle more often than you want, or even plan? Check into a treatment center. You are now past the point of being a ‘heavy drinker’ and you are an alcoholic.

Looking for a Treatment Center?

See The Top 10 Best Alcohol Treatment Centers in the U.S.

Step 3 – Counseling

Counseling, also known as therapy, is when you attend short conversational sessions with an expert, usually once a week. Counseling can be one-on-one, in a group, with family, strictly behavioral, strictly conversational, etc. Many groups exist that are open to the public, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, but it is important to remember that these groups do not qualify as counseling by themselves. While tremendously helpful for many, AA meetings are just that – meetings.

Counseling sessions are indeed a form of therapy. The reasons why you drink, not just that you drink a lot, will be investigated. Whether you actively participate or not, there is much to be learned from experts and others who have all likely been where you are. Still, active participation is strongly encouraged.

Even just a few brief counseling sessions can make a tremendous difference. In fact, studies show that both alcoholics and non-alcoholic drinkers can benefit. According to CNN, counseling for alcoholics leads to full sobriety, and counseling for heavy drinkers reduces both the amount of alcohol consumed and the amount of times someone binges on alcohol.

“Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counselors there is safety.” – Proverbs 11:14

Religious beliefs aside, this proverb is an undeniable truth. Counseling provides a safety net, allowing you to say anything you need to say without falling. Plus, the person on the other side of you is a trained professional with your best interest at heart.

Step 4 – Recovery

This is the goal, the end game, the desired result. This is sobriety that lasts. However, recovery is a life-long process. ‘Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic,’ an old saying goes. Of course you can beat alcoholism, and it’s very possible to transition from alcoholic to non-drinker. However, the eternal roadblock on the path to recovery is a relapse.

“Drug and alcohol rehab statistics show that the percentage of people who will relapse after a period recovery ranges from 50% to 90%. This is a frightening statistic and it is often used as justification for those who wish to carry on with their addiction.” This quote is scary, but don’t let it intimidate you. We learn from our mistakes, and some consider a relapse a healthy thing, almost a reinforcement of what you’re trying to leave behind.

In Conclusion

If you want to quit drinking, get help. Also, there’s no excuse for not quitting once you realize you should/have to. Do you live a busy lifestyle and have no time for rehab or a treatment center? Start with calling hotlines, such as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s national helpline. Attend an AA meeting, or something of the like. A quick online search should yield some meetings in your area.

A major argument against rehabs, treatment centers, and counseling is that they are ‘cottage industries,’ meaning they cater to the wealthy. Well, helplines and meetings are completely free. Obviously an alcoholic needs more than a phone call and a meeting to recover. Luckily, several free-of-cost rehabs and detox centers exist.

Remember, achieving sobriety is a life-long process, and every sober day is a milestone. Alcoholism is a disease that can be beat with the help of rehabilitation and/or addiction treatment centers. You can do this.

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