Fred still had a wife and a roof over his head. By his own estimate, his life was far better than others he had seen ravaged by alcoholism. Yet he now says that he was in denial, clinging to the things he hadn’t lost and hiding under the guise of “social drinker.”
“Early on, we have a tendency not to identify with people in recovery,” he said, referring to those who have battled alcohol dependency.
“But if you have to ask the question, you probably have the problem. Social drinkers aren’t asking if they have a problem.”
Now, the retired college administrator, who wished to be identified by only his first name, has been sober for more than 23 years. He volunteers at Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Greensburg to help others in recovery.
Many others will join this call to action in April during National Alcohol Awareness Month. Founded by The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence in 1987, the campaign aims to raise awareness and combat the stigma associated with alcoholism.
More than 18 million Americans, or 8.5 percent of the population, have an alcohol-related disorder, according to the NCADD.
Frank Salotti, Gateway’s director of outpatient services, said alcoholism affects people of all ages and backgrounds, from the country’s largest cities to the smallest towns in Washington County.
Laurie Molinda, an internist at Monongahela Valley Hospital, said alcoholism can cause cirrhosis of the liver, bleeding in the esophagus, chronic pancreatitis, gastric ulcers, seizures, visual hallucinations and an increased risk of cancers.
“It pretty much affects almost every organ in the body,” she said.
Alcohol abuse can also have social implications, including a strain on relationships, loss of employment, legal ramifications and feelings of guilt.
Salotti said many people avoid treatment because of shame.
“I’ve been working in this field for a long time, over 40 years now, and it is always something that has been greatly stigmatized,” Salotti said. “It has improved over the course of time just through general knowledge and community education, but still, it is quite stigmatized.”
Self-identification is one way to combat this stigma. When people at the airport or grocery store ask Fred about his sober medallion, he tells them he is a “person in recovery” rather than an alcoholic. He has received a more positive response as a result.
Both Salotti and Fred noticed that young people, including teenagers, are increasingly seeking treatment for alcohol-related problems, especially binge drinking.
“Starting to use and abuse very young really jacks up the probability of having a problem,” Salotti said.
Excessive drinking is often promoted on college campuses, he said, because it is regarded by students as “something they’re supposed to do.”
For those who suspect a loved one is abusing alcohol, the uncertainty of knowing how to react can be especially difficult, said Salotti. He recommends that friends and family seek counsel at a rehabilitation center like Gateway to determine the best course of action.
“Where there’s smoke there’s fire, so you want to give them some hands-on tactics and strategies for them to nudge the person to come in for an evaluation to determine if they have a problem,” Salotti said.
To contact the Washington Drug and Alcohol Commission for an assessment or treatment, call 724-223-1181. Gateway Rehabilitation can be reached at 800-472-1177.