Posting for a friend who wishes to remain anonymous:
I am at the end of my third day of not drinking alcohol after 5-10 years (I’m not exactly sure how long it’s been) of drinking almost every day. I have some questions about withdrawal that I can't seem to find the answers to.
The last time I remember not drinking in any 24 hour period was about three years ago, when I went 7-10 days without drinking. Back then, I didn’t have any physical withdrawal that I noticed.
For the past three years or so, a light drinking day would be 2-3 drinks (by “drink” I mean the standard one 12oz beer, one glass of wine, or one 1.5 oz shot of liquor -- though I almost always drank beer), a normal day (most weekdays) would be 4-6 drinks, and a heavy day (usually a Friday and/or Saturday) could be up to 10-16 drinks. I always drank after work on the weekdays (after 7pm) and usually started in the early afternoon on weekends. For reference, I’m a early-30s male, about 200 pounds.
I think compared to my friends, and indeed most people, I would be considered a pretty heavy drinker, except for 2 things: a) I never have had any of the warning signs of serious problem drinking, ie legal problems, fighting, waking up in strange places, hospitalization, drinking at work, (I live in a city where I don’t need to drive, and indeed don’t have a car) and b) more importantly, I almost never drink to get drunk -- I drank just enough to calm my anxiety. By that I mean, I was almost always a very steady drinker – so that when I drank a six-pack at night, it was over 5-6 hours, from when I got home at 7 to when I fell asleep at midnight. Even if I drank 16 drinks, it would be over about twelve hours. So from looking at BAC charts
based on my weight, I am guessing that my blood alcohol usually was no more than the 0.10-0.19 level. I would be noticeably intoxicated, but not stumbling around, passing out, incoherent drunk.
The reason I drank steadily, every day, is that I was self-medicating my anxiety. I have had general anxiety and panic attacks since I was a teenager, and alcohol reliably relieved it for me. I was very anti-medication and psychology for a long time, and alcohol seemed a natural, and somewhat romantic alternative to me. I imagined myself as kind of the Winston Churchill/Frank Sinatra/Hunter Thompson type of drinker – highly functional (I have several advanced degrees and a great paying, very selective career), and someone whose health was never affected by drinking.
However, recently, my feelings about my relationship with alcohol began to change. While it still relieved my anxiety in the short term, I started to notice my anxiety getting much worse after a heavy drinking day(s) (usually on Monday morning). My anxiety would then affect my work, and in the last few months I even found myself either having a drink or two during the day at work (which I had sworn I’d never do), or leaving work to go to the hospital because I was having a severe panic attack. I began to wonder if my drinking was getting so heavy that I was having alcohol withdrawal – or even DT’s. As the symptoms of withdrawal and those of a panic attack are so similar, I started losing my ability to calm down, because while I have learned to deal with a panic attack (it is harmless), I know that true alcohol withdrawal can be very dangerous. Finally, I have become overweight and I am certain it is mostly because of the calories from all the alcohol I’m drinking.
Which brings me to now. I had tried so many times to stop drinking over the past year, and I could never bring myself to do it – mostly because I was afraid that if I stopped, I would have withdrawal symptoms or even a seizure or heart attack. I didn’t think my drinking was heavy enough for that, but the internet says that DTs usually occur in people who drink more than 7-8 pints of beer a day
(which I exceeded a once or twice a week and got halfway to most other days). And if that’s the most severe withdrawal, then surely someone like me who averages five or six beers a day would have at least moderate withdrawal, right? But on the other hand, I thought, 7-8 pints of beer a day is one thing for a 120-pound woman and quite another for a 200-pound man. And 7-8 pints is one thing when you drink it in two hours, and quite another when you drink it over 6 hours, as I typically would if I were drinking that much. Either way, my anxiety would make me imagine the worst case scenario, and while I would occasionally cut down, I couldn’t quite bring myself to completely stop.
So anyway, here I am. It’s been 72 hours since I “stopped” drinking. I say “stopped” in quotes because in each 24 hour period I’ve had a single 12 oz can of beer, sipped very slowly, to calm my anxiety – and I don’t think I will need to do that again today. My only symptom during this time has been mild to moderate anxiety. I have gone running about 4km each day. I have also taken one 0.5 mg tablet of Xanax twice a day (in the morning and afternoon) – which I have historically taken when I have panic attacks. If you’re not familiar with Xanax, this is a fairly low dose.
So that’s my story – here are my questions:
1. I have read dozens of articles online about alcohol withdrawal. Many of them say that symptoms usually start 2-12 hours
after the last drink, that more severe symptoms like seizures can happen 24 to 48 hours
after the last drink, and DTs can occur 48 to 72 hours after the last drink. I’ve even seen some sources say DTs can happen 7 to 10 days
after the last drink.
a. How could severe symptoms begin so long after the alcohol has left a person’s body?
b. Could a person have no (or mild) symptoms for two or three days after their last drink, and then suddenly develop severe symptoms (seizures) after that?
c. Would drinking literally one can of beer somehow “reset” the clock, so that even though I had one beer a day over the last three days, I am not really 72 hours “after my last drink”?
2. I’m already feeling really great about my decision to stop drinking, and am going to give it at least a month. However, I feel right now that I have enough control over my drinking that I don’t need to give it up completely forever. While I don’t plan to go back to drinking the amounts I used to, does anyone think it’s reasonable to believe that my way of “steadily” drinking was healthier, and less addictive, than binge drinking to drunkenness (even if someone only binge drank on the weekends, instead of steadily drinking every day like me).
Thanks for reading. I would really appreciate your thoughts, and especially hearing your own personal experiences with similar situations.