Life After Combat: Coping with Alcohol Abuse

Four men sitting at a bar in a pub.

Many people drink to relax and unwind. Alcohol can temporarily relieve stress and help you forget your problems. In fact, it’s common to turn to alcohol to deal with the stress of being deployed and experiencing combat. Your drinking habits may have changed while you were deployed. Or maybe you’re drinking more now as you adjust to being home. As long as you stay in control, there may be nothing wrong with having a drink to enjoy yourself and bond with friends. But when you start to lose control of your drinking, alcohol use turns into alcohol abuse. This can cause major problems in your life and your relationships. This sheet will help you see if you have a problem. It will also give you strategies to regain control over your drinking.

Does this sound like you?

These questions can help you take a closer look at your drinking:

  • Are you drinking more than you want to? Have you ever thought you should cut down?

  • Do you feel annoyed when people criticize or comment on your drinking?

  • Have you ever felt embarrassed or guilty about your drinking?

  • Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning?

  • Has your drinking gotten you into trouble at work or at home?

  • Do you hide your drinking behaviors from friends and family?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, it’s time to make a change.

How an alcohol problem develops

Not everyone who takes a drink has a problem. But for some people, what starts as social use can lead to abuse and then addiction. Can you see yourself in any of these stages?

  • Social use—you can take it or leave it. You may have a drink at a party or a glass of wine with dinner. You’re able to put down a drink without finishing it, and you can enjoy yourself at a social event without drinking. You can choose to say “yes” or “no” to a drink at any time.

  • Abuse—you’re drinking more than you used to. Drinking becomes a problem when you begin to lose control. You need to drink more to get the same feeling. You may choose to drink instead of spending time with your family. You may drink just to get drunk, or drink so much that you black out. Money problems or problems with your job or relationships start to emerge. You may try to stop drinking and find that you can’t.

  • Addiction—you’ve become dependent. You have little or no control over your drinking. Alcohol is controlling you. You feel like you can’t get along without it. You plan your activities around drinking, and feel angry or anxious if you can’t drink.

How problem drinking affects your life

An alcohol problem doesn’t only hurt you. It also hurts the people who care about you. You may have a great time spending a night out with your buddies. But how does your spouse react when you come home late and drunk? When you drink, do you behave in ways that scare your children or push away your friends? Would you rather drink alone than play with your children or talk to your spouse? Has drinking or being hung over made it hard to keep your job? Have you ever driven while drunk? You may think you have drinking under control. But if alcohol is causing these types of problems, you don’t. And the problems will only get worse unless you make a change. It takes courage and honesty to admit you’re abusing alcohol. Once you do, there are many programs and people who can help you regain control.

Are you self-medicating?

Drinking is a way to escape life’s problems. People returning from combat have a unique set of problems that they may try to escape from. Many people drink before bed to help them sleep. Or you could be drinking to ease the pain caused by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, or other mental or physical health issues. If you have been diagnosed with a condition that’s related to your drinking, get treatment. If you haven’t, talk to your healthcare provider about any symptoms you have or issues you’re trying to work through on your own. Addressing the underlying reason for your drinking can help you regain control.

Make changes to regain control of your drinking

By changing how you think about and use alcohol, problem drinking can sometimes be brought under control. Making changes now may also help prevent you from developing an addiction (also known as alcohol dependence). Programs and resources are available to help you make these changes. Talk to your healthcare provider or someone at the Department of Veterans Affairs about your options. Steps to bring your drinking under control may include:

  • Setting goals for your drinking. For example, you may set a goal to have no more than 1 or 2 drinks per day, or to drink no more than 3 days a week. Reward yourself for meeting these goals—but not with alcohol!

  • Identifying when you drink. Make a list of situations that make you want a drink. Then come up with new ways to handle them that don’t involve alcohol. Or, avoid these situations altogether.

  • Not drinking for a set amount of time. This doesn’t mean you need to stop forever. But take some time off—maybe 30 days—and see how you feel. Your perspective on alcohol may change during this time.

  • Learning to drink in moderation. Many people can enjoy alcohol without getting smashed. Drinking in moderation includes keeping track of the number of drinks you’ve had. It means slowing down so you don’t have so many in a row. It means refusing drinks when you’ve had enough or when you’re taking a break. And it means eating before or while drinking so you don’t get as drunk.

  • Drinking responsibly. When you do choose to drink, don’t put yourself or others at risk. Driving drunk or getting into fights are two examples of how drinking can turn dangerous. Responsible drinking involves staying aware of how buzzed you are and getting out of a situation before it turns bad.

Further treatment

Some people choose to control their drinking by quitting completely (abstinence). There are many types of programs to help you do this. All offer some kind of counseling, and some include medical treatment. Treatment for alcohol addiction is often done in a group setting, but it can also be one-on-one. It can include the following:

  • Counseling involves meeting with a trained professional to talk about your drinking. You’ll learn to cope with your drinking problem, so you can limit or quit drinking.

  • 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) are free support groups that guide you through a 12-step recovery process. Many Vet Centers also offer free support groups.

  • Treatment centers are facilities where you get medical management and counseling during the early stages of recovery. Some are live-in and some are day (outpatient) programs.

  • Medications may be prescribed to help you achieve your goal of abstinence. Naltrexone, acamprosate, and disulfiram are all medicines that can help with abstinence when they are used along with counseling.

If you’re abusing other substances

The description of alcohol abuse on this sheet also applies to any other drug you may be using. This includes tobacco, marijuana, or prescription medication that isn’t being used as prescribed. If you have a substance abuse problem, you’re not alone. With treatment, you can overcome the problem and go on to lead a healthy, drug-free life. The first step is admitting that you need help. Talk to your healthcare provider to find a treatment option that meets your needs.