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Health Hazard: Abusing Alcohol or Drugs

Many of us drink alcohol, and we enjoy it when we do. But it's also true that drinking is a calculated risk, and the healthiest thing a person could do is to have little or none.

Other than the antioxidants found in red wine, alcoholic beverages do nothing good for your body (and it's easy to supplement antioxidants through vitamin E and other nutrients). They're empty calories that convert quickly to sugars, taking your metabolism through a slump, and leaving you with a hangover of unwanted weight. A single drink - one beer, four ounces of wine, or a one-ounce shot of liquor - kills neurons by depriving them of oxygen: you feel that rosy glow because cells in your brain are drowning. Women metabolize alcohol more slowly than men, so its nasty effects last longer. Drinking weakens the immune system and increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, cirrhosis of the liver, and cancer. If a mother drinks too much, it's no good for her children, either: among other problems, it feels to them like she isn't really "there," even though her body is in the room.

And, of course, drug abuse has similar consequences, whether it's something illegal - cocaine, amphetamines, marijuana, etc. - or an overuse of a prescribed medication, such as Valium, sleeping pills, or diet pills. In particular, using drugs during pregnancy - even unwittingly, before you realize you're pregnant - can harm the baby.

The keys to stopping smoking apply to alcohol and drug abuse as well. We'll review them more quickly here.

Change the thinking. You could notice that the third - or fifth - drink/joint/line doesn't add much to your buzz. You could remind yourself of the costs of abuse, both to your body and to your children. If you're willing to take off the kid gloves, you could write a letter to yourself from your children telling why they want you to stop drinking so much or using drugs. And you could focus on the benefits of acting differently. The next time you don't drink, etc., ask yourself at night if it wasn't really a better day because you didn't: notice that you feel more alert, more yourself, less edgy, and less likely to have lost your temper with the kids.

Change the context. If you like getting high on long walks, exercise in a gym.

Replace the pleasure of the bad habit with one that's more positive. If you drink when you get home from work because you're stressed, try taking a shower first, perhaps followed by some relaxing stretches. Replace your favorite drinks with similar ones without the alcohol: Virgin Marys, nonalcoholic beer, or soda water with lime. Do some hard thinking about why you drink or use drugs, and maybe talk with a friend about it. Very often, people self-medicate with alcohol and drugs in order to cope with depression, being abused, or overwhelming stress - and there are much better methods than getting drunk or stoned! Self-medication is a crutch that prevents a person from dealing with her issues in a real way: through therapy, support groups, or making changes in her lifestyle.

Get support. If you want to cut down or quit, tell a friend or your husband; for example, if a drink (or toke) with your husband gets you started, ask him if he'd be willing to unwind with you without it. Try Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or other support groups. Your doctor could also help you stop drinking through prescribing Antabuse, which makes a person nauseous if she consumes alcohol.

Be good to yourself. Cutting back or stopping the use of alcohol or drugs means letting go of a familiar pleasure. Plus, if a person is dependent on any chemical, her brain wants that molecule. One of Rick's clients shook her head in amazement as she said: My husband can drink half a beer and leave the rest on the counter, I've been sober for six years, and I still can't really understand how anyone can do that. There's no way I could drink just half a beer. So be sure to get plenty of rest, fill your day with pleasurable activities that don't allow the use of your drug of choice, and hang out with people who support your sobriety.

Avoid relapses. Try to avoid the situations or people you associate with alcohol or drug use. If you feel the urge to use again, go back to or increase your support group meetings. And redouble your efforts to see the ways that using isn't really that great, to face its true costs, and to imagine the benefits - for yourself and your family - of staying sober.

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From Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships by Rick Hansen, Jan Hansen, and Ricki Pollycove. Copyright © 2002 by Rick Hanson. Jan Hanson, and Ricki Pollycove. Used by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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