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Transcript: "Getting Help for Alcohol Addiction"

Ann: In the beginning, I drank no more than the people around me, other college freshmen, but one realization was almost immediately clear, it was more important to me.

Narrator: Ann, who is 63, fought a 15-year battle with alcohol that began in college. It had a devastating effect on her life.

Ann: At the end of 15 years, I was drinking a liter of vodka a day and by then had lost my first marriage, multiple jobs, the support of my family, and was about to lose the home where I lived.

Narrator: When she realized she had a problem, she tried to get help but frequently faltered.

Ann: I managed to stay sober for a year, and then almost inevitably drank again. And then another year and almost inevitably drank again.

Narrator: Dr. Mark Willenbring, an addiction psychiatrist, says that people with alcohol addiction often try to quit many times before they are successful.

Dr. Willenbring: For people with the more severe form of alcohol dependence, where they really do have life disruption, where it's really taking over their lives, quitting is often a lengthy process. And it involves stops and starts.

Ann: For me it was a process, not an "aha" moment.

Narrator: Getting help for alcohol addiction is especially difficult if you don't think you have a problem. When she was diagnosed with lung cancer at age 74, Ellen began drinking heavily, although she didn't realize it at first.

Ellen: I don't think I really was aware that alcohol was a problem, primarily because I was still functioning pretty well while consuming, as I say, about a liter a day.

Narrator: When she finally realized she had a problem, she enrolled in a rehab program, something many people seeking help for alcohol addiction turn to.

Dr. Willenbring: Rehab primarily consists of group counseling and referral to Alcoholics Anonymous. And most rehab now is provided on an outpatient basis, so it consists of several meetings a week for perhaps 4 to 6 weeks and then often followed by a weekly group for 3 months.

Narrator: Although she found quitting a struggle, rehab worked for Ellen.

Ellen: I managed to stop by sheer grit, I think. I would go to my meetings and I would try to go to an AA meeting especially on the days I didn't have my Suburban Hospital addiction treatment outpatient program.

Narrator: Although rehab and Alcoholics Anonymous helped Ellen recover and work for many people, this is not the only approach to recovery. Professional treatment is also available, and today that includes new medications and behavioral therapies.

Dr. Willenbring: One of the most important things for people to understand, especially older adults and especially people who are still in the functional stage of alcohol dependence, is that there are new treatments available, primarily medications but also new behavioral treatments. The most common behavioral treatment that we know is effective is cognitive behavior therapy, which is essentially teaching you skills for dealing with craving, relapse, relapse prevention, interpersonal communication and so forth.

Narrator: Alcohol addiction is a chronic illness that can be difficult to overcome. As with other chronic diseases, treatment needs to be ongoing.

Dr. Willenbring: A scientifically-based treatment of addiction involves chronic care management, that is, you treat people as long as they need treatment. So we need to be thinking in terms of years to decades of treatment or management, like we do with asthma, with high blood pressure, with heart disease, with arthritis.

Narrator: And with appropriate treatment most people suffering from alcohol addiction eventually recover.

Ann: Oh, I've been in recovery for 30 years now.

Ellen: I'm committed now to sobriety after 11 months of not drinking.

Dr. Willenbring: Twenty years after the onset of alcohol dependence, fewer than 10 percent of people are still dependent. So the good news is almost everybody eventually gets well.

Narrator: For more information on alcohol addiction and ways to address it, visit Rethinking Drinking, the website from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. You can also order the easy-to-read booklet Older Adults and Alcohol: You Can Get Help from the website of the National Institute on Aging or by calling 1-800-222-2225.

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