I’ve been sober from alcohol for over six years. When I quit drinking, I made the decision after some complicated healing work during a retreat. Before the retreat, I rented a house for five months in a rural Mexican town. I had friends around, but I was on my own when it came to the detox process.
Thankfully, in preparation for the retreat, I tapered my drinking over a few weeks. I hadn’t intended to quit for good, but the work I did in the retreat made it abundantly clear that alcohol was not serving me anymore.
I felt very ashamed of my addiction and felt very private about my quitting process. It turns out shame is a big reason why most people do detox on their own. Also, the degree of shame plays a big part in the severity of addiction for some people.
For me, I had built a fortress around me to deal with my shame, and that fortress included alcohol. Once I decided to quit, I thought it was best to do it all on my own, and shame was why I made this choice.
I now realize that it was not safe to quit on my own without medical attention and medication to help ease my withdrawals. Thankfully, because I had tapered my drinking, my withdrawal process didn’t result in severe consequences. Nonetheless, I did experience several withdrawal symptoms that were very uncomfortable.
As a nurse, I’m aware that alcohol withdrawal is problematic for some people. But for some reason, I didn’t think it applied to me, such is the way of alcoholic shame and denial. After I quit, I dove into the research about withdrawal and found that quitting on my own could have been dangerous.
Is alcohol withdrawal always dangerous for everyone? Maybe not — for certain people who don’t drink too heavily or frequently, withdrawal may only give mild and quickly passing symptoms like headaches, anxiety, tremors, and nausea. But for many others, withdrawal can produce more severe symptoms like psychosis, hallucinations, severe tremors, seizures, dangerously high blood pressure, and nerve damage. Delirium Tremens (DT’s) is the worst withdrawal problem and causes seizures, severe psychosis, cardiovascular incidents, and exacerbation of current health issues (i.e., diabetic comas, metabolic and electrolyte consequences, etc.).
Looking closer at the research, I’ve found the following risk factors for why certain people should not detox alone and without medical supervision. In these cases, the more we talk about this, the less we allow shame to dictate our choices which keeps us safe and out of harm’s way.
Frequent heavy (binge) drinking
The more alcohol one ingests, the more dangerous withdrawal can be. Heavy drinking, or binge drinking, refers to drinking more than 4–5 drinks on one occasion or more than 7–8 drinks in a week. Unfortunately, 1 in 6 Americans participates in binge drinking, consuming an average of 7 drinks per binge. These numbers are pretty high, so we can expect many people out there for whom alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous. Frequent heavy/binge drinking can re-wire the nervous system enough that withdrawal can produce more dangerous symptoms like DT’s.
I was a frequent binge-drinker. Before I quit, I had already begun tapering my alcohol use little by little. However, I did this in preparation for Ayahuasca and didn’t think about severe withdrawal. However, I experienced hallucinations, shaking, vivid dreams and nightmares, insomnia, headaches, nausea, and tingly sensations even with a tapering dose. However, my withdrawal would have likely been worse had I quit suddenly and without medical support.
Frequent previous withdrawals
Research shows that frequent withdrawals can damage the nervous system enough that future withdrawals become more severe. The neurotransmitters involved in frequent alcohol use can become seriously compromised over time. Frequent withdrawals can lead to a kind of “over-stretching” of the nervous system, if you will. The more this “stretching” occurs with regular withdrawals,the less a person can cope with withdrawals independently.
Having risky medical conditions
Several medical conditions are negatively affected by alcohol use. Some of them include mental illness, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular issues, migraines, previous brain injuries, and diabetes, to name a few. Alcohol use is not recommended for these conditions to begin with, but if they are combined with alcohol withdrawal, the consequences can be severe. Since withdrawals may cause impairments to blood sugar, blood pressure, nerve transmission, and electrolyte balance, it can cause acute exacerbations of the above conditions.
Prior detox or past experiences of seizures or DT’s
As stated above, frequent withdrawals can cause future withdrawals to worsen over time. However, if a person has been through a detox process or if they’ve experienced seizures of DT’s before, they are highly likely to undergo a more serious withdrawal process. In this case, medically supervised alcohol withdrawal is essential. Also, the more severe previous withdrawal has been, the more likely a person is to develop chronic alcoholism in the future — another reason why support and supervision are necessary.
Our nervous systems become less robust as we age, and as such, older age can lead to more severe alcohol withdrawal consequences. Also, many people in their older years develop health conditions that may contribute to worsening alcohol withdrawal.
Use of other drugs in addition to alcohol
Lastly, an obvious issue is whether a person also uses other drugs besides alcohol. In this case, other drugs on top of alcohol can further degrade the nervous systemcausing more serious withdrawal symptoms. Drugs like opiates and benzodiazepines are particularly problematic due to their potentiating effects on alcohol. This means that when combined with alcohol, the drug increases the effect of alcohol in the system.
Interestingly, benzodiazepines are frequently used to help ease alcohol withdrawal but are used in small and tapering doses. However, if a person is also addicted to high amounts of benzodiazepines, withdrawal treatment needs to be adjusted and supervised accordingly. Withdrawing alone without help can be very dangerous when these drugs are involved.
Other drugs that complicate alcohol withdrawal are cocaine, sedatives, chronic use of cold and allergy medication, and medications for mental illness, to name a few.
Many people have withdrawn from alcohol safely on their own. However, if any of these six issues are present, it’s best to seek medical supervision and support. There are many services available to help people detox from home if it’s safe to do so. But some people may need a hospital setting and 24/7 monitoring in case of more severe withdrawal symptoms.
I was lucky that my solo withdrawal episode turned out ok, but likely it was because I tapered my drinking over two weeks. Although this kind of DIY approach can work for some, one could be gambling with their life if these risk factors are present.
If you or someone you know is thinking of reducing or quitting their alcohol use, it’s best to consult a doctor or medical specialist who knows about alcohol withdrawal. Even though many experience shame that prompts us to go solo, it’s not worth compromising our lives.