Fact Finder: Alcoholism on the rise, kills more than opioids

WSBT 22 photo

The news headlines are filled with stories about people dying from opioid overdoses.

The CDC reported 49,000 deaths just last year.

However, there's a drug even more deadly -- and it might be in your refrigerator.

The CDC says alcohol kills more than 50,000 people every year. That number does not include accidents involving alcohol.

For many people, one beer is enough, and it never becomes a problem.

Millions of other Americans are surrounded by their addiction.

Recovering alcoholic Josh Johnson says he blacked out for the first time when was 14. Drinking heavily quickly became a daily routine.

"Friends would joke ‘Oh, you’re an alcoholic,'" said Johnson. "I’d just kind of embrace it like 'Yeah I am.' I boasted about it which, looking back, it was something dumb to do. When you’re that age and the culture I was in, you think of it as a joke.”

John Horsley has helped addicts through recovery for decades.

He's the director of addiction services at Oaklawn.

He says it can be hard to spot who has a problem, especially this time of year.

"It’s football season," said Horsley. "People are tailgating, so it’s not unusual behavior for people to drink a large amount of alcohol before the game."

Horsley says alcohol addiction is becoming more common.

"Through it all, through methamphetamine, through cocaine, through heroin, alcohol still remains the biggest problem," said Horsley.

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence says one out of every 12 adults abuse or depend on alcohol.

"I didn't understand what an alcoholic was," said Johnson. "I thought an alcoholic was the guy laying in the gutter that everybody made fun of and walked past. I went to work every day. I still hung out with friends. I couldn't have been an alcoholic."

Johnson realized he was that one in 12 on a painful night.

"I was actually on a bender partying with friends, and I had gotten home that night and had hit a really low point in my life," said Johnson. "I didn’t want to continue living anymore. Somehow I got so inebriated that I passed out. I woke up the next morning and I could barely move. I crawled out of my room, slid down the stairs and went to the fridge to try and drink more just to make the withdraws go away because I knew that’s all I could really do. Once I got the second drink down and nothing was happening other than throwing up, I called a co-worker who is in recovery. He’s said 'I’ll be there in 5 minutes.'”

Johnson spent four days in the ICU as he went through alcohol withdrawal.

Doctors say alcohol is one of the most dangerous drugs to withdraw from.

After getting out of the hospital, Johnson went to Choices Recovery Center in South Bend. He spent 35 days there.

WSBT met him on graduation day.

"I’ve never graduated anything in my life," said Johnson. "I was a high school dropout. I got my GED, but I never got that ceremony."

His two sisters, one of their boyfriends, and his friend who drove him to the hospital drove to the graduation from Iowa.

When the graduation ceremony started, his family hadn't shown up yet. He realized in that moment that with sobriety came patience.

"This is tough for me because I had a really bad anger problem before I came here, and I’ve worked on it a lot," said Johnson. "Two months ago, I would have been fuming and freaking out. I’ve come a long way."

His family arrived in time to see him get his recovery certificate.

Johnson says hugging his family feels different.

"I enjoy everyday life now, from the colors to listening to songs I've heard a million times," said Johnson. "They sound better."

Horsley says Johnson's story is not unique; he says abuse peaks between 18 and 25.

"We normalize alcohol use in this culture," said Horsley. "When people are teenagers and they’re using, there’s more of a view of 'Wow, we don’t have a serious problem.' It’s kids being kids. People are less aggressive in getting it dealt with."

At 29, Johnson has dealt with it, but he knows a certificate is not the end of his struggle.

"It’s going to be extremely hard when I leave here," said Johnson, "because every single time there’s a commercial break on TV, there’s beer or liquor commercial. Every gas station, every grocery store, every liquor store. They’re on every single corner of every street. They’re everywhere."

After graduation, he flew to California to live in a sober-living community.

Horsley says there are a few things you can look for to distinguish between someone who makes occasional bad decisions and someone who is an alcoholic.

"We ask is their tolerance high?" said Horsley. "Can they predict how much they’ll use or is it kind of out of control once they start? Can they predict their behavior every time they use? If they can’t, that’s indicative of a problem. Does it seem like their alcohol use is increasing? Are they having some type of impairment in their life because of that alcohol use? Is their personality kind of changing? Are they becoming more withdrawn? Are they having some medical concerns?”

Below are some local resources to treat alcoholism is St. Joseph County:

Choices Recovery Center


The Upper Room Recovery Community

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