It is well known that the level of consumption and behavior patterns with regard to alcohol change when working in the field. It is one of the occupational risks incurred by the humanitarian worker who can easily increase his or her usual consumption without being aware of it. As a result, drinking becomes a way of escaping the daily witnessing of human distress. Increased emotional and physical stress is, without a doubt, the main reason for it. Despite this, the worker may still feel in control of the situation.

Do you control the effects of your drinking?

However, he or she may sometimes have a vague feeling that things are not what they should be.

For example, he or she realizes that the work isn’t up to the organization’s expectations, colleagues start making comments, or the least little thing sparks a fit of anger…

Somehow, everybody senses that the drinking has something to do with all this behavior, yet the subject is taboo. And the humanitarian workers’ emotional isolation doesn’t help. Who can one talk to? Who can one trust? Where does one start?

In this page, the CHP provides information on what tends to be classified as a “dependence” or an “addiction”.

How do you know you’re dependent?

  • Behaviour cannot be changed without suffering
  • Loss of control over the amount of alcohol intake
  • Consumption becomes chronic no matter the  effort made

Alcohol dependence is nothing to be ashamed of. It is neither a vice, nor does it imply a lack of character. This is hard to believe, as those around often insinuate to the contrary.

I feel I have lost control over my drinking?

Try and answer the following statements honestly:

Psychological signs:

  • I try to hide what I drink
  • I keep promising myself I’ll stop
  • My drinks are getting stronger, or I begin drinking earlier in the day
  • I am under the influence for long periods at a time
  • I drink alone
  • I’m having problems at work, or taking time off
  • I have long periods of amnesia or “blackout”
  • I’m losing my appetite
  • I’m becoming violent, I sometimes even hit people
  • My personality is changing (jealousy, lies, suspicion…)
  • I drink and drive without giving it a second thought
  • I take less and less care of my appearance
  • My thought process is slow, I can no longer concentrate, I feel confused and forget things
  • I have trouble managing my money

There are also physical signs:

  • In the mornings, I feel nauseated and shaky
  • I have irregular eating patterns
  • I often have abdominal pain, cramps, diarrhea
  • I feel pins and needles in my limbs
  • I feel weakness in the legs or hands
  • I have red eyes, face and palms
  • My walking is unstable and I am prone to falling
  • My medical problems are worsening.

How much is too much? How do you know when to stop?

The following are considered standard drinks, as defined by the World Health Organization:

  • Beer: one 12-ounce can or one bottle
  • Table wine: 4-ounce glass of wine
  • Spirits: one ounce, straight or mixed

The critical limit for men is:

  • 3 – 4 standard drinks, three to four times a week

The critical limit for women is:

  • 2 – 3 standard drinks, two to three times a week

Too much is:

  • For men, more than 5 standard drinks a day
  • For women, more than 3 standard drinks a day

If you drink more than this, you risk no longer being able to control the situation.

Don’t forget that your body can only assimilate one standard drink an hour and it takes over 8 hours to metabolize alcohol.

Test yourself: once a week try not to drink alcohol for three days in a row.

How to quit drinking too much?

If you feel you’ve reached your limit, but are still in control, here are a few suggestions on how to avoid drinking too much:

  • If you’re going to a place or event where alcohol will be served, decide beforehand how much you will drink and stick to it. Write down the result in a notebook and evaluate your progress at the end of each week
  • Avoid big parties and go out with one or two friends instead where there will be less chance of giving in to peer pressure
  • Between parties, have non-alcoholic drinks
  • Put down your glass between each sip
  • If you feel you’re over-drinking, leave the place and walk about for a while
  • Never let anyone oblige you to drink, even in official ceremonies or difficult negotiations. Being strict about this will increase other people’s respect for you.
  • Give preference to weak alcoholic beverages rather than strong ones
  • Have something to eat when you drink, but avoid salty snacks which will only increase your thirst.

If it’s more serious

If possible, and depending on the mission or the country you are working in, talk to a doctor about it, preferably a specialist.

If you don’t know who to talk to, or you’re ashamed to talk about it, or you just don’t know where to start, send us an email at support@humanitarian-psy.org. Our team will help you see things more clearly.

© CHP 2014

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