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Life without liquor

There are 2.5 million alcohol-related deaths worldwide each year, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. (Courtesy photo) There are 2.5 million alcohol-related deaths worldwide each year, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. (Courtesy photo)

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FALLS CHURCH, Va. – It would start with a few drinks on Monday, grow to half a liter of vodka with lemonade on ice by Thursday, and reach two liters or more of alcohol to get through the weekend. Then the cycle would start all over again.

“I thought it was normal,” said retired Air Force Tech. Sgt. Gibson, who lives in Charleston, South Carolina, and asked that we not use his first name. “I didn’t think it was a problem, because I still paid the bills, cut the grass, and helped the kids with their homework. People with drinking problems, I thought, couldn’t maintain a normal life.”

Gibson hit rock bottom during Fourth of July weekend in 2014, when he was still on active duty. After days of round-the-clock drinking, he got an ultimatum from his wife: Choose between his family and alcohol. At that time, he couldn’t fathom living without the latter.

“My life revolved around alcohol. I couldn’t go to an event or restaurant that didn’t serve (it),” said the 40-year-old father of three. “How could I fold the laundry sober? Watch football? I thought I was never going to be happy again.”

Gibson had decided to kill himself, but that night, his son came downstairs and, in a moment Gibson describes as a “God shot,” told him he loved him.

“That was my jumping-off point,” Gibson said. The next day, he called his supervisor and referred himself to the Air Force Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment program. Gibson has been sober ever since.

“I wouldn’t be here without ADAPT,” said Gibson. “The best thing they did for me was introduce me to Alcoholics Anonymous, which is where I found my solution.”

The Air Force established the ADAPT program to help Airmen overcome alcohol abuse. The program provides a thorough assessment and identifies treatments and tools that have been proven to help people beat an alcohol-use disorder.

Lt. Col. Mikel Merritt, Air Force Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment branch chief at the Air Force Medical Operations Agency, said ADAPT sees 6,500 referrals a year for intervention and assessment. Of that number, 2,000 are diagnosed with an alcohol problem.

An Air Force staff sergeant in Montgomery, Alabama, who asked to remain anonymous, credited ADAPT with saving his life. Years of heavy alcohol use caught up with him in 2016, he said. By then, he had become paranoid, going so far as changing trash bags so that no one could see the empty liquor bottles, and patronizing liquor stores that were miles out of his way so that he wouldn’t see anyone he knew. A phone call with his mother, who told him he reminded her of his alcoholic father, motivated the staff sergeant to go to ADAPT.

“In the military, you (could be) fighting two wars,” said the 37-year-old medical-group worker. “Alcohol was a terror for me. ADAPT gave me the tools to fight it.”

Merritt explained that ADAPT’s treatment is based on motivational interviewing (a therapeutic practice that helps service members foster a desire to make changes in their lives while building their confidence to do so) and cognitive behavioral therapy. While ADAPT doesn’t require that members attend AA, it doesn’t discourage them, either. “(I’ve found that) evidence for AA is mixed,” Merritt said. “It seems good at providing support to the member, but (by itself) isn’t as beneficial as a stand-alone treatment.”

The Joint Army/Navy/Air Force military treatment facility at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, has a similar philosophy. While the AA 12-step model is a component of its program, the facility also relies on other resources to promote sobriety, such as motivational interviewing, cognitive behavioral therapy, family therapy, and art and recreational therapy.

Army Maj. John Hunsaker, medical director of the residential treatment facility at Fort Belvoir, said some service members may ask for help with alcohol problems on their own, while others have to be directed by their commander. He said there are warning signs to look for, such as:

  • Drinking to deal with emotions or stress.
  • Craving alcohol.
  • Inability to have just one drink.
  • Decreased performance at work.
  • Stealing or lying to cover up substance use.
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

Hunsaker said the number of warning signs that apply can indicate the extent of the problem. He reiterated that no one will be punished for coming forward and seeking treatment. By not getting help, drinking can become worse and cause missed days of work or even a DUI conviction, Hunsaker noted. “The goal is to prevent those things from happening,” he said.

Although asking for help was a difficult decision for Gibson, the rewards have been great. Today he’s able to be mentally present while his son does his homework — which wasn’t the case before treatment.

“The only way I was able to go to ADAPT was (by) accepting that it was literally a choice between life and death, he said. “(I chose) life.”

In addition to the Air Force program, the other Services have substance treatment programs: Army Substance Abuse Program, Navy Alcohol Abuse Prevention, Marine Corps Substance Abuse Program. There’s also the Veterans Affairs Substance Abuse Program. And the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers a national help line, 1-800-662-4357, which is staffed 24 hours a day; or visit Military OneSource for more information.

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