More than half of Canadian men drink alcohol at least once a week, and 15 percent of guys who drink will toss back more than five standard-sized drinks at a time (just seven percent of women do the same). This type of binge drinking is considered risky for his mental and physical health, and exceeds Canada’s low-risk drinking guidelines, which recommend men have no more than three drinks on a given day and no more than 15 a week (for women the numbers are no more than two a day and 10 a week).
Peter Ferentzy, a sociologist and researcher with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto who is a recovering addict himself and author of Dealing with an Addict, says to look at the impact on a drinker’s life. ‘One way to tell if it’s a problem is if it’s getting in the way of everyday function, i.e., work, school, play.’ Other signs: He doesn’t merely want a drink but seems to need it, and his personality or mood suddenly changes when he does take a sip.
The consequences of heavy drinking
Excessive drinking can have a devastating impact on a person’s relationships with friends and family. According to one study of 20,000 couples in Norway, the divorce rate doubled among couples where the husband drank and the wife did not, compared to couples where both seldom drank (interestingly, the highest breakup rates occurred among couples where she drank a lot and he did not). ‘Abuse, loss of parental involvement, embarrassment, shame and diminished financial resources all take their toll on the family,’ says Dr. Peter Butt, an associate professor in the department of family medicine at the University of Saskatchewan. He cautions that kids who grow up in a family with problem drinkers are more likely to develop an addiction themselves.
According to the World Health Organization, alcohol is one of the top contributors to disease in the world. Long-time heavy drinkers can develop liver damage and life-threatening cirrhosis. But there are other effects that are less well-known. ‘When men drink too much, there’s a decrease in the amount of testosterone production and an increase in the effects of estrogen,’ says Butt. That can lead to erectile dysfunction’and not just when he’s drunk. And over time, he can suffer from testicular atrophy (where the testes get smaller and have diminished sperm-producing abilities) because of the hormone imbalance.
Meanwhile, a 2012 study showed that heavy drinking is linked to cognitive problems and increased risk of stroke later in life for men. Also, a 2013 study done in mice suggests fathers-to-be who drink may increase the risk of birth defects and developmental problems in their offspring.
If you think someone you love has a problem, seek support. Counselling or groups such as Al-Anon can help you develop coping skills’including accepting that you cannot force him to stop. ‘People change when they are ready to change,’ says Ferentzy. You can stop enabling his drinking and make him face the consequences by not making excuses to family and friends. You may still need to cover for him to protect his job and, of course, prevent him from drinking and driving.
When you do directly discuss alcohol, ’emphasize what he has to lose; talk about the good things in that person’s life,’ says Ferentzy, who got his own addictions under control because of the love of the people in his life and his desire to succeed. If your guy does cut back (a normal part of the process of quitting) or stops drinking altogether, he will still have a lot of work ahead to understand his motivations for using alcohol and to repair any damage he has done to his personal and professional life.
If things don’t improve and if you or others are in danger, you may decide to leave the relationship. ‘The good news is people tend to mature out of their addiction over time,’ says Ferentzy. According to one U.S. survey, about one third of people with an alcohol problem recovered from it. Adds Ferentzy: ‘The bad news is that it doesn’t always happen when you want it to.’