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Life After Combat: Coping with Alcohol Abuse

Many people drink to relax and unwind. Alcohol can briefly relieve stress and help you forget your problems. In fact, it’s common to turn to alcohol to deal with the stress of being deployed and in combat. Your drinking habits may have changed while you were deployed. Or maybe you’re drinking more now as you adjust to being home. As long as you stay in control, there may be nothing wrong with having a drink to enjoy yourself and bond with friends every now and again. But when you start to lose control of your drinking, alcohol use turns into misuse or an alcohol use disorder. You may also hear this called alcohol abuse. This can cause major problems in your life and your relationships. This sheet will help you see if you have a problem. It will also give you strategies to regain control over your drinking.

Does this sound like you?

These questions can help you take a closer look at your drinking:

  • Are you drinking more than you want to? Have you ever thought you should cut down?

  • Do you feel annoyed when people criticize or comment on your drinking?

  • Have you ever felt embarrassed or guilty about your drinking?

  • Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning?

  • Has your drinking gotten you into trouble at work or at home?

  • Do you hide your drinking from friends and family?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, it’s time to make a change.

How an alcohol problem develops

Not everyone who drinks has a problem. But for some people, what starts as social use can lead to abuse and then addiction. Can you see yourself in any of these stages?

  • Social use—you can take it or leave it. You may have a drink at a party. Or a glass of wine with dinner. You’re able to put down a drink without finishing it. And you can enjoy yourself at a social event without drinking. You can choose to say yes or no to a drink at any time.

  • Abuse—you’re drinking more than you used to. Drinking becomes a problem when you begin to lose control. You need to drink more to get the same feeling. You may choose to drink instead of spending time with your family. You may drink just to get drunk. Or you drink so much that you black out. Money, job, or relationship problems start. You may try to stop drinking and find that you can’t.

  • Addiction—you’ve become dependent. You have little or no control over your drinking. Alcohol is controlling you. You feel like you can’t get along without it. You plan your activities around drinking. You feel angry or anxious if you can’t drink.

How problem drinking affects your life

An alcohol problem doesn’t only hurt you. It also hurts the people who care about you. You may have a great time spending a night out with your buddies. But how does your spouse react when you come home late and drunk? When you drink, do you behave in ways that scare your children or push away your friends? Would you rather drink alone than play with your children or talk to your spouse? Has drinking or being hungover made it hard to keep your job? Have you ever driven while drunk? You may think you have drinking under control. But if alcohol is causing these types of problems, you don’t.

And the problems will only get worse unless you make a change.

It takes courage and honesty to admit you’re abusing alcohol. Once you do, there are many programs and people who can help you regain control.

Are you self-medicating?

Drinking is a way to escape life’s problems. People returning from combat have a unique set of problems that they may try to escape. Many people drink before bed to help them sleep. Or you could be drinking to ease the pain caused by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, or other mental or physical health issues. If you have been diagnosed with a condition that’s related to your drinking, get treatment. If you haven’t, talk with your healthcare provider about any symptoms you have. Or any issues you’re trying to work through on your own. Addressing the reason for your drinking can help you regain control.

Make changes to regain control of your drinking

By changing how you think about and use alcohol, problem drinking can sometimes be brought under control. Making changes now may help prevent you from developing an addiction (also known as alcohol dependence). Programs and resources are available to help you make these changes. Talk with your healthcare provider or someone at the Department of Veterans Affairs about your options. Visit or the Veterans Crisis Line at to reach caring, qualified responders. The Veterans Crisis Line is confidential and available every day online or at 800-273-8255, option 1. You can also text 838255 for support.

Steps to bring your drinking under control may include:

  • Setting goals for your drinking. For example, you may set a goal to have no more than 1 or 2 drinks per day. Or to drink no more than 3 days a week. Reward yourself for meeting these goals—but not with alcohol!

  • Identifying when you drink. Make a list of situations that make you want a drink. Then come up with new ways to handle them that don’t mean drinking alcohol. Or stay away from these situations altogether.

  • Not drinking for a set amount of time. This doesn’t mean you need to stop forever. But take some time off—maybe 30 days—and see how you feel. Your views on alcohol may change during this time.

  • Learning to drink in moderation. Many people can enjoy alcohol without getting smashed. Drinking in moderation includes keeping track of how many drinks you’ve had. It means slowing down so you don’t have so many in a row. It means refusing drinks when you’ve had enough or when you’re taking a break. And it means eating before or while drinking so you don’t get as drunk.

  • Drinking responsibly. When you do choose to drink, don’t put yourself or others at risk. Driving drunk or getting into fights are two examples of how drinking can turn dangerous. Responsible drinking means staying aware of how buzzed you are. It also means getting out of a situation before it turns bad.

Further treatment

Some people choose to control their drinking by quitting completely (abstinence). There are many types of programs to help you do this. All offer some kind of counseling. Some include medical treatment. Treatment for alcohol addiction is often done in a group setting. But it can also be one-on-one. It can include the following:

  • Counseling involves meeting with a trained professional to talk about your drinking. You’ll learn to cope with your drinking problem. This can help you limit or quit drinking.

  • Twelve-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) are free support groups that guide you through a recovery process. SMART Recovery, also called Self-Management and Recovery Training, is another option. Many Vet Centers also offer free support groups. Talk with your healthcare provider about support programs.

  • Treatment centers are facilities where you get health management and counseling during the early stages of recovery. Some are live-in and some are day (outpatient) programs.

  • Medicines may be prescribed to help you reach your goal of abstinence. Naltrexone, acamprosate, and disulfiram are all medicines that can help with abstinence when they are used along with counseling.

If you’re using other substances

The description of alcohol abuse on this sheet also applies to any other drug you may be using. This includes tobacco, marijuana, or prescription medicine that isn’t being used as prescribed. If you have a substance use problem, you’re not alone. With treatment, you can overcome the problem and go on to lead a healthy, drug-free life. The first step is admitting that you need help. Talk with your healthcare provider to find a treatment option that meets your needs.

Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Paul Ballas MD
Date Last Reviewed: 12/1/2022
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