Drinking in the Economy Has a No-Win Twist

economy and treatmentabcnews photo illustration /ABC News
Just as the economic recession marches on and people lose, lose their savings and lose their homes, alcohol treatment centers are reporting an uneasy lull.

To "hit rock bottom" is a phrase commonly used in Alcoholics Anonymous. It describes a loss so extraordinary, so painful, that it becomes a turning point.

Yet as the recession marches on, a typical "rock bottom" loss has become all too ordinary: a lost job, lost savings or a lost home. At the same time, alcohol treatment centers are reporting an uneasy lull -- for now.

"The industry as a whole has seen a decline in people getting into treatment," said Franklin Lisnow, an addiction counselor and the executive director of the Center for Dependency, Addiction and Rehabilitation in Aurora, Colo.

"It only means that we're going to see sicker people when they do get in," Lisnow said.

By accounts of the liquor industry, Lisnow's expected patients are likely be drinking quietly at home.

Frank Coleman, spokesman for the Distilled Spirits Council, said that while sales of liquor are still on the rise, they are growing at a slower rate than they were before the recession hit. Coleman said dips in sales at restaurants and other public establishments are primarily to blame.

"Whatever growth there is, is in home consumption and not in restaurants," Coleman said.

Even in good times, experts said 8 percent to 10 percent of those who have an alcohol addiction are properly recognized and get into treatment. More often than not, though, they are the lucky ones who have jobs, families and most important, money and health insurance to cover counseling.

But if an addict delays long enough, they might get closer to joining another portion of the population that gets rehabilitation treatment funded.

"I just had an extremely perfect set of circumstances that led me to this recovery," said Chris Jamieson, of Franklin, Tenn.

Jamieson, now 26, said he finally got sober through a rehabilitation program in jail.

Jamieson said he started acting up after his parents divorce at age 14. He said he started drinking casually at age 16 and really started to abuse alcohol at age 19.

"I actually got my girlfriend pregnant. Her parents found out and took her and had her get an abortion," he said. "They attempted to cut contact off between us."

The day after the abortion, Jamieson said he had to leave for college torn, confused and upset.

"After that I made a conscious decision to drink more than anybody else at a party," he said.

Once a student with As and Bs, he started to drink so much he was kicked out of school within a year and a half for bad grades.

It wasn't his first DUI, or the second or third or fourth that turned around his life, Jamieson said. It was the rehabilitation and jail time that came from his sixth DUI that did the trick, he said.

Rehabilitation Can Work, If You Can Afford It

"Being locked up helped me dry out and give me a chance to really think about what was going on," he said. "It was the nine months in jail, the rehabilitation program I was in, it just seemed that everything worked really well together."

Statistics on the success rate of such rehabilitation can vary widely.

Dr. David R. Gastfriend, vice president of scientific communications at Alkermes Inc., which produces an alcohol dependence medication, sites a failure rate of 75 percent.

"If you look at the outcome of relapsing within the first year, the general figures are 75 percent relapse," he said, defining relapse as five or more drinks in a day or five days of consecutive drinking.

But Lisnow argues rehabilitation centers are more effective than most in the field like to acknowledge.

"The addiction treatment facility gets a bad rap," said Lisnow. "Our success rate is between 50-60 percent a year after treatment. Many of those have slipped once, but they pick themselves up again."

Lisnow said once someone is in treatment any person from any background, career or history will face special challenges.

"Every population has different problem areas toward recovery," he said.

For example, Lisnow said the construction worker might have to overcome a work culture of going out for beers with the guys.

"If you take a physician, it has to do with some of the arrogance of their profession," said Lisnow. "People who are very intelligent and high functioning don't want to admit that there's a weakness."

Robert Curry, founder of Turning Point for Leaders in New Canaan, Conn., said he specifically seeks such cases.

Curry's organization is geared toward high-power executives who are struggling with alcohol and drug abuse.

He said that though hard statistics on increased alcohol use in response to the economic downturn are hard to come by, there are other indicators that suggest that problem drinking may be on the rise.

"I'm seeing more cases of domestic violence," he said. "We track domestic violence through the police department records, and we have seen a spike in incidence. This is often directly related to substance abuse."

He said he is also seeing a spike in individuals seeking help from groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

"There is just an overall general perception within the group of individuals I'm in touch with that there is an increase in the use of substances to deal with the stress of this economy," Curry said.

The apparent increase in those seeking help, however, may also be a positive sign, he said.

"When the economy is down, what this stress is doing is allowing these people to be more open about their addiction," he said.

But he said treatment also comes with its risks to employment.

"What they're seeing is an increase in substance abuse, and increase in people coming in [for counseling], but also a number of people who are refusing to go into residential treatment because they are terrified that if they acknowledge in their office that they have a substance abuse problem, they will go away for 30 days, come back and not have a job," he said.

Although Jamieson sidestepped that problem because he started treatment at a really "rock bottom" low in jail, he said he is partially dependent upon a job to help him stay sober.

Support of a Job Helping Sobriety

Jamieson has been taking a monthly injected dose of a drug called Vivitrol to help him reduce alcohol cravings. He has tried to get off the drug, but said he suffered anxiety switching to pill form. Jamieson said he would try again, but for now he sees the medicine as a life preserver in his new sobriety.

"I'm not really as nervous to get off it again, because I know I've got a nice little lifeboat ready for me if I need it," he said.

If Jamieson lost his current job and health insurance, he would have to pay $800 a month for the shot instead of a $20 copay.

Gastfriend, of the company Alkermes Inc. that produces Vivitrol, said his company is launching a program called Touchpoints that could help a person in financial hardship get the medication.

With insurance, Alkermes is offering to cover six months of a person's co-pay and to cover the entire cost of treatment for the first month.

Despite the threat of the current economic recession, Jamieson said he feels upbeat about his year and a half of sobriety and two years at work at a sandwich shop.

"I've got a lot more going for me right now," he said. "I've my school, I've got my girlfriend, I've got my new puppy."