KoreAm magazine’s resident mental health columnist, Dr. Esther Oh, talks about the very real consequences of alcohol addiction and abuse. We follow Jennifer’s story.
Jennifer* is a 20-year-old Korean American born and raised in Southern California. She excelled in high school and got accepted into a prestigious college on the East Coast. Since she breezed through high school, she was shocked to discover how competitive college was. Despite studying hard, her grades slipped, her stress level rose, and her self-esteem began to vanish. She felt guilty that she was letting her parents down and wasting their money. Overwhelmed and depressed, she found comfort in alcohol.
It started with a glass of wine with her dinner, then escalated to multiple drinks a night. Soon, she found herself gravitating toward college parties trying to drink away her stress, making “friends” with people who encouraged her to binge drink. Episodes of blacking out and drinking early in the morning to calm her nerves became a frequent occurrence. Eventually Jennifer found herself missing classes, flunking out of school, getting DUIs and spending excessive money on alcohol. She knew that her life had become a mess, but felt like she couldn’t reach out to her friends or family for fear they would be disappointed and judge her. One night after failing another class, she had too many drinks in her dorm room. Alone, depressed and heavily intoxicated, she attempted to cut her wrist. Luckily, her roommate found her and was able to rush her to the hospital.
Alcohol is no stranger to the Korean American community. It seems to be very much part of our culture, found at weddings, funerals, business meetings and other social gatherings. Most of us have experienced or witnessed the common effects of alcohol intoxication: disinhibited behavior, dizziness, inability to walk straight, slurred speech and memory loss. Some Asians also don’t have an important enzyme in their body called aldehyde dehydrogenase-2, which helps breakdown alcohol in the body. They are the ones you see at bars and parties with bright red faces feeling nauseous and complaining of bad headaches after one drink. But, although it seems many young people these days know the common harmful effects of overusing alcohol — that it’s bad for pregnancy and can lead to various liver problems and even cancer — I wonder if Korean Americans really understand the mental and social consequences. There is nothing wrong with consuming one or two alcoholic drinks in one setting. In fact, research shows that limited and controlled use of red wine on a regular basis may reduce heart disease — something my grandfather, a fan of burgundy, believed in, too. But people often forget that alcohol is a substance with potential for addiction and abuse, which are two different problems.
When alcohol use becomes a problem, Korean Americans are often in denial because our culture seems to accept binge drinking, getting drunk and even passing out as “normal.” The larger problem, though, is that people are reluctant to admit they have an addiction or an underlying mental health issue, such as depression or anxiety. Why? Because acknowledging you have a problem can often be seen as a sign of weakness and failure. Jennifer’s story underscores how misusing alcohol can lead to a dark path, even including self-harm.
In my line of work, alcohol abuse and dependence are common issues addressed and treated. Psychiatrists treat people with alcohol problems because it is closely linked with other mental illnesses, such as depression, bipolar disorder and psychosis. Sometimes the alcohol use itself leads to psychiatric problems; sometimes people self-medicate their mental illness with alcohol, hoping it will mask or make it disappear. People do not realize how quickly alcohol can permeate into one’s life and destroy it, piece by piece. I have seen successful individuals lose jobs, flunk out of school and get into toxic family turmoil all due to alcoholism.
Very often people try to fix their depression and anxiety with alcohol, not knowing that the drink itself can aggravate their symptoms. A major concern with individuals battling alcohol issues and depression is the potential for suicide. Having depression itself is a risk factor for suicide, but add in poor judgment because you’re intoxicated, and you can create a deadly combination, just as in Jennifer’s case.
I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if she had asked for help. There are a number of clinics, hospitals and rehab programs throughout the country. [Seattle’s Asian Counseling and Referral Service has Recovery Services, which assist individuals to abstain from drug and alcohol abuse and improve physical and mental health and quality of life. For more information, visit: www.acrs.org/recoveryservices.php or call (206) 695-7506. Neighborhood House organizes grassroots efforts to address substance abuse. Visit them at www.nhwa.org.]
Battling any addiction, especially alcoholism, is a hard task. People who deal with these issues will battle them for life. Some will be able to stop successfully; some may fall off the wagon from time to time. Either way, the goal of treatment is to get these people back on track and maintain living a healthy and prosperous life.
With our community’s acknowledgement that alcohol problems need treatment, the support of loved ones and the help of professional mental health providers, that goal is possible. I have witnessed individuals turning their lives around — rebuilding relationships, getting new jobs and starting school again. If we can learn to accept mental health issues as normal medical problems, we can slowly break down the wall of stigma and invite more people to seek the necessary help.
Dr. Esther Oh is a psychiatrist at the Los Angeles County Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.
*The case referenced in this article is based on facts from a real-life patient. Her name and some details have been changed to protect confidentiality. This article first appeared in KoreAm magazine and is reprinted with permission.