Alcohol Detox at Home—Getting Sober Safely
You’ve decided to stop drinking—congratulations! Recognizing that you need to stop can be a difficult and humbling experience. But once you are ready to take that first step, whether you decide to do your alcohol detox at home or in an inpatient facility, it’s helpful to know what to expect. Understanding what’s happening in your body and being prepared for the challenges or discomforts that may occur can help set you up to get through your detox successfully, and also to start off in sobriety on the right foot.
Alcohol Detox at Home, In Patient or Out Patient?
Before you commit to doing an alcohol detox at home, have an honest heart-to-heart discussion with your doctor. Your complete drinking history is a critical factor in determining whether or not an alcohol detox at home will be the safe choice for you. How much you’ve been drinking, and how long you’ve been drinking, and how your body reacts to drying out are all factors your doctor needs to review with you.
Some physicians may decide to prescribe medications for you to take as you go through detox. If your doctor recommends medication, be sure to take it exactly as prescribed. These medications can make your process much more comfortable and safer, so don’t “tough it out” if your doctor determines that you should have pharmacological support.
If you are not certain you can be responsible with medications during your detox, discuss this with your doctor, too. Many clinics and hospitals will work with you on an out-patient basis so you can easily pick up your medications each day. Having only one day’s supply at a time can be a way to also check in with a medical provider and have your vitals checked as you go through your detox. This helps you stay connected to a supportive health care professional during your home-based detox.
Completing your alcohol detox at home offers the following benefits:
- You can continue to go to work. Sure, you might feel a little bit off, but depending upon your job, you may still be able to go to work daily. For people who don’t have sick time available, or would have to use vacation or time without pay, being able to detox at home is a godsend.
- You can continue to fulfill your responsibilities and obligations. Lining up people to help with childcare, caring for relatives or even walking the dog can be challenging if you have to go away for a while. Staying in your home with minimal disruption to your family makes getting sober much more accessible.
- If you go to an inpatient facility to undergo detox, when you get out you need to adjust to being back in your home environment, with all of its triggers and challenges. Completing an alcohol detox at home enables you to face these challenges as they come up, learning and developing the skills you need to be clean and sober as you need them.
Before You Begin
Sometimes in the movies, detox is depicted as a frightening and painful ordeal, a horror show of delirium tremens and other physical and mental trials. In reality, there are some real risks and dangers of detox, but these are relatively rare and can be mitigated with help from your doctor.
The single biggest physical risk of detoxification from alcohol is an elevated heart rate. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. Drinking alcohol depresses your heart rate, and slows down or depresses all your physiological functions. When you stop drinking, these functions tend to rebound. Thus, you experience a number of feelings and sensations that are due to everything being speeded back up for a brief period of time before returning to normal. The most serious of these rebounds is the effect on your heart rate. If you have a known heart condition, discuss your detox with your doctor before you stop drinking.
In general, the discomforts and dangers of detox increase with the severity of your drinking. For a “social drinker” with a relatively minor drinking history, detoxing should not be a very distressing experience. For someone with decades of regular heavy drinking, detox could be a much more serious affair. For many problem drinkers, you fall somewhere in the middle of that continuum, and are likely to experience some discomfort.
Common issues that arise during detox and may be mild, moderate or severe include:
- Shaking/trembling, especially your hands
These symptoms can start fairly soon after you stop drinking and usually last only a day or so. More serious symptoms include:
- Racing heart rate
- Increased blood pressure
If you begin to experience any of these more serious symptoms, seek medical attention immediately. While rare, these symptoms are serious and require medical supervision.
The Nuts and Bolts of Undergoing Alcohol Detox at Home
After your initial visit with your doctor, what should you do to get ready for an alcohol detox at home? Here are a few things to do prepare:
- Tell your family and friends. Talk about what’s going on. Be honest and ask for support. Most people are relieved and happy to support a loved one who has finally realized it’s time to stop drinking. Often they know before you do that your drinking has become a problem, so don’t hesitate to open up and ask for support.
- Get rid of any alcohol in your home. The Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) slogan “people, places, and things” refers to avoiding triggers to drinking, and the presence of alcohol is definitely a trigger. If you live with other people and you can’t eliminate all alcohol in your living environment, explain to your family or housemates what you’re doing so they can be as supportive as possible.
- Make sure you have food and beverages you enjoy on hand. You may feel nauseated at first and not feel like eating much, so be ready with some healthy and light options. Have tasty non-alcoholic beverages available, too, but go easy on sugary soft drinks. You may find that you crave sweets at first, but indulging in sweet drinks or candy may actually make your cravings for alcohol worse. Unsweetened herbal iced teas, diluted fruit juices (mix fresh juice with seltzer, for example) and cucumber slices or mint leaves added to water or seltzer are some ways to make drinking water more palatable.
- Don’t overload your first few days with plans for activities. You may feel a bit flu-like and wiped out at first. Rest and catch up on your reading for a couple of days. Alcohol does damage to your body at a cellular level, and part of detoxing is beginning to repair that damage. This can make you feel tired and lackluster at first.
- Do plan some activities for a week or so after you detox. Take a look at local options for all sorts of educational or artistic endeavors you can enjoy. Consider continuing education classes, getting back into your old hobbies or taking up new interests. It may take a little while to find the right balance of structured activities and being busy, versus having quiet time at home, but with a little trial and error you’ll find what works best for you.
- Find your local AA groups and make sure you have a schedule at your fingertips. When you feel lousy and depressed, as much as you might want a drink, what you really need is a meeting. Make sure you know where and when your local meetings are.
The Next Steps
Making it through detox and withdrawal at home is your first step into a new lifestyle without alcohol. For some people, detox is the hardest part, but for many staying sober is the next big challenge. Depending upon your overall health and your drinking history, your doctor may recommend medication to support your sobriety. There are medications that help alleviate cravings for alcohol, as well as medications that make you violently ill if you do drink. Both types of medications can help you prevent relapses.
You may find that now, without alcohol to take the edge off, you notice some other issues you need to deal with. Career dissatisfaction, relationship issues or other simmering sources of discontent may pop up like daisies and demand your attention. If you feel overwhelmed, don’t panic. Try using a therapist or counselor to help you prioritize issues and sort things out.
Have fun! It may sound trite, but you need to enjoy being sober. Find ways to have fun, excitement, and joy in your life without alcohol. Build into your week periods of time when you do things you really enjoy. Not sure what to do? Spend time, not money, exploring different options. Public libraries, parks, museums and other community resources are a good place to start.
Whether you detox from alcohol at home or not, commit to completing a safe and successful detox and you’ll be off to great start in sobriety.