Tips For Dealing with Withdrawal

My personal tips for dealing with withdrawal

In 2002, a friend of mine called me telling me he’d slept about a half an hour the last two nights.  He’d had to leave his job on a landscaping crew two days in a row.  He found that he was confused, that it seemed slightly dark in his apartment in the middle of the afternoon.  He said when he sat and thought about what was going on, how his resolution to quit drinking was going, he would start sweating.  His forehead would get this thick sheen of sweat, and he started to think this was more than just nervousness about what he was setting out.  And then he’d start trembling.

alcohol withdrawal

So, I drove him to after-hours care in the suburbs of Cincinnati.  He was able to seek outpatient care, going back each day for a week, with weekly appointments after that.  The doctor prescribed a quick course of medication, and away went the trembling and the sweats.  His insomnia went away after several days.  He had a pretty tough time quitting, as all of us do, but he was able to make it through the initial withdrawal.

In this post, we’ll look at the experience of going through withdrawals, whether under a doctor’s care or not.

How severe is your withdrawal?

First, we need some definitions.  There are essentially three major categories of withdrawals.  First are minor withdrawals, and these can last several weeks or months.  They’re not the sever things that will burn themselves out.  Minor symptoms can include fatigue and headaches.  Some nightmares might pop up occasionally.  Sometimes anxiety is listed too, but that gets us into the issue of how to know how much anxiety is a withdrawal.  Some people don’t think of anxiety and headaches and loss of appetite and things like that officially count as withdrawals, and to some extent it becomes a semantic argument.

The second category is the one of my buddy, withdrawals that are serious and that demand attention, but that can be fairly easily controlled by a doctor’s care.

The third category gets beyond the symptoms I mentioned above.  They can include hallucinations, convulsions, and the infamous DTs, delirium tremens.  These are rare, affecting less than 10% of recovering alcoholics.  They generally won’t happen later than a couple of weeks into withdrawal.

If you have DTs, you need to call an ambulance and get help immediately.  You’ll then most definitely be prescribed medication.

Withdrawal under a doctor’s care

If you’re in the second category, above, you’ll be seeing a doctor.  You’ll go through something called “medical management”, which entails regular short visits.  Because of your symptoms, you’ll need to be monitored on a regular basis.  You may have to go through cognitive therapy to help with mental confusion and other symptoms.  And psychological counseling with come into play, too.

Again, treatment for DT’s will be inpatient, and will be much more acute and quick.

5 Tips for Getting through it without a doctor

I wanted to talk about withdrawal under a doctor’s care, because it applies to some people, and I don’t want to imply that going through it is all about going it alone.  But if you’re in the first category above, you may go through withdrawals without a doctor.  However, you can also apply these tips to somewhat rougher withdrawals, for between doctor visits.

  1. Make recovery number one

Some of the worst withdrawal episodes and symptoms will last only a few days, with the milder ones lasting a widely varying period of time.  Remember, we’re dealing here with just the milder things like depression, lack of sleep, etc.  Now, I realize those aren’t very mild, but they’re mild compared to DT’s.

Since we’re talking about something that may last weeks and that won’t involve hospitalization, the responsibility is on you.  You have to be sure to apply your energies to managing the symptoms, not trying to be sure to go about business as usual and think you can blow off the withdrawals.

  1. Go to meetings

If you are feeling some nausea, anxiety, headaches, and just not feeling like yourself, the best thing for you is to be in a room with others experiencing the same thing.  This will make your symptoms not seem freakish or incurable.  Know this: you will also be around people who have gone through these symptoms and have given them the boot.  Now that is the real benefit of these meetings.  And we’ll look at the next benefit in this next tip.

  1. Try not to be alone

Part of the infrastructure for all of this is being around your buddies who are most supportive.  It’s about getting rid of those who will lead you astray.  I began dating during my recovery—having been dumped by my very smart girlfriend while I was still drinking—and my girlfriend was a godsend.  But I also had quite a few friends.  Dealing specifically with physical symptoms, whether you’re under a doctor’s care or not, is a lot easier when you’re in the animated company of others, talking, listening, etc.

The thing about this is you can get comfort in this area just from going to sporting events, movies, malls, etc.  We’re not talking about really good support and companionship here—those things are important, but right now, we’re talking about managing your physical symptoms.  The idea is just to not be alone to dwell on them and have them eating away at your consciousness.

  1. Use safe over-the-counter meds

Whether you’re seeing a doctor or not, but particularly if you’re not using some of the medicines used for withdrawal, you will probably have some success with over-the-counter products.  The key here is to not use them in an incorrect manner that will backfire and make things worse.  You should go to pubmed or webmd or government health sources—or to the reference section of your local library—to research which headache medicines are safe for a person who had been abusing alcohol and who is going through withdrawal.  I am far from a doctor and am absolutely not giving out medical advice.  Things like pain pills and anti-diarrhea medication can be rather necessary for a withdrawal sufferer.


  1. Fight with diet

One of the things that is helpful for my comrades in this predicament is fighting the good fight with diet.  Now, you can go the route of one of those detox diets you see in bookstores. These may not be for detoxing for booze, but the cleansing they do in your system will give you a little boost.  Along those lines, foods with antioxidants: blueberries, bananas, broccoli, will help.  Cutting out caffeine, cocaine can help, so if you’re replacing drink with soft drinks, you may go the de-caf route.

In any case, it may not be the case that diet issues will explicitly attack either the alcohol in your system or the fact that you’re not drinking.  But on the one hand, these changes will make you feel a lot better in general, and they very well may touch on some of your things like nausea and similar digestive system issues.

The biggest thing you can do isn’t really a tip, and it’s something covered throughout the blog.  It’s just gritting your teeth and fighting through the issues, since that’s ultimately all you can do.  Any withdrawal symptoms you feel longer than two or three weeks into quitting should be mild and sporadic.  If you are experiencing these issues on a regular basis, and these tips don’t help, it will be time to seek a doctor’s care.

Photo credit Kenneth Nersten on Flickr