What Life-Threatening Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome Is Really Like

The following is a story of one woman’s experience with a dangerous case of alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Important: Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome (AWS) is not alcohol poisoning. AWS occurs as alcohol is leaving the body after a long period of use.

Amber’s Story

When Amber woke up, her head wasn’t just pounding like normal hangover – her ears were ringing, and the pressure in her head felt like her brain was going to explode. Lights were flashing in her eyes, and she was having tremors. Her heart was racing. It was 8 a.m.

She had spent the last three days bingeing on wine and Everclear – the most potent alcoholic drink in the world. She had blacked out two days in a row and had lost so much time she was confused as to what day it was.

She wondered why she hadn’t died, and said to herself “What have I done?” It wasn’t the first time. Or the second.

She got up and began to pace. She made some coffee. She paced some more.

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It occurred to her that she could die from this. Better have the hair of the dog. She grabbed the Everclear again. She added it to her coffee and paced some more.

She sat down at the computer and messaged her boyfriend, assuring him this was gonna stop and she was up for the day.

She tried to focus on doing ANYTHING, but all she could see was static and pulsing lights, everywhere.

She drank more coffee and Everclear and continued to pace. Her head was spinning, and she was trembling. She started to panic. Her phone was dead. She searched and searched for a charger in full still-drunk panic mode.

She found it. She sat down on the floor next to her charging phone and calmly dialed 911.

They answered. Amber said “I’m detoxing from alcohol. I need help.”

She messaged her boyfriend saying “I’m going to the hospital. I’m detoxing and a nervous wreck. I just want to be done with this. I’m sorry. I’m going to fix this. I’ll have my phone on me.”

Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome | Just Believe Recovery
“True Blood” star Nelson Ellis died in July of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome.

A half hour later, no one had arrived. “I must not be a high priority,” she muttered to herself. She called 911 again. Ten minutes later a paramedic showed up, no ambulance.

She told him what was going on. He noted her high blood pressure. They waited another 15 minutes for the ambulance.

She was hoping for a saline IV but didn’t get one. In fact, that didn’t come until hours later. When she got to the emergency room, they gave her a B-vitamin drip and Ativan for the anxiety.

During this time, she was hallucinating, seeing faces and morphing objects. Closing her eyes made them scarier.

A counselor came in to talk to her. He asked her if she wanted treatment, and she said yes. After about 8 hours in the ER, they finally moved her to a detox facility.

After being checked in, she joined the ranks of those other unfortunate souls with addictions, shuffling into the main room quietly.

One guy asked, “What are you in for?”

“Alcohol.”

She talked to two other young men. One man asked, “What do you think is worse, meth addiction, or heroin addiction?”

The other, the meth addict, said: “Meth addiction.”

The first, the heroin addict, said: “I think heroin addiction.”

Amber said “Alcohol addiction.”

Author’s Note: Alcohol withdrawal syndrome is a potentially life-threatening condition and can lead to seizures, delirium, brain damage, and death. Please do not detox alone.

What is Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome?

Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, meaning that it slows brain function and alters the way nerves transmit signals back and forth.

Over a long period of heavy use, the CNS adjust to alcohol’s continual presence. The body must work hard to keep the brain in a more awake state and to keep nerves in communication. When the level of alcohol suddenly stops, the brain remains in an overactive state. This is what causes the withdrawal.

According to the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA), AWS can cause “significant illness and death” and some may suffer from seizures that “may increase in severity with subsequent AW episodes.” Also, another possible complication is delirium tremens, which is  “characterized by hallucinations, mental confusion, and disorientation.”

The NIAAA also states that “Cognitive impairment and delirium may lead to a chronic memory disorder (i.e., Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome). Psychiatric problems may include anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbances.

Finally, changes in “physiology, mood, and behavior may persist after acute withdrawal has subsided, motivating relapse to heavy drinking.”