Photo/IllutrationRevelers in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward raise their glasses to toast the midnight release of Beaujolais Nouveau in 2017. (Tetsuro Takehana)

  • Photo/Illustraion

The end-of-year parties are over, and for most revelers the worst they suffered was a mighty hangover the morning after.

But for those who can't help themselves and habitually imbibe to excess, a hangover is the least of their problems: This is the territory of blackouts and memory loss, as in losing track of the extent of bar-hopping the night before or wondering if that bluish bruise was the result of falling over but not being able to recall.

In such cases, denial is usually the first card that pops up in a person's head inasmuch that even an inkling that alcohol could be becoming a problem is usually swiftly dismissed.

But experts say memory loss due to heavy drinking can be a sign that the individual is pre-alcoholic, a precursor to full-blown alcoholism.

This is where the Kurihama Medical and Addiction Center in Yokosuka, a city in Kanagawa Prefecture south of Tokyo, can help. The center, which is affiliated with the National Hospital Organization, offers expert treatment for people with a drinking problem.

The hospital operates recovery programs and outpatient consultation services for those worried about their booze intake.

Surveys by the health ministry and other entities indicate that 1.07 million people suffer from alcoholism around Japan, but that only 40,000 to 50,000 are undergoing treatment. The figure swells to 2.9 million-plus when borderline cases are considered.

Alcoholism is sometimes referred to as the “disease of denial” as not acknowledging there is a problem often causes the problem to remain untreated, leading to further complications.

The Kurihama center operates an education program for pre-alcoholics, which helps individuals who fall short of being alcohol-dependent but have a drinking problem that is affecting their health, work or home life.

Each session is attended by 20 or so individuals, much like an AA meeting.

The basic program is designed to encourage heavy drinkers to give up the habit and lasts six months, during which time the participants are not supposed to touch alcohol. They are also required to visit the hospital regularly, attend doctors’ lectures and discuss their problems with the bottle with fellow patients.

The goal is for participants to come to grips with the harm that alcohol can do and take stock of their drinking problems.

Each participant consults a doctor at the end of the program for an assessment about whether he or she has forsaken alcohol or would start drinking again, but in less quantity.

“Some people complain at the outset that it’s tough not drinking at all,” said Kaori Hida, a certified psychiatric nurse. “But others develop a sense of accomplishment and decide to stay with it. They grow more positive about getting on with their lives without alcohol.”

The Kurihama Medical and Addiction Center set up the Alcohol Harm Reduction Program in spring 2017, for those who want to slow down on their intake. The program is open to individuals with typical drink-related problems as well as those with lesser symptoms.

Those who fall in the latter category are also viewed as success stories because drinking less, instead of not at all, is considered a plus in terms of the health benefit.

“Drinking less is sometimes enough to cope with situations whereby booze intake is lighter and the patient can continue working without family ties going awry," said Yosuke Yumoto, a doctor in charge of the program.

The AHRP also operates a six-month program. The degree of the problem is determined first. If it is decided that drinking less is sufficient to cope with the problem, the participant is invited to decide how much he or she will drink, which days to abstain and keep a “drinking diary.” Nearly 40 individuals consulted the AHRP through the end of last September.

Setting a drastic target, such as reducing alcohol consumption to 10 percent, is prone to fail. The AHRP, therefore, encourages patients to set targets that they are likely able to achieve with 70-80 percent of their willpower.

DELAY IN GETTING HELP MAKES MATTERS WORSE

Survey data shows that alcoholics tend to seek expert help long after family members and others around them realized the person has a drinking problem.

Nobuya Naruse, vice director of the Saitama Psychiatric Medical Center, was part of a research group that twice surveyed family members of alcoholics.

The first survey in 2008 had 2,032 responses, the follow-up study in 2015 had 518 responses.

The first study showed that it typically took five and a half years for the alcohol-dependent individual to seek help after family members realized there was a problem. The time lapse in the 2015 study was seven years.

“Consultation is never easy, even if family members are aware of the problem,” Naruse said. “The problem is that the health of the patient worsens in the meantime.”

In both surveys, the primary reason cited for the delay in getting help was a lack of information on where to go. Respondents also cited entrenched prejudice about alcoholics and concerns about what others might think.

Consultations can be made at public mental health and welfare centers, which are located in every prefecture and major city, as well as public health centers. Aside from face-to-face counseling, some institutions also provide counseling through e-mail correspondence.

Advice is offered not only to patients but also their family members. Family members can also turn to outpatient consultation services at medical institutions that specialize in alcoholism.

“In the past, patients suffering from depression were often accused of depending on other people’s indulgence, but few would now currently doubt that they are indeed ill,” Naruse said. “Broad societal understanding that alcoholism is a disease will go a long way in ensuring it is treated at an early stage.”