Alcohol saturates American culture. It is poured out at celebrations, pressured onto teens, and dominates a special shelf in our fridge.
For most people, drinking alcohol is normal and getting drunk raises little concern. Some believe alcohol has health benefits and can be used as all sorts of remedies. This common, care-free view makes alcohol problems hard to identify.
Yet, an alcohol problem is too threatening to ignore. If you’re not careful, alcohol will interfere and sometimes take over your life. In 2010, almost 16,000 people died from alcoholic liver disease and an additional 26,000 people died alcohol-induced deaths, not including accidents or homicides.
Who is an Alcoholic?
First, let’s take step back and consider who exactly an alcoholic is. When you hear alcoholic, what do you picture? The homeless man on the street begging for money to buy booze? The celebrity that checked into rehab? The drunk who lost her driver license?
“JAILS, INSTITUTIONS, AND DEATH”
Usually, people picture alcoholics at their rock bottoms—being on the streets, in a hospital bed, jail cell or a coffin. However, those consequences don’t happen overnight; alcoholics were normal people who slowly lost everything.
EQUAL OPPORTUNITY DESTROYER
Unfortunately, society has attached a stereotype and stigma to alcoholics. As a result, society mistakes alcoholism as a problem that only happens to people who are weak-willed, uneducated, poor, morally bad, or even a certain skin tone or culture. Many refuse help because they don’t want the societal shame or they don’t fit that stereotype—they are a “normal” person and can still function despite their drinking habits.
Although some of the labels that fit the stereotype are risk factors, the truth is alcoholism is a disease that can hurt anyone—even the young, strong, rich, or educated.”
“I remember when I first came to A.A., I believed that some alcoholics aren’t as bad as other alcoholics. We tend to point out greater defects in others to justify our own concept of what we’ve become. If we persist in the illusion that we can drink like so called ‘normal people,’ most of these things that have happened to those ‘worse’ than us will happen to us.”
An alcoholic could be the successful business owner that always keeps wine in her office, or the husband that drinks multiple cans of beer after 5 p.m. every night, or the college student that parties hard on weekends.
This picture of an alcoholic brings up an important question: how do you know when you crossed the lines of drinking responsibly, abusing alcohol, and depending on alcohol?
You hear or read please drink responsibly at the end of every alcohol ad. However, since alcohol affects everyone differently, drinking responsibly is not always clearly defined. The recommended amount is a good place to start for understanding what drinking responsibly means: a low risk amount of alcohol for men is 2 standard drinks per day and for women 1 standard drink per day.
The opposite of drinking responsibly, abusing alcohol is simply having too much alcohol, whether it’s at one time, such as binge drinking, or a regular habit. Even if it’s a one-time occurrence, abusing alcohol can lead to lasting consequences—causing problems with work, school, relationships or the law. For instance, a student who binge drinks in college may miss morning classes or start to see grades dive. Also, drinking more than the recommended amount will negatively affect your health and increase the risk for alcoholism. However, not everyone who abuses alcohol becomes an alcoholic.
DEPENDING ON ALCOHOL
Alcoholism includes abusing alcohol, but adds the element of physical and psychological dependence. Key signs of physical dependence are withdrawal symptoms and tolerance, which is drinking more alcohol than before to get the same effect. One of the main reasons an alcoholic keeps drinking is to relieve or avoid the withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, irritability, and tremors.
What are some signs that I might be an alcoholic?
Now that you’re open to the idea that alcoholism can affect you, let’s consider what an alcoholic before rock bottom looks like.
Multiple signs indicate an alcohol problem. Take an honest, sober assessment of your life. Perhaps have a friend or family member help you because it is easy to fall into the trap of self-deception.
If three or more of these signs match what you are going through, you need to find help. Similar to any other disease, the sooner you catch alcoholism, the better.
- Tolerance: Have you noticed you need more alcohol than you used to in order to get the same effect?
- Withdrawal symptoms: Do you ever experience any of the following when you’ve gone without a drink?
- Irritability, jumpiness
- Nausea and vomiting
- Shaking or tremors
- Strong physical cravings for alcohol
- Carrying alcohol with you: Do you carry alcohol in your purse, to work, or to an event?
- Blackouts or memory loss: Do you forget what happened while you were drinking?
- Drinking when you wake up to help a hangover
- Inability to stop drinking after the first drink: Do you get drunk when you didn’t mean to?
- Trying to control or cut back your drinking: Do you ever feel like you should drink less or stop drinking?
- Getting drunk regularly: Do you get drunk more than four times a year?
- Staying drunk for several days
- Constant thoughts about drinking: Do you think about getting a drink when you first wake up in the morning? Or when you come home from work? Do you set up activities so you can drink, like having a party or meeting friends at the bar?
- Justifying your drinking: Have you caught yourself making excuses for your drinking to a family member or friend? Do you tell yourself that if others had the life you have, they would be drinking too?
- Fear of giving up alcohol: Are you avoiding help because you cannot imagine life without alcohol?
- Denying that alcohol is a problem: Do you blame everything else, but alcohol, for the problems in your life?
- Comparing yourself to alcoholics who are much worse than you: Have you ever chuckled and shook your head at other people, thinking, “At least I’m not like that”?
- Thinking that someday you’ll be able to control your drinking: No doubt you’ve said, “I don’t have a problem, because I can quit anytime I want to.” Yet, you’re thinking, “Just not today,” or “I don’t have to stay quit.
- Drinking to cope with stress, pain or emotions: Do you automatically and consistently turn to a drink whenever you are stressed, frustrated, or sad?
- Drinking to be able to do something: Do you need a drink to start the day? To have sex? Do you think that you’re incapable of socializing without having a drink first?
- Lying about or hiding your drinking: Maybe you haven’t straight-out lied, but have you ever tried to deceive others about your drinking?
- Feelings of shame or guilt about your drinking habits: Do you ever feel guilty or ashamed about drinking so much or spending so much money on alcohol?
- Regrets about what you did while drinking: Do you ever feel guilty or embarrassed about things that happened during or after drinking?
- Spending more time on drinking and less time on activities that are important to you: Have you sacrificed hobbies, life goals, or other activities to accommodate your drinking? Have other things, such as your family, job, and values, taken a backseat to alcohol? Do you hang out with a different set of friends?
- Having problems with your health, relationships, job or school: Has your doctor ever told you that you need to cut back or stop drinking? Are you struggling to get along with your spouse or with your kids? Have you missed work or school because you were drunk?
- Legal record: Have you ever been arrested for drunk driving or disorderly conduct?
- Family and friends say you have a drinking problem: Are you reading this because you’re sick of hearing your family and friends bug you about your drinking?
- Inability to manage life without alcohol: Do you find yourself depending on that drink to make it throughout the day?
When do I stop drinking?
Alcoholic or not, if alcohol is causing problems in your life, then you need to stop before the disease gathers momentum and creates lasting, permanent damage to yourself and those around you.
If you are abusing alcohol, you still have the option to cut back your drinking to the responsible amount. However, if you are unsuccessful, you most likely are an alcoholic and need to stop drinking.
“You don’t have to be an alcoholic to quit drinking. All that’s required to quit drinking in most cases is intelligence. If you’re intelligent enough to recognize that alcohol is interfering with your life, then certainly because you are intelligent, you can initiate an intelligent effort to remove alcohol from your life.” –Gene Duffy
Since withdrawal from alcohol can be dangerous, you have to be very careful when quitting. Supervised detox is the safest, most comfortable way to stop drinking.
By now, you should have a good grasp on whether or not you have an alcohol problem. Since alcoholism is a chronic disease that gets worse and worse left untreated, it requires immediate attention.