I don’t think I’m an alcoholic. I hear this statement a lot in my therapy office as patients discuss their pattern of drinking. Usually they’re thinking of an alcoholic as someone whose constant drinking leads to missing work, DUIs, losing relationships, and hitting rock bottom. However, the majority of alcoholics don’t fit this stereotype, and remain largely functional despite their use.
Whatever the definition, I find that it’s not necessarily helpful to reduce our relationship with alcohol to a single black-or-white question, Am I an alcoholic? The implication is that there’s a problem if I am, and no problem if I’m not.
But our relationship with alcohol isn’t that simple. We don’t have to be chugging vodka first thing in the morning, blacking out, or driving while intoxicated for there to be an issue. The better question is:
Is the way I’m drinking a net positive in my life?
Full disclosure: I never had a healthy relationship with alcohol, always feeling that it took up more space in my life than I wanted it to. And while no one ever told me I had a drinking problem, I knew it affected the quality of my relationships and led to countless hangovers and regret.
I chose to give up drinking a little over two years ago and have never regretted it, and my personal experience no doubt influences my views on alcohol. It also opened my eyes to the many signs that our drinking may not be serving us well.
Here are some common indications that alcohol has more power in your life than you might realize:
- Wondering if you have a problem. The question of “what makes someone an alcoholic?” has crossed your mind (and you’ve clicked on articles like this one), but you’re not sure. Maybe you’ve resolved in the past to stop drinking but then you convinced yourself that you can drink in moderation. This question itself suggests it’s worth taking a closer look.
- Consistently drinking more than you wish you had. You often have regrets about your drinking the next morning. Even if you’re not getting completely hammered, you might find yourself having three drinks when you meant to have one, or one when you weren’t planning to drink at all. And you might not be truly hung over, but perhaps you didn’t sleep well and you feel a bit anxious throughout the day.
- Setting a lot of rules around your alcohol use. Do you find yourself carefully measuring your drinks, or making rules like “never be the only person drinking” or “no alcohol Monday through Thursday”? Through these rules you’re trying to prove to yourself you can drink responsibly and keep alcohol in your life.
- Carefully planning your alcohol consumption in advance. In a similar way, you might find that you’re trying to keep your drinking in check through tricks like having a glass of water after every alcoholic drink, or pacing yourself throughout the night (e.g., only one beer per quarter of the game).
- Giving a lot of attention to what and how much you’ll drink. When you’re going to an event you might automatically think ahead to whether there will be alcohol, look up the wine or beer list in advance, or even worry about whether you’ll have enough to drink. You might also find yourself “pre-partying” or bringing an extra bottle “just to be safe.”
- Drinking more than others realize. You don’t have to be hiding a flask of liquor in your desk drawer to be secretive about your drinking. It could mean having stronger drinks so others won’t know you’re drinking more than they are, or trying your best not to seem intoxicated.
- Being unable to imagine certain events without alcohol. Most people who have a healthy relationship with alcohol could take it or leave it. They might prefer to have a glass of wine with dinner or a beer with the game, but they wouldn’t be upset to go without it. Feeling anxious or irritated when alcohol isn’t available suggests a greater dependence on it.
- White knuckling through periods of abstinence. Whether it’s waiting till 5:00 PM, the end of the week, or a longer stretch like Dry January, you find yourself pining for the “finish line” so you can finally have a drink.
While none of these factors in and of itself is a definite sign you have a drinking problem, they could mean it’s time to reduce your drinking, or even to let go of alcohol for good.
Keep in mind that you can decide you want to make a change even if your behavior is considered normal in your social circle. Your drinking affects you most directly, and you stand to benefit the most if you need to make a positive change.