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Am I an Alcoholic? Clear-Cut Signs You Might Have a Drinking Problem

The typical picture conjured up when one imagines an alcoholic

The typical picture conjured up when one imagines an alcoholic

Am I an Alcoholic?

As a person who worked as a drug and alcohol counselor for over two years, I’m occasionally asked how to tell if someone has become a problem drinker. People will ask if there's such a thing as crossing over that invisible line and “becoming an alcoholic."

This question reveals something of a misconception because, in actuality, there is no invisible line to be crossed. There is no set number of drinks per week, nor is there a handy little formula you can use to calculate the probability that you are an alcoholic.

You see, alcoholism runs along a rather long continuum, further confounded by the fact that it tends to be progressive in nature. The majority of us have a schema for the alcoholic; close your eyes for a moment and conjure up your mental image of this person. Fifteen years ago, my vision was of an older man drinking hard liquor out of a paper bag, homeless, disheveled and dirty, and a potential menace to society.

My father was an alcoholic. His disease had progressed quite far—into what’s known as the final and deadly “chronic alcoholic" phase. This meant he was no longer drinking by choice but rather because he couldn't do without. Chronic alcoholics must drink alcohol; without it, they will die, and with it, they will die—the only alternative is medical treatment. They go on benders for days at a time; they have the shakes if not enough alcohol is running through their bloodstreams; they hoard their supply and will stop at nothing to get more; they’ve lost family, friends, or their job; and they might have had run-ins with the law.

I grew up watching my father gradually disintegrate. He went from being a married, successful lawyer with children to an unemployed, family-less man living in the basement of a friend’s home. In my mind, THIS was the picture of alcoholism.

Myth: "I can't be an alcoholic, I only drink red wine. It's good for you!"

Myth: "I can't be an alcoholic, I only drink red wine. It's good for you!"

Myths About Alcoholics

Here is a sampling of some very common denial mechanisms, rationalizations, and justifications.

  • "I‘m not an alcoholic because I don‘t drink every day." This is completely false. Many alcoholics don’t drink daily.
  • "I can go for weeks without even having a drink, so I’m not an alcoholic." Many alcoholics are what are called “binge alcoholics” and may go for long stretches of time without touching a drop. They drink irregularly, but when they do drink, they drink to get drunk or have more drinks than they intended. They may suffer the consequences of intense hangovers the next day. They might do embarrassing things during their binges they will later regret. They may even lose friendships, miss work, and suffer from mood swings.
  • "I don‘t have the same problems alcoholics have, so I’m not an alcoholic." Many alcoholics still function in their jobs, have families, money, a nice house, kids, have never had legal problems, have the white picket fence, etc. Many alcoholics have not suffered very many, or perhaps none, of the potential negative consequences of drinking. Some may never get a DUI, lose anyone or anything they care about, have legal trouble, become homeless, or run out of money to pay the rent. Many practicing alcoholics are, in fact, highly successful people!
  • "I only drink red wine, so I can’t be an alcoholic." It doesn’t matter what your drug of choice is (don’t be fooled, alcohol is most certainly a drug). You may only drink red wine or beer, but you can still be an alcoholic.
  • "I only drink a lot; I’m not an actual ALCOHOLIC!" Umm . . . can you say denial? Tell me, what does an alcoholic look like, anyway?
  • "I don’t drink that much, not nearly enough to be an alcoholic." Again, there is no clear-cut number of drinks per week that determines whether or not you’re an alcoholic.
Rationalizations and justifications are common for an alcoholic.

Rationalizations and justifications are common for an alcoholic.

Common Red Flags: Things "Normies" Would Never Do

Normal drinkers, sometimes referred to “normies” by people in recovery, don’t worry about their drinking. Problematic drinkers, on the other hand, do. If someone close to you has ever stated that he or she is worried about the amount s(he)’s consuming or is worried about being an alcoholic, the concern warrants attention.

  • Normies don’t make regular attempts to stop drinking and fail. This is one of the hallmark signs of an alcoholic: repeated unsuccessful attempts to stop drinking.
  • Normies don’t make frequent rationalizations about their drinking. If you don’t have a problem with alcohol, you are not likely to make justifications about the amount you drink. Common justifications are: “Well, you should see how much HE or SHE drinks,” or “It’s just part of our culture,” or “I deserve to drink this much after such a long, hard week!”
  • Normies don’t have others accusing them of being alcoholics. If you do, take heed.
  • Normies don't frequently feel guilty about their drinking.
  • Normies don’t vow to others they won’t drink—but then end up drinking, anyway. If there wasn't a problem, they wouldn’t need to make promises to others. Furthermore, if drinking isn't a problem, abstinence would come easily!
  • Normies don’t make frequent statements about how they’re NOT alcoholic. In fact, they don’t ponder their drinking habits in the first place because their drinking isn't problematic. These statements (often accompanied by strong denial, justifications, and rationalizations) often mean someone has confronted him or her about excessive drinking. Generally speaking, this confrontation has hit home and resulted in the need to make frequent declarations about this “non-issue." If an individual is wrongfully accused of having a problem, it’s simply not going to have much of an emotional impact.

Resources & More Information

This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


Louise Elcross from Preston on August 07, 2016:

Thank you for this hub. My parents, brother and sister were alcoholics and my parents lost their lives through drink. Now my daughter is an alcoholic and in denial. Her whole life is a complete mess and family is destroyed because she is aggressive and abusive with family members. I have now boundaries in place to protect me and the family from her drunken abuse but I feel sad and often guilty for setting boundaries. She knows she is alcoholic and our relationship is destroyed and still she drinks. It is a very destructive illness and sad for all those that are addicted. Thank you

hobbitinspiration from Monmouth, OR on February 27, 2012:

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Thanks for the mental exercise of asking myself all of these questions. I do wish there was a better name out there than "normies"

David Cook from Suburban Philadelphia on January 31, 2012:

Is having an addictive personality really genetic? There seem to be a lot of conditions where we look to genetics for the answer. While I believe genetics can and will make a huge impact in our lives I stop short of allowing genetics to be the cause of social or emotional issues. My fear is that we continue to use labels instead of treatment and we end up a totally screwed up society with lots of name tags.

Eliminate Cancer from Massachusetts on January 30, 2012:

Interestingly, I have a family full of alcoholics and others who have issues with addiction. I must have missed that gene. I'm the only one who never smoked, I could take or leave drinking - I just don't have an addictive personality.

That said, for all their bad habits, I am the only one who was diagnosed with cancer... go figure :)

It's all life. We all have our personal challenges. If we wake up every day and try to do a better job, then we're doing okay!!

Great hub, thanks!!

Elsie Nelson (author) from Pacific Northwest, USA on January 30, 2012:

Thanks for coming by The Finance Hub...

Pcunix, glad you pointed out ETOH is a drug. Lots of people forget that. Thanks for coming by.

Tony Lawrence from SE MA on January 30, 2012:

Prohibition is unfortunately impossible, but alcohol really is such a pointless drug.. So dangerous, no real benefit now that we have clean and safe water.. Oh, well..

Elsie Nelson (author) from Pacific Northwest, USA on January 30, 2012:

Thanks, wonderingwoolley. It can go very wrong in college, that's when I REALLY knew I had a problem. Thanks for reading and commenting!

wonderingwoolley from Madison, WI on January 30, 2012:

This is great. I come from a family that loves to drink, and often drinks to excess. I've made the choice to not follow their example, and to be cautious of how much I drink. However, being in college skews how you think about drinking and alcoholism, and I think what you wrote will be really valuable to those who are "just trying to have a real college experience" and find themselves in a world of trouble later. Voted up, to this hub, and to you!

Elsie Nelson (author) from Pacific Northwest, USA on January 30, 2012:

Thanks, LucidWarrior. "Normies" is a term often heard in A.A. I appreciate the comment.

David Cook from Suburban Philadelphia on January 30, 2012:

I have heard of 'social drinkers' but never 'normies'. Interesting. I agree with all the denial tactics. They are common to most addictions. Great to see you working on your own recovery by helping others.

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