Am I an Alcoholic? Clear-Cut Signs You Might Have a Drinking Problem
As a person who worked as a drug and alcohol counselor for over 2 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—and 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.
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 everyday." 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 only 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.
10 Signs You May Be An Alcoholic
Do You Worry You're Drinking Too Much?
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 alcoholic. 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
- Alcoholic.org - The four stages of alcoholism, as defined by E. Morton Jellinek.
- AddictionsandRecovery.org - Self-screening tests for alcoholism and addiction.
- National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse - A government institute that conducts research and provides lots of useful information about alcohol's impact on human health.
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.