Got a Drinking Problem?

Got a Drinking Problem?


Got a drinking problem?

Know someone else who does?

You’ve come to the right place. Here is what you need to do:

First, diagnose the extent of the problem

There is a difference between alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence. Both could be considered a “drinking problem,” but one is a lifelong condition (alcohol dependence = alcoholism) while the other (alcohol abuse) might be merely a phase that someone is going through–such as binge drinking in college.

But if you or someone you know is having alcohol problems, how can you differentiate the extent of it? How can you know if it is “just a phase” versus full blown alcoholism?

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Problem drinker
Photo by Extranoise

There is actually a fairly easy way to tell the difference. The answer lies in how a person deals with the consequences of their drinking. Let me give you an example. Take 2 individuals, one of them is a problem drinker and the other is a true alcoholic. Put them in the same situation where they both get pulled over for drunk driving. The alcoholic is the one who continues to drink. The problem drinker decides it would be a good idea to stay away from alcohol, and simply does so–seemingly effortlessly.

Notice that it makes no difference how much or how often a person drinks. The problem drinker could actually drink greater amounts of booze and drink more frequently than the alcoholic. This is irrelevant however. It only matters what the drinkers do in the face of heavy consequences. Alcoholics will continue to drink even in the face of dire consequences.

Understand too that some alcoholics are binge drinkers and might put down the bottle for periods of time, but always end up returning to it at some point. Do not be deceived by these brief periods of abstinence, especially if the person tends to get into trouble when they drink. A binge drinker might look like they are only a “problem drinker,” but in reality they might very well be a full blown alcoholic. Perhaps someone only drinks a few times a year–but if every time they drink they end up getting into all sorts of trouble, then chances are good they are an alcoholic. They face dire consequences, take a few months off the sauce, but then they are right back at it again. Look at what they do in the face of consequences–this is the best way to tell the difference.

The only other real criteria used to differentiate between an alcoholic and problem drinkers is that the alcoholic cannot solve their problem by themselves. They must ask for help. A problem drinker, on the other hand, can simply walk away from the booze and go on about their life.

So I have a drinking problem and I abuse alcohol, but I’ve decided I’m not alcoholic. What now?

The logical step for a person with drinking problems is to simply correct the problem. For most people, this will involve either cutting back on their alcohol consumption or quitting altogether. Now for a non-alcoholic person, doing either of these things will not create any long term issues. For the true alcoholic, doing either of those things will definitely create a sense of unease and restlessness that eventually drives the person back to drinking.

But for the problem drinker who is merely abusing alcohol, the solution is to simply make a conscious effort to control or reduce their drinking. Setting a limit such as “no more than 2 drinks in a day” or “no drinking during the week” should be easy enough for someone to follow if they are not dependent.

You might also take caution in that there is some risk of moving from being a “problem drinker” to one day becoming a “real alcoholic.” At present there is no way to accurately predict who will become dependent and who will not, and keep in mind that some people do not develop alcoholism until much later in life. So the risk is always there for “problem drinking” to progress into something much more serious.

What if my friend or loved one is a problem drinker or an alcoholic?

Part of the problem with alcoholism is that the only person who can diagnose it is the person themselves. No one else can tell them that they are an alcoholic; they have to come to know this for themselves, and then accept it on a very deep level if they are ever going to recover from the condition.

Now if your friend or loved one truly is just a “problem drinker” and is merely abusing alcohol without really being dependent, then that is much less serious, although it could still pose some problems. Remember, a problem drinker will stop drinking in the face of serious consequences. If your friend or loved one continues to progress with their drinking problem, then it might be the case that they are actually in denial and could use some real help. Usually, we are the last person to know that we are an alcoholic. The rest of the world figured it out long ago. So it can be incredibly difficult to watch someone you know who is struggling with a true dependency.

If this is the case, you might want to read more about helping alcoholics, or possibly about planning a formal intervention.

I think I might be an alcoholic–what should I do?

If you think your signs of a drinking problem have finally progressed into real alcoholism, then congratulate yourself for having the awareness to realize this and the guts to do something about it. Don’t stop now, a wonderful life in recovery awaits you if you have the courage to ask for help. One of the easiest ways to do this is to simply go to an AA meeting and tell them you think you might have a problem. Alternatively, you might look into residential treatment programs, or seek professional counseling services.

It’s hard to believe, but what you do at this point and who you turn to for help is almost unimportant compared to the idea that you made a decision to confront your alcoholism and are now asking for help. In other words, just ask for help…..reach out and find the resources that can help you….any treatment center will work, any AA meeting is perfect, so long as you have made the decision to do something about your problem. Truly, there are no more worries at this point if you have truly surrendered to your problem and genuinely want help.

The key is to ask for help. Notice the difference between a problem drinker and an alcoholic? The only real difference is that those who are problem drinking can simply stop on their own. They don’t need help. They can just quit. Problem solved.

The true alcoholic is another case entirely. Their problems are just starting when they quit drinking… they have to learn how to live. Therefore the key for an alcoholic is to ask for help.

I keep getting into trouble when I drink, but I’m just unlucky!

I don’t think so. I think you are probably in denial.

I can say that because I was once there too. But I kept getting into trouble when I drank, and I could not see that this did not happen to normal drinkers. This is denial. I tried to justify my drinking by saying that “everyone is doing it,” but the truth was that everyone else around me could control their drinking and I could not.

The tricky part, of course, is that I actually could control my drinking, most of the time. But that is a key distinction there. Even though I was 90 percent effective at controlling myself, every once in a while I would go overboard, and then blackouts would occur, and chaos would ensue.

And eventually I reached a point in my drinking where I could not even really get drunk, I could only black out. I was either miserable and desperately trying to get myself properly sauced up, or I was past the point of no return and in a total blackout. The “fun” place of being a happy drunk was gone forever.

If you keep getting into trouble when you drink then you might want to take a closer look at your life. “Normal” people do not have a problem controlling their drinking, and if they do have an “episode,” then they back off and naturally avoid such things in the future. If you experience repeated problems while you’re drinking then you very well might have moved beyond the “problem drinking” stage.

When it is more than alcoholism

Sometimes a drinking problem is really just a problem. But you should be careful to see that it does not develop into full blown alcoholism.

What is the difference? Full blown alcoholism does not necessarily mean that someone is living in the back alley, drinking from a brown bag. That might be the stereotype but in fact, there are “real” alcoholics who still hold things together enough to have a home, a job, and so on. Outwardly they may appear to be doing well but on the inside they are a total mess, and continue to medicate heavily with alcohol.

Alcoholism and drinking problems cannot be judged by consequences alone. There is more to the diagnosis than just how many times you’ve been popped for drunk driving. What is more important is to find out if there are issues with living a sober life when you take away the alcohol and attempt to practice complete abstinence. If the person’s life falls apart without any alcohol, then it is not likely to be “just” a drinking problem–it is probably a real addiction. Alcoholism is not so much defined by a person’s drive to drink a lot, but more by the fact that the person cannot function without alcohol–period.

Take the booze away and if the person cannot function, you likely have an alcoholic on your hands. This is when you know that professional help is needed and that a structured program is necessary to overcome the alcoholism. This is different, of course, from potential treatments for a mere problem drinker.

So what if it is just alcohol abuse?

Alcohol abuse would be defined by people who are drinking way to much alcohol, but do not have an addiction to alcohol and they have no problem abstaining when they need to. For example, many college students fit criteria for alcohol abuse, but when they graduate from college, they go on to live ordinary lives without any addiction to alcohol.

Now obviously, the tricky part here is that alcohol abuse can easily morph into alcoholism, and the really tricky part is that this can happen at any age. People who are in their forties, fifties, or sixties can still develop alcoholism rather suddenly, even though they may have drank socially for their entire lives with no problems at all. Anyone could potentially develop an addiction to alcohol, seemingly out of nowhere. It happens.

If there is any doubt, watch what happens to an alcohol abuser who is facing consequences. If they continue to drink, then it is very possible that they have a serious addiction. However, normal people who are not addicted but choose to abuse alcohol for other reasons can easily stop if they are facing some sort of problem. For example, college students who need to cram for their finals normally have no problem doing so and leaving the alcohol alone for a while, even though they may be heavy abusers. They are not addicted.

Drinking problem test

There are a number of different tests out there that ask questions such as “how many drinks per day do you have on average?” or “Have you ever drank more than you planned on?” and so on. These drinking tests can be useful for some but they do not always help to determine the difference between problem drinking and alcoholism. Here are 2 experiments that you might do to help you determine this for yourself:

1) Do not drink any alcohol whatsoever for 30 days. Observe yourself and your reaction to normal drinking situations during this time, careful to observe your feelings.

2) Take no more than 1 drink per day for 30 days. Again, observe carefully what your thoughts and feelings are when you restrict yourself, especially in social situations where drinking is normally expected.

The key for both of these 30 day trials is to be very careful to observe your own feelings and reactions. You may even keep a journal during these times to help you gauge your potential for problems or addiction.

What you are watching for is resentment. Resentment against limiting yourself and your alcohol intake. The more resentment, the greater the potential problem.

If you can easily do both experiments with no real resentment then you probably don’t have much of a problem with alcohol, at all. This could of course change over time.

If you struggle with either experiment, then you are probably at least a problem drinker, and are potentially an alcoholic. The category of “binge drinkers” can skew the results, especially for the first experiment. Bingers can easily go for months without a drink, but still be an alcoholic. But the second experiment where you take 1 drink per day will easily expose the binge drinker to their own problem.

You must do both 30 day trials in order to get all the data you need. Observe your resentment towards having to control your intake. Do you still enjoy drinking, even when limiting your intake? This is a huge red flag if you do not. Do you resent doing a 30 day trial where you do not drink any alcohol at all? Another red flag.

Doing these trials and observing your reactions will tell you more about yourself than any series of questions.

Alcohol abuse problems

Now if you are simply abusing alcohol, watch your consequences carefully, and even more importantly, watch what actions follow a consequence. The follow up action to a drinking consequence is the biggest indicator of the depth of the drinking problem.

Say a person goes overboard on the weekend and tells off their significant other while they are intoxicated. Obviously they apologize like crazy, etc. But what happens next? Is this part of a pattern, or do they genuinely change their consumption levels? Quitting entirely or cutting down to close to nothing would be what a “normal,” non-alcoholic person would do. Serious consequences should produce fast, noticeable changes. Anything less is a warning sign that alcohol abuse is shifting towards a real dependency.

Does a drinking problem require rehab?

Probably not, if it is really just a drinking problem and not actually dependence or addiction. The true alcoholic cannot stop under their own willpower alone. That is what defines them as being an alcoholic. If they could just stop abruptly with no help at all, then that is not a true alcoholic. See how this works? Alcoholism is defined by an inability to stop by your own means.

On the other hand, drinking problems can generally be managed with less outside help, and in some cases, with no outside help at all. For example, a problem drinker might go to counseling or attend group therapy for a while. This is not as intensive as checking into rehab for 28 days and then hitting daily AA meetings for the next 20 years. There is a huge difference in the level of treatment that you can get for drinking problems and alcoholism.

So what if you try counseling and your continue to experience more problems with alcohol? Get honest with yourself and find out if you might have developed a real dependency. Do the 2 thirty day trials suggested on this page and see what your results are. Addiction can form at any time, and discriminates against no one.

Suggested help for a problem drinker

The first suggestion is to use the two 30 day trials and accurately determine your level of dependency or problem. If you decide that you can control your intake and abstain relatively easily, then perhaps you are not actually an alcoholic and merely have problem drinking in your life. If this is the case then what should you do?

Well it depends on your own goals of course. Most problem drinkers would have one of 2 possible goals:

1) Control and enjoy their drinking in the future.

2) Abstain entirely from alcohol to avoid all problems.

Anyone who chooses to abstain entirely from alcohol is probably not going to be reading this. A good choice, but most who enjoy alcohol in moderation would love to be able to both control their drinking while still enjoying it.

Therefore, the key is going to be to stay vigilant and monitor yourself honestly. Easy to say but hard to do, especially if you are an alcoholic in denial who is simply trying to rationalize their dependency. You have to be honest with yourself.

For example, I was not a binge drinker, but instead I was dependent on alcohol and had to drink every single day. Therefore, if I had attempted to do the two 30 day trials suggested here, I would have failed miserably. I might have held onto my denial in 2 ways:

1) On the 30 days with only 1 drink per day, I may have managed to squeak by. I would have justified a very large drink, drank it very slowly, and supplemented this one drink with lots of other drugs. Talk about denial.

2) On the 30 day trial with no alcohol at all, I would have outright refused, citing my “success” on the other 30 trial as proof that I was not really addicted.

So you see how denial works? You have to be honest with yourself so that you can get past these sort of rationalizations. We can fool ourselves into thinking we are just problem drinking, when in fact we are dependent on self medicating and cannot really pass these two tests as they are intended.

To Recap

If you’re a problem drinker, then simply stop drinking or drink significantly less. This should solve your problem.

If you find that difficult to do, or if you continue to experience problems when you drink, then you might be an alcoholic. Get to an AA meeting and be honest and the people there can help you figure out if you are truly dependent or not. The people there are best equipped to provide help with drinking problems.

Remember, if you think you have a problem with drinking, the most important thing is to ask for help.


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