Got a Drinking Problem?

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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?

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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  • Rhonda

    I pray for all those who still suffer, including ME!!!

  • Maureen

    I was not sure whether I was an alcohol abuser or full blown alcoholic so decided to attend AA last year. I went to two meetings and found it rather depressing. I didn’t feel I was learning anything except how depressing other people’s lives were and felt totally out of place. I would like to try again but not sure how to go about it. Pray for me.

  • Patrick

    @ Maureen – there is quite a wide variety of meetings out there….they really can be worlds apart in the whole vibe of the meeting and the message that you hear there. I would encourage you to try again and really mix up where you go this time.

    12 step meetings are a great way to create a strong foundation in early recovery. Use them to your advantage if you can. Don’t be afraid to venture a ways out to hit a new and different meeting. It might well be worth it!

  • Mason

    I look forward to nipping at the bottle…i feel that im in love with it. It is very scary to realize I have a huge problem and at the same time I feel im letting people down when I drink…I dont know what to do, I’m scared and just want to be normal…

  • chris

    Yes my fiancees father has a bad drink problem and we need to know what to do . So please send me an email back thanks…

  • arumi

    Ok so i just what 13 and i really am in love with that bottle i need help.!

  • Patrick

    @ Arumi – if you are only 13 years old then you need to ask for professional help.

    Ask adults that you can trust to get you the help you need.

  • dee

    My husband is a binge drinker and takes off sometimes for a day or two when he comes home hes hateful he also take your money out of the bank leaves us without money but its always my fault for him doing it. Because i get mad when he wants to drink because i know what happens even if says he won’t take off. Im just tried of it and want to leave him don’t know what to do nees help!

  • Patrick

    @ Dee – Sorry to hear about your husband Dee, that is not easy to deal with and I would suggest that you seek out some help in order to deal with him.

    Best is to go to an Al-anon meeting. There you will get support, and good advice on how to best handle your situation.

    Binge drinking can still be alcoholism, and eventually it will no longer be binges but it will be a constant, every day thing if he keeps it up over the years. Best for YOU to seek help now.

    Good luck.

  • http://hotmail kb

    @Arumi – i got chu! i know what you’re through

  • http://hotmail Kb

    i don’t have a drinking problem.. i just drink!


  • Anonymous

    drinking problem is gud

  • Gurav borah

    Do you buy liquor at different places so no one will know how much you purchase?

  • Anonymous

    how is drinking problem “gud??”

  • Z

    Yeah. Addiction is a bitch. I’m 29 have a good job and am educated. I’ve also burnt through a marraige, have just got my 3’rd DUI, lost two jobs for being hungover at work and been to multiple inpatient treatments.

    I’ve known i was full blown alchy for years. Is what it is. We’re not alone. 12 step stuff DOES NOT work for me. Just stop right? ;)

  • Patrick

    @ Z – If 12 step recovery fails you, then I would explore my website for further ideas.

    I’m big on the idea of holistic health as being the key to long term recovery. Exercise should be a large part of this. But nutrition, spirituality, emotional balance, and so on should all play a part as well.

    Transitioning to this new life of holistic health is the hard part. For me, I needed long term rehab and 12 step recovery in order to do so.

    Good luck to you Z. Let me know if you need more ideas on how to overcome your problem. I will be glad to brainstorm more with you.

  • Anonymous

    @ Z –
    i’ve heard of that name somewhere

  • diesel99

    my girlfriend has had 2 dui wrecks has attended AA and when we met she was a heavy drinker. she stopped for me. i couldnt live like that. it was going great for 4 months. her brother moved with us about a month ago and last night while i was working graveyard shift she drank. it hurt so much to see her that way. she is not the same person. i asked her to move out but she said she would do anything i wanted her to. what do i need to do to make sure it doesnt happen again. if i kick her out she will go back to her old life and drinking to where she cant control herself. i am the best thing for her but what about me leading a normal life.

  • K

    This article raises great points, but the one thing it doesn’t raise is social pressure for drinking if you are an abuser but not an alocholic.

    If you are in business settings all the time (or maybe with friends) just saying no when you have never said no before, is difficult (maybe just for me). While you’re not dependent on it, it can be very difficult to change your entire lifestyle and friendships whose social lives can often revolve around. Any tips…??

  • Patrick

    That is a very good question, K.

    I have trouble answering it because I am an alcoholic, and always have been. The first time I got buzzed on alcohol I said “I am going to be drunk until I die. This is what I was born to do.” I never looked back. Wham. Instant alcoholic.

    Let me get this straight though….you are an alcohol abuser, but you are not dependent on it, right? If that is the case, why not just enjoy a few drinks and then stop?

    I am not trying to be smart or anything…but would that not work for you? Just limit yourself to a few drinks? Maybe 2 or 3?

    Wouldn’t an inability to do so define “dependence?” I am honestly not sure…I just know that I am an alcoholic, and I cannot stop at just one. The idea of abuse….sort of eludes me.

    Can you expand on what your “abuse” actually consists of? I would genuinely like to know more about it.

  • http://. demon

    Hi folks, I actually never thought that i had any problem & have been a hardened drinker for years, however, for the last few months have had a number of blackouts, a few of them have apparently resorted to heavy rows with the wife & another with a close friend. Have decided to quit for February – on my own, then have a crack at the one a day thing. Collect & love wine – would be a shame to stop drinking, and would like to get back to “normal”, no real idea where the blackouts and binging has come from – any ideas?.

  • Tim

    Hi, My sister has always been goal oriented and had a fantstic 10 year plan for becoming and accountant e.t.c, We lived together for 5 years as young adults and neither of us really ever drank even on nights out we weren’t binge drinkers – since i moved a few years ago her life has changed completely she has waisted the 4 years she spent studying by not completing the courses and now would have to start from scratch, she is not paying her bills (they are un-opened) not cleaning her house and has gone from steady employment to be being so unrelieable that she has lost 3 jobs in the past 18months and is now screwing up the 4th which is a great opportunity for her!! i now she is drinking at least 2 bottles of Vodka a week and thats what i know about i suspect by her late night phone calls that she is drinking quite heavily every night.

    I have approached her about this but she casually shrugs it off and denies she is drinking all the time – how do i get her to see she has a problem. i wish their was a blood test or liver function test or something that i can show her without her being able to lie her way out of!! i have asked her to try 30 days without and she got really pissed off and it looked like she was close to really getting angry and falling out with me.

    People are telling me to let her hit rock bottom – but this would mean me standing by while she loses her job and home!! i can’t do that!! please help with any advice if you can – is there a physical test i can give her to do that would make her understand its a problem.

    She is ageing rapidly and is no longer the girl she once was – i’m frantic to get her to see it and get help before its too late to undo any damage.


  • LOLA34546

    im 15 and i have a drinking and smoking problem while im at aschool i leave so i can have a cig. and feel good for the rest of the day

  • Anonymous

    Yep, I have a huge drink problem… I’ve only got one mouth!!!

  • Anonymous

    kathi is a legend… jus sayin’ :)

  • Anonymous

    My partner drinks a bottle of wine everyday. She doesnt drink at work, but when she gets home she has her bottle of wine. I am so scared that this thing is going to get out of hand. She says that she doesnt have a problem and can leave the wine for only Fridays & Saturdays. This she promised me yesterday (Saturday) and tonight she already had some wine after what she promised. My sister and my brother are alcoholics and I am so scared that my partner is going to walk the same road. I can not do that, what should I do??

  • L

    Patrick – thank you for this article. I found it very helpful and I am in the process of taking a deep look at me. I love drinking wine, look forward to opening a bottle each evening and then finishing it. I never drink and drive. I have a very strong will and know that I can stop drinking when I choose, as I did when i was pregnant with both of my children and with some related surgeries. Most recently I had a total hip replacement (due to a joint disease to which my dance career left me susceptible). I took none of the pain killers prescribed to me even immediately following the surgery and I drank very little while in recovery at home. My choice. BUT – I have issues around my family (mother and sister) and as my immediate family (husband and children) are an “entitlement” to them, I find I drink much more when in their presence, and I get angry. Around my sister I get judged and dismissed I become very angry, and then she calls me an alcoholic. We have had 2 very ugly fights.
    I believe that I have a drinking problem, I have always understood this. No blackouts, no law issues….certainly I recognize my drinking to sadness attached to my youth and family (mother/sister). I feel very strongly about believing that I am not an alcoholic….I do wonder if that is part of denial or if I do have an abuse issue that I can (if I choose) manage.

  • Marlene

    Im 21 yrs old. & ive been drinking since i was 13. my parents did a great job raising me. but i chose to handle my probelms through a bottle. ive cut down alot but, still worries me at times. i have a very addicitve personality. im young but, i dont NOT want to keep living from pay check to pay check. i need help & this site has geared me to the right direction. thank you

  • Wiwied

    My dad was an alcoholic, he died when I was in high school. I remember exactly how he started to become an addict. First, drinking was social, then he did just to keep his mind off daily problems. Finally alcohol took everything from us. This is a great article, hopefully it will help others to realize the danger of alcohol.

  • L

    Excellent article, thank you.

  • haley

    i am sick of my drinking problem, i always drink to get drunk as did my parents i am now 28 and started at 14, me and my partner drink all the time. its just like breathing fresh air. i know that i have a problem and always admid it, just never ever do anything about it, I dont want to go to meetings but would love to start enjoying life instead of being completely drawn to alcohol every second day of the week.

  • Paige

    I am very tired of seeing my bf drink to get drunk all time every seconds everyday even when he comes home from work then grab a beer bottle then drink more more more. He is diabetic and on medications everyday for more than 4 years. He has to test his blood for sugar every morning and family dr. said that is good. I still can’t understand but I always warn my bf that is very risk of his life, or he could have his feet ampulated someday, who knows. I really care and love for him very much and am very disappointed that he is very very stubborn. I have some people to pray for him I pray for him many many times. I have been looking for something that could scare him enough to stop drinking problem. He used to drive many times when he was very drunk. I told him that please do not drive while he is drunk he could hurt or kill other people or himself. I hope, he will wake up one day and realize that alcohol is bad and dangerous.
    Help me?

  • Diane Lane

    I have an evening drinking habit. During the day I exercise, work, do research or whatever and do not even think about alcohol. At night all the anxiety in my life hits and I sit and have 5-8 beverages. I am rarely drunk and it doesn’t really impact my daily life. I am more concerned about my general health and how much money I am wasting. I have found that exercising more helps somewhat, but I still have a ways to go. Due to complications and financial restrictions I cannot join AA or anything that is known. I find this aggravating. Any input would be appreciated