What is an Alcoholic?

What is an Alcoholic?


Many people have wondered this to themselves: “What is an alcoholic?”  Is it just someone who drinks an awful lot?  Is it someone who cannot control their drinking?

Here is the definition that seems to make most sense to me:

An alcoholic is someone who, once they start drinking, cannot reliably control how much alcohol they consume.  At the same time, the alcoholic is someone who cannot reliably resist the first drink.

Why the “reliably” in there?  Why not “always?”

Ah, this is the tricky part.  This is why alcoholics stay stuck in denial for years and years without seeking help for their problem. This is the reason why an alcoholic can convince themselves that they are perfectly normal.

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The problem is that any alcoholic CAN control their drinking.  And any alcoholic CAN resist the first drink.

The sleepers
Creative Commons License photo credit: Olgierd Pstrykotwórca

They just can’t do it every time.

But they can fool themselves, and they often do, because they will play a game with themselves.  They will say to themselves something like this: “OK, I lost control recently with my drinking and made a fool of myself.  I went overboard and I got totally wasted.  But who doesn’t get drunk sometimes? I will now conduct an experiment where I will only take a few drinks, but not get drunk.  Thus I will prove to myself that I do not have a serious problem with this drinking stuff.”

Or the alcoholic may reason it like this: “I have had some problems with drinking too much lately and people are saying that I can not turn down a drink.  I will prove them wrong by not drinking at all for a few days.  Thus I will prove to myself and to them that I can say no when I want to.”

Now in both cases, ANY alcoholic out there, I don’t care how messed up they are, can actually do well with these experiments.  They can easily resist a drink for a day, or limit themselves to having 2 drinks on a certain occasion, in order to prove something to themselves.  They can do it. And this is where denial comes from.  They do an experiment like one of these, they are successful in limiting or resisting their alcohol use, and thus they justify to themselves that they are “normal.”

This is why an alcoholic is defined by a history of drinking and by their overall track record.  If you try to define alcoholism with a one day experiment, then the alcoholic will win every time and stay stuck in denial.

You have to look at the pattern.

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