You are Definitely Not an Alcoholic, But Could Your Current Alcohol Use be a Problem?

 I think we have all seen it, the AA meeting depicted in media "Hi, my name is Amanda and I am an alcoholic". This, and what usually follows is a recap of how the protagonist ended up there: after daily alcohol consumption that ruined their marriage, cost their career, and destroyed their friendships. Since addiction tends to touch most of our lives one way or another, we may have also heard this popular narrative from a loved one, or heard about a co-workers loved one: "by the time he finally got some help, Bill couldn't make it until 10am without his first drink." Alcoholism seems definable and easy to spot, a person who drinks every day, a person who has to drink early in the day to get going, they often black out, they cannot hold a job, they fall down at gatherings, have strained relationships, or refuse to show up to any social function unless alcohol consumption is normal. Someone who fits such a profile will most likely meet criteria for a diagnoses of substance dependency or alcoholism. That seems pretty clear cut, and in our modern day culture, there isn't much more to worry about other than that. Everyone else who is drinking moderately and not ending up in rehabs or AA meetings are able to consume alcohol without consequence and disruption of daily life, right? Maybe, but often they are not.

Alcohol consumption is so normalized and interwoven into our culture that problem drinking often goes completely unnoticed and remains invisible to others for years. Most social events, and even many professional events, encourage alcohol use as a social lubricant or reward for a job well done. Run into an old friend? "Lets grab a drink" Had a rough day? "Oh buddy you could sure use a drink". Hook up culture almost mandates alcohol consumption for single adults to participate, drinking is just what you do in the dating world. For many, they can just do that, participate in alcohol consumption mildly without any worries, without life impacting consequences. For many others, they can consume alcohol moderately and with consequences a significant percentage of the time. But if someone is able to fluctuate between keeping a 2 glass limit while out for Italian food with Mom on a Tuesday but drinks until they are blacked out with a few friends on a Friday what constitutes whether that person is a problem drinker? What percentage of consequences means that person is in danger of becoming an alcoholic? There is no clear answer, it is going to be different for everyone. A person may moderately drink for years and experience consequences but never develop into meeting diagnostic criteria for alcoholism. Think "Controlled Alcoholic", a term that has been coined to define those who observably consume heavy amounts of alcohol but never lose their jobs, wreck their marriages, or need to go to an AA meeting. Those individuals certainly have consequences, even though they are not falling down at weddings and embarrassing the brides.

So, how do you know if your alcohol consumption is problematic? You know you're not an alcoholic but could alcohol be negatively effecting your life? There are a few broad questions you can ask yourself to develop some problem awareness. These questions may help you explore whether or not you need to take a closer look at your alcohol use.

  • Do you consume 5 or more drinks in one night at least four times per month or more?
  • Do you celebrate most good news with alcohol?
  • Do you consume alcohol on most of your nights off?
  • Do you usually have at least 1-3 hangovers per month?
  • Do you experience "black outs" from drinking at least 1-4 times a year?
  • Do more than half of the ways you chose to spend your free time involve alcohol?
  • Would it be difficult to imagine giving up all alcohol use for an entire year?
  • Do you often lose count of how many drinks you've had during a night out?

Answering yes to just one of the questions above could signify that you may benefit from taking a closer look at how alcohol use is impacting your life. With alcohol consumption so normalized in our media and in our culture, it is taken for granted what defines appropriate alcohol use. Let us take a look at what our national guidelines tell us.

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, as displayed on the Center for Disease Control's website: "Moderate alcohol consumption is defined as having up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men. This definition is referring to the amount consumed on any single day and is not intended as an average over several days. It is not recommended that individuals who do not drink alcohol start drinking alcohol for any reason."  So, I guess we should consider drinking grape fruit juice for those health benefits that wine consumption is promised to provide.

What moderate drinking is truly defined as is fiercely incongruent with what we are led to believe by cultural cues in our social circles and in the daily media we consume. If our national guidelines state that 1-2 drinks on a day (not daily) is what moderation is then we need to be aware of the vast gray area between moderate alcohol consumption and what we have come to understand alcoholism to be defined as.

A lot can happen in that gray area, a loss of self growth, a history of dysfunctional intimate relationships, a lack of fulfilled potential, delayed goal achievement, poor work performance, or negligence of health all without a need to wake up and have a drink in the morning or spend time in a rehab. With heavy alcohol consumption so normalized in our society, it is all too easy to miss the fact that alcohol use may be negatively impacting your life and stalling your growth. Asking yourself the above questions are a good start for gaining problem awareness. You could also try keeping a drinking journal and recording when you consume alcohol, how much you consume, why you chose to consume it, what the effects are (good and bad), much like a food journal. You could also simply decide to abstain from all alcohol use for 6 months and see what kinds of changes or improvements take place in your life if any.  

If you find that you do believe alcohol use is negatively impacting your life and you are not confident that you can stop your use on your own, you can always seek assistance from an individual counselor or therapist that specializes in treating substance use disorders. You do not have to be dependent on alcohol or even sure that alcohol use is a problem in your life to seek an evaluation from a professional. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Motivational Enhancement Therapy have been proven through research to be especially effective with helping individuals develop practical skills to stop dysfunctional behaviors. It may take as little as 10-16 sessions with the right professional for you to become equipped with the skills and behavior change that can successfully help you reduce or eliminate your alcohol consumption, so that you can focus on working toward achieving personal growth and fulfillment. The first step is developing awareness, the second step is determining whether there is a problem, and the third step is making progress toward changing that problem.