What is Alcoholism?
Despite our society’s belief that most people are normal drinkers and only assholes become alcoholics, alcoholism is more of a journey than a destination. It’s true that some people are predisposed to travel faster due to genetic and biochemical factors such as the way the body metabolizes alcohol and the feeling that alcohol produces in the brain. (If you have a high tolerance or experience euphoric relief, you’re moving faster.) Lifestyle factors can slow the process. A person with a job that has no room for sub-par performance is highly motivated to abstain from drinking during the work week. Someone who lives in an alcohol-free home will naturally drink less than a person who keeps a loaded bar. Put those same people in a different life (or on vacation. or in quarantine) where regular drinking is acceptable, normalized and even expected, and addiction accelerates (alcoholism is a progressive disease).
How to know if you’re an alcoholic
The cross-over from normal drinking to problem drinking occurs when a drinker learns that alcohol (temporarily) solves the problems created by alcohol. This can happen quickly or over a lifetime, consciously or unconsciously. Have you ever gone to an all-weekend event such as a wedding? Many people over-do it on Friday night (I used to call that a rookie mistake). The women separate from the boys on Saturday morning when the “normal” drinkers sleep it off and the “professionals” grab a hair-of-the-dog and literally jog past the struggle bus to the party. Alcohol anesthetizes pain.
People who drink to relieve stress are especially prone to developing alcoholism. The more you often you drink, the more anxiety, depression and mood problems linger below the surface due to alcohol withdrawal. (Any drug that boosts your pleasure will also kick you in the ass on the way out.)
The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are often wrongly attributed to external stressors such as finances, spouse, kids, Karen, dinner time, trains, roadblocks, elections, things that break, and days that end in “y,”– other problems that aren’t your fault and certainly have nothing to do with drinking. Stress drinkers think that other problems justify more alcohol–not less. This becomes a cycle that accelerates as slowly or quickly as our circumstances allow.
Alcoholism vs. Alcohol Use Disorder
“Alcoholism” is a non-medical term we use to describe (and shame) someone who can’t/won’t control their drinking. But it’s not a black or white diagnosis. There’s no line between wanting a drink and needing a drink. Addiction presents on a spectrum and is more appropriately referred to as alcohol use disorder. Cravings and the ability to withstand them are subject to individual perception. Contrary to AA philosophy, anyone who drinks on a regular basis is dependent to some extent–psychologically, physically or both. But alcohol isn’t special. Like any drug, addiction can get worse. It can also be broken.
Looking at my own descent into alcohol use disorder, I’ll use an analogy (that I made up–all credit or criticism goes to me). Every person is given a limited, unknown and random number of free drink tickets for the bar of life. When our tickets are gone, the life bar starts a tab. Eventually, the bill comes due.
My life allowed me to drink more than I might have in a parallel universe. I don’t have to work long shifts or a second job. I didn’t have to choose between alcohol and other necessities. I could buy my gluten-free, vegan cake and drink organic wine too. I didn’t have a lot of stressful reasons to drink–my problem was that I didn’t have many reasons to not drink. I felt privileged and entitled to live the good life, and was brainwashed to believe that the good life included fine wine and pricey liquor. I was a normal drinker for many years, abstaining through my pregnancies and moderating as life demanded. But I was always a drinker, and thus was marching at a steady pace into addiction.
But I didn’t know that. Because for a long time, I qualified as a “normal.” The red flags were few and far between. I was as healthy and happy as I thought I could be–stoically dealing with the ever-growing symptoms of alcohol use disorder disguised as WTFDay #389). There were people around me who drank far more than I did. Their existence kept me safe and secure in my own habits. I wasn’t like them! I was good. I was better. At the very least, I was normal.
It’s Normal to Get Addicted to an Addictive Substance
It’s easy to see why I couldn’t see the forest through the trees. In our society, you are either an alcoholic or you are not. I was high functioning, and therefore had plenty of evidence that I wasn’t an alcoholic. I knew I needed to cut back and I wasn’t happy that it seemed difficult. But I believed that the problem was a lack of willpower. Motivation. Energy. The problem was me (and everyone else’s bullshit)–not the drinking. Every day, I tried really hard to stop what was happening to me and internalized the guilt and shame of perpetual failure. What I couldn’t swallow I blamed on other people. And every night, alcohol both relieved the pain and fueled the flames.
The truth is that alcohol is a mind and mood altering, addictive, psychoactive neurotoxin that is a Class 1 carcinogen. The truth is the problem isn’t people–it’s the product. Occassionally, you meet an ex-drinker who is still an asshole. But as a general rule, people in recovery from alcohol use disorder are emotionally intelligent (maybe more so than the general population as overcoming addiction takes a great deal of courage, reflection and humility).
The mental illness associated with alcohol use disorder is a side effect of drinking the poison. I know that to be true because with the poison out of my system, that broken and pathetic version of myself is gone. My integrity, joy, productivity and compassion have returned. I’m not pretending to be okay anymore. I am ok. Placing blame on those of us that succumb to addiction only offers immunity to the $1.5 trillion alcohol industry that profits from disease. Transferring blame to people instead of the product prevents the “normal” drinkers from seeing the danger.
Alcohol is the Problem Not the Solution
I quit drinking in April, 2020 because I was miserable. So many things were out of my control (Covid-19 and the subsequent quarantine, financial distress, e-learning for my kids, isolation, etc.—not to mention the amount of alcohol I was consuming). While I have always believed that alcohol reduces stress, and is therefore therapeutic, my daily experience was not aligning with that belief. My stress had become physically and mentally overwhelming. I was so desperate that I made the only change I really could, and did something that I hadn’t imagined was possible (or pleasurable).
I stopped drinking.
Seven months later, I can report that sobriety feels amazing. Even bad days sober are better than good days drinking. Now, I’m trying to figure out what this means. Am I an alcoholic? What do you think?
Evaluating whether or not you should quit drinking (for a while or for good) using the question, “how to know if you’re an alcoholic?” is irrelevant. It doesn’t really matter. Just assume the self-assessment you take on a random website says, “No.” Then what? Do you keep drinking and hope things getter better? Alcohol use disorder is progressive. Hope is not a strategy.
The real question for you to consider is “Is drinking alcohol enhancing my body, mind, life and relationships?” Even the answer, “I don’t know,” is a call to action.
There’s only one way to find out.
What is Alcohol Use Disorder?
Do you wish you drank less but find it difficult to stop once you start? Are the legal experts in your head constantly debating the problem—and what you should do? That's alcohol use disorder.
You’re not alone. Many of us have been duped into using alcohol as a consolation prize for neglecting our needs--and then criticized for becoming dependent on it. I was able to quit drinking after 30 years without AA, rehab or willpower. My energy, vitality and joy have returned. I help high-functioning drinkers experience sobriety as a superpower, not a disease.