Hell no, I would never go to a DRY wedding!
November 10, 2008 4:39 PM   Subscribe

At what point does a person have a drinking problem?

I admit I’m not too educated about alcohol abuse. I went through D.A.R.E. like many kids, but if I remember it correctly, it was an abstinence program. It didn’t teach us how to drink responsibly.

I know at the “white” end of the spectrum, someone who has a glass of wine with dinner a half of a dozen times a year, obviously does not have a drinking problem. At the “black” end of the spectrum, someone who drinks until they pass out, on a regular basis, obviously has an alcohol problem.

To me, there seems like there’s a lot gray area when it comes to this issue.

Could someone who drink a lot (6+ drinks more than 2x a week), but doesn’t display a lot of erratic behavior, have a drinking problem?

Could someone who drinks a little (2-4 drinks a few times a month), but behaves quite erratically, have a drinking problem?

Then there’s intent. What about people who drink to cope with problems vs. those who drinks to celebrate? Would someone who drinks a glass of wine to ease their stress have more of a drinking problem than someone who takes 5+ shots to celebrate the weekend?
posted by sixcolors to Society & Culture (29 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I know this sounds like a cop-out, but it's true:

If it's a problem, it's a problem. If it doesn't interfere with any of the rest of your life, it's (probably) not a problem. If it does... then it is.
posted by Tomorrowful at 4:48 PM on November 10, 2008

My Austrian neighbor just told me I had a drinking problem because I drink on average a beer a day. She's a theology student and I think she's full of it, though.

I would say you have a drinking problem when the drinking starts to cause regular problems, either with your health or through your behavior.
posted by dunkadunc at 4:50 PM on November 10, 2008

I think it becomes a drinking problem when it begins to interfere with work, school, family, relationships, or any other important aspect of your life.
posted by All.star at 4:52 PM on November 10, 2008 [5 favorites]

I just thought I'd throw out a couple comments I made previously, just for perspective. Here is what I became after two decades of heavy drinking, and my experience in alcohol rehab.
posted by netbros at 4:59 PM on November 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's not so much quantities as it is effects. There are a few quick self-tests online that give an indication of what is okay and what is not okay. For example: Is your drinking okay?
posted by Paragon at 5:02 PM on November 10, 2008

When you are drinking half a fifth of Smirnoff on Tuesday night, and you have to be at the office at 8am the next morning, you have a problem.

Some people, often men, have a compulsion to self destruct. Usually reason and rational consideration is enough to deter failure, but alcohol blurs these. Destruction is the raison d'etre of alcohol. Some people are stable enough that they can "get wasted" on a weekend and brag about this mild fury of poor behavior and the "wicked" hangover the next day. You'll usually hear these stories on facebook, or around the office. However, the real drinker drinks so much for so long that they really don't get wasted any more. They just drink and drink and it drives the spike deeper into the back of your head. You can almost feel your senses disengage after the 11th whisky. The 15th. You no longer get drunk as much as you simply disappear. Your friends are stumbling home vomiting and bleary eyed and you are still deep in the night, another mistake, another bar.

Eventually these people fade away, which maybe is what they always wanted to do anyway.
posted by plexi at 5:03 PM on November 10, 2008 [11 favorites]

I agree with Tomorrowful -- if alcohol is causing problems, you have a drinking problem.

That includes things like driving when you're drunk, even if nobody's gotten hurt. Or if alcohol interferes with your sleep, and lack of sleep causes difficulties. I choose these examples only because I've seen them in family members. If you're doing anything you feel inclined to rationalize or make excuses about, beware.
posted by wryly at 5:04 PM on November 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

According to the United States Preventive Services Taskforce, alcohol abuse is broken up into two different conditions: risky/hazardous (which measures intake) and harmful (which measures physical and psychosocial effects). "Risky/Hazardous" drinking is more than 7 drinks/week or more than 3/occasion for women; 14/week, 4/occasion for men.
Harmful drinking, on the other hand, "describes persons who are currently experiencing physical, social, or psychological harm from alcohol use but do not meet criteria for dependence.

A good, quick test for alcohol abuse/dependence is the 4-item CAGE test, though there are others here:
C- feeling the need to Cut down
A- Annoyed by criticism
G- feeling Guilty about drinking
E- feeling the need for an Eye-opener in the morning.
posted by The White Hat at 5:05 PM on November 10, 2008

A- Annoyed by criticism

I really don't think this one is always an indicator. For example, I find my neighbor calling my one beer a day alcoholism to be really offensive, and I think I'm justified in that. Other people's criticism isn't always well-placed, and depends on where they're coming from: In this case, my neighbor is a theology student.
posted by dunkadunc at 5:13 PM on November 10, 2008

If you stop doing simple things, like going out in public, hell, cleaning the house, because you are drunk, its a problem.

Chronic drinking takes TIME, if you are giving up other things because it will interfere with your intake, you are flirting with trouble.

Now back to my beer...
posted by Max Power at 5:14 PM on November 10, 2008 [5 favorites]

Could someone who drink a lot (6+ drinks more than 2x a week), but doesn’t display a lot of erratic behavior, have a drinking problem?

Yeah, I'd say so. Drinking is a problem not only when it causes erratic behavior and messes with the rest of your life, but when it gets to the point where you are physically harming yourself. That level of drinking can mess with a person's body, so even if it isn't harming their social interaction it's still probably a problem.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 5:15 PM on November 10, 2008

I've had occasion to wonder about this myself, and there were a whole range of responses from "you don't drink enough to have a problem" to "you must have a problem if it's hard for you to quit."

The conclusion I reached for myself is that sometimes it's a problem, and sometimes it's not. I know if I am already upset at my spouse, having a drink will make me say stupid things. I know that if I'm alone, drinking will make me lonely. I would not go to a bar with a bunch of men and get drunk, because there is the chance that it would screw up my marriage.

I also know that I can kick back a few beers during the football game, or have a glass of wine with dinner, with no ill effect. It really wouldn't matter if I drank the same amount every night; the problem stems from my intent. Alcohol lowers my inhibitions and that's what causes the adverse effect on my life, not the alcohol per se.
posted by desjardins at 5:30 PM on November 10, 2008

If you need to drink, even when you don't want to drink, then you have a problem.

Alcohol is a problem when it becomes a life style, something you can't not do.
posted by Class Goat at 5:35 PM on November 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

I agree with the sort of consensus here, but I'll add one of my own criteria, from my own struggle not to become an alky like so many in my family:

If you're only drinking because you were bored, you have a drinking problem.

As for feeling guilty about drinking? That is a symptom of being hungover. B-vitamin depletion. Sure, being hungover sucks, and it means you drank too much, according to your body, which is an authority on that subject, but in and of itself guilt as an indicator of a drinking problem? I say no. When I take the B-vitamins, I never feel guilt, when I don't, I do feel it. If you actually DO something rotten to be guilty for, that's something else.

There are also, in my opinion, two basically distinct kinds of drinking problem: binge drinking (too much at one go) and alcoholism. I totally have the former. After two drinks, I just keeeeeeep gooooooooing.

I would much rather wind up puking now and then or wind up with a bad headache than lose my job and be forever on a different channel than sober people, shutting out authentic connection with my children and family (the results of alcoholism that concern me) but still, binge drinking is unsafe and unhealthy.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 5:41 PM on November 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've never seen ANYONE drink like Divinity school students. I don't think "theology student" is a good excuse there, dunkadunc.
posted by Hildegarde at 5:44 PM on November 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Other people's criticism isn't always well-placed, and depends on where they're coming from: In this case, my neighbor is a theology student."

Y'know, I've lived with a theology major, and drank with more than a few. In my experience, if a theology student is telling you not to drink, it's because you're likely to see more God than you're ready for, not because they're a prude.

The clearest test I've found for "Whether or not you have a drinking problem" is how able you are to cut back. Now, obviously, there are some hardcore alcoholics who find that they can remain sober for some time, but who will always drink too much once they start drinking. But not everyone with a drinking problem is an alcoholic, and not every alcoholic is drunk.
posted by klangklangston at 5:46 PM on November 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was always a social drinker (drunk every weekend) and never considered it a huge problem until last summer when I saw the photographs of myself (age 45) at the cottage and the rolls of liquor-fat covering my body and compared it to my older, somewhat alcoholic relatives.

... you might be worrying bout the long term impact.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:19 PM on November 10, 2008

To me, there seems like there’s a lot gray area when it comes to this issue.

You're right. A lot of it depends on why you want to determine whether or not someone else had a drinking problem. Interestingly, the people who have the hardest time with this sort of "what's normal" assessment are often people whose lives have been affected by someone else's drinking. Also people have strong opinions on this topic such as (not vouching for, just saying)

- once you're an alcoholic you're always an alcoholic
- you can't drink socially at all if you're an alcoholic
- there's a spectrum of drinking from light to heavy and it's only a problem if it's a problem
- alcoholism is genetic
- alcoholism affects everyone around the alcoholic

It also varies culturally. When this topic has come up before in AskMe, there is often a marked difference in opinions about heavy drinking from UK versus US responders with many UKers more tolerant of heavier drinking and less likely to call someone else an alcoholic. There are medical assessments that people have linked to here that can help someone decide if they or someone they love is a problem drinker. This may or may not be different than them being an alcoholic.

Again, it matters why you care. If you just want to tell someone "hey we're not going to have alcohol at our wedding and if you're going to not show up as a result of this then YOU have a problem" [as opposed to "gee it's a little weird that you're not having any booze at your wedding..."] that's one thing. Trying to get a family member to accept inpatient treatment is a totally other thing.

Generally speaking many people whether they have a bona fide drinking problem or not have a tendency to not like to be told what to do in terms of their leisure time activities and it's pretty easy to get their "do you have a drinking problem?" question reframed and returned as "you seem to have a not-minding-your-own-business problem". That doesnt mean anything in and of itself. A preference becomes a monkey-on-back habit when you can't live without it.

A lot of times it's easier to see in hindsight. I knew I had a drinking problem when I was waking up in strange people's beds in college and realizing that I had lacked the judgment to make decent choices for myself because I'd been drinking. I have an alcoholic parent so this was a wake-up call for me and I tapered my drinking way down and now I rarely drink at all though i do drink socially. Every now and again my "you've had enough" switch doesn't seem to be working and I drink myself ill. It's embarassing. However I'm a little more prepared and smart about things so I don't get in situations where I go home with strange men or have to drive while I'm under the influence.

My parent on the other hand, starts drinking every night at 5 pm like clockwork. I'm an adult person so I don't live with them and to be honest I visit less and less. Some evenings my parent is cordial and just a little slurry as the evening wears on. Sometimes my parent is openly verbally abusive to me and my step-parents. It's rare but it does happen and you never know if it's going to be a good night or a bad night. My parent doesn't eat dinner and if I'm visiting for more than a day I get a $20 bill and get told "go pick yourself up something to eat" That said, to the outside world, my parent is a functioning adult, a bit of a hermit, but certainly not a drunk. Only family members know pretty much. When asked my parent will say that their drinking is "not a problem" although sometimes they'll admit that they wished they'd done something about the problem before it was (as it is now) too late.

By an outside assessment the drinking doesn't interfere with my parents' life because it IS my parents' life and everything else basically takes a backseat to it. My parent lives three hours away and never visits, never returns emails (except for late night drunken ramblings) and almost never calls and I don't pick up the phone if I see their number on my phone after 6 pm.

I basically ask, when talking to other people about this topic (as I tend to do, both talking about my own pretty under control drinking and my parent's total life-dissolving drinking) whether someone they care about is asking them to stop or cut back and how they feel about that. Often the answer to the first question is "yes" and the answer to the second question is "pissed off." Alcoholics make all sorts of rationalizations for why they're better off without all the people and things in their lives that the drinking has destroyed but that doesn't mean they're not a problem drinker, it just means they're a problem drinker who is able to rationalize.

There's no objective truth to any of this and the murky area in the middle is the worst of all. As with many AskMe questions, why you're asking becomes an integral part of giving you an answer to your actual question, so I hope this sheds some light on some of it.
posted by jessamyn at 6:42 PM on November 10, 2008 [9 favorites]

And there is such a thing as a "high functioning alcoholic." I found this book to be interesting: Drinking: A Love Story.

Of course, if I was to write the same book it would be called, "Adventures in Alcohol: A Misspent Life."

I know lots of people that drink way too much and can function the next day.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:51 PM on November 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

If something about your drinking, or someone else's drinking, is worrying you, then it's worth paying attention to. There's no way to overlay numbers, ounces, or calendar dates on other people's lives and tell them when they've gone from gray area to darker gray to solid black. Some people are okay with heavier drinking, some are not. Your "dark gray" might be my "pale gray."

The only meaningful measure is whether the drinking bothers you. If the drinking is on your mind, if it interferes with your life, your relationships, your activities, your job, if others feel your drinking is an issue for them, or you feel others' drinking is an issue for you...well, then, there's a problem.

In fact, if you ever look into Al-Anon or AA or any of the alcohol-related organizations, you'll notice right away that that is the basic criteria: not how much you drink, not how often, not what, not why -- all this varies -- but that you felt it was a problem. That's the reason people go to the groups - not that they exceeded some arbitrary, culturally defined, measurable, gender-based limit, but that it became a problem.

posted by Miko at 7:46 PM on November 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

" 5+ shots to celebrate the weekend"? You know, maybe I'm living wrong, but plain ol' weekends are not so great that I think 5 shots are called for. WTF. Seriously. If you are pulling this from your own life, you are headed for or already have a problem.

If you are concerned that you have a drinking problem, then stop drinking for three months. If you see no difference in your life except a little extra pocket change and some cola bloat, then you do not have a drinking problem. If you forget when the three months are up, you really don't have a drinking problem. If your first thought was, "Oh my god, it's almost the holidays! How can I not drink?" that might be a clue.

I don't mean to sound harsh - your remarks about DARE and what not make me wonder if perhaps you had a somewhat sheltered or skewed view of things. Many adults drink without a problem, many adults are careful about when and where and how much they drink to avoid ending up with a problem.

If you think you are having trouble with something, the obvious first step is to stop it already with that thing, and see how you do.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:43 PM on November 10, 2008

It's great that I found and read this thread when I did.

I havent had a drink in about a month now.

At first I was a full-on Weekend Warrior. I like to go dancing, but I was always of the mind that I'd have a few to kill the inhibitions and get loosened up.
But a funny thing happened over time. The joy just kinda drained out of it. What was making me more social less inhibited was now making me less social and more inhibited. Every flaw I had (both outside and inside) hugely amplified in my head and that paralyzed me in social settings. I became very resentful (well, more resentful :P) of good looking people and people with money and openly disgusted with everything. It just got darker and darker, so Id return to the bar to try and "get over" that and on to the "fun" which of course never materializes at that point.
I'd get home and the mirror would just make things worse. I was so ugly. Whether that was the "truth-telling" effect of booze or a distortion, I still dont really know. I'd believe either one. This of course would make me sad, so on would go my "go to" depression records (Side Two of R.E.M. Up, Side One of Ryan Adams' Cold Roses, all of Afghan Whigs' Black Love) and Id open a bottle of whatever to put myself to bed with. Then I'd wake up and regret everything I could remember and recoil about what I maybe didn't remember.

It was even a cloud on my weekdays. I would kill a bottle of wine by myself, not even bothering with the glass just to play guitar or watch a movie. I'd do this completely by myself and there were weeks (tho not many) where I would do it nightly.

Anyway, typing that all out just made me realize even more just what a problem it all was. What a bastard I was becoming.

But I'm lucky. I guess I dont have a genetic predisposition for drinking. I just decided that it was stupid and that I was "over it" at least for a while and I stopped cold. I did the same thing when I quit smoking. I dont like being told what to do, so when I want to stop doing something Im always pretty good about just....stopping it. So far it's worked out great. Ive been out a bunch of times since then and I actually havent wanted to drink. In fact, one night we went out to see a huge dance act that I wont name so as to not give myself away and I swear I wouldnt shut up about how much better a time I was having. I was probably as obnoxious as Millie on Freaks And Geeks at the non-alcoholic keg party. Danced my ass off that night. :)

So anyway, this thing has turned self indulgent and I apologize and thank you if you bothered to read all of my silly wank. But I did want to say thanks to...the thread I guess. Both it, and my talking in it make me realize that I did the right thing in cutting the pipe when I did.

posted by Senor Cardgage at 12:53 AM on November 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

I want to first reiterate what a lot of people have already said. If you have obligations (i.e., "stuff that needs to get done") and it's not getting done because you drink instead of doing it, then you have a problem.

However, it's not necessarily a problem if it becomes your "lifestyle". If that were the case, every brewery owner is an alcoholic.

I love beer. I do not love crappy beer. I brew my own beer with a friend of mine, and we have an 8-tap kegerator in his apartment. We brew at least once a week. Naturally, we have to try a lot of the beer. Yes, we get drunk off of it frequently. Not stumbling around, forget-what-you-did-last-night drunk, but definitely inebriated. Making my own beer has become one of the most fulfilling things in my life, and I don't see it as a problem. All of my friends are grateful when I bring them new beers to try. I've shared the beer with professors at the university where I work. I'm taking a class starting in January to become a certified BJCP judge.

I understand that things need to be done in moderation. For instance, I have a pretty nasty tear in my quadriceps right now, and I am on medication for that. This means no drinking. So, I just don't drink. As much as it sucks when the new batch of Imperial IPA is ready for drinking and I can't partake, I just don't.

So, I guess what I'm saying is that it's all about perspective. [Good] beer matters to me. Being able to function on a day-to-day basis and do the research required for my PhD matters as well. The balance is finding a way so that neither interferes with the other.
posted by King Bee at 5:50 AM on November 11, 2008

I think when you need a drink to feel normal, you are an alcoholic. Probably somewhere before there too, but certainly there.
posted by agentwills at 5:52 AM on November 11, 2008

Could someone who drink a lot (6+ drinks more than 2x a week), but doesn’t display a lot of erratic behavior, have a drinking problem?

You mean like going out on Friday AND Saturday night? come on.. 6 drinks 2 x a week. that's really not that bad.
posted by mary8nne at 7:38 AM on November 11, 2008

If the substance use is not interferring with your activities of daily living, it is not a mental disorder.

From the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders:

Substance Abuse: A maladaptive pattern of substance use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress, as manifested by one (or more) of the following, occurring within a 12-month period:
1) Recurrent substance use resulting in a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, or home (e.g., repeated absences or poor work performance related to substance use; substance-related absences, suspensions or expulsions from school; neglect of children or household)
2) Recurrent substance use in situations in which it is physically hazardous (e.g., driving an automobile or operating a machine when impaired by substance use)
3) Recurrent substance-related legal problems (e.g., arrests for substance-related disorderly conduct
4) Continued substance use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of the substance (e.g., arguments with spouse about consequences of intoxication, physical fights)
posted by hworth at 8:07 AM on November 11, 2008

"Could someone who drink a lot (6+ drinks more than 2x a week), but doesn’t display a lot of erratic behavior, have a drinking problem?

You mean like going out on Friday AND Saturday night? come on.. 6 drinks 2 x a week. that's really not that bad.

To note this—quantity is not a great way of arguing abuse; relative quantity is better. I'm a 230 pound guy, and I can knock back three reasonable ABV beers before I get buzzed. Six drinks? Well, over an evening, I might do that and be drunk. I've been drinking long enough to know my limits and so it's rare that I have six drinks in the course of an evening (I'm also cheap, so it gets hard to justify—that's at least $30 around here, likely more once tip is added and if they're decent drinks we're talking likely $45-50). For someone smaller than me, who doesn't drink every day to keep their tolerance in fighting form? That's probably at least irresponsible, though I remember a time when I used to boast that I'd never had a hangover and could do that much drinking a couple times a week.
posted by klangklangston at 9:35 AM on November 11, 2008

As others have said- it's a problem if it's a problem.

All this stuff about numbers of drinks per week, or only drinking on weekend, or only drinking after 5, or only drinking a certain type of alcohol, are meaningless justifications for behavior.

If drinking is causing problems in the drinkers life, then they have a drinking problem. And yes, as your post title says, if one avoids certain events or places because of not having access to alcohol, they have a drinking problem.

One thing to note is that there is a difference between use, abuse, psychological addiction and physical addiction. A "drinking problem" can occur under any of those scenarios.
posted by gjc at 5:35 PM on November 11, 2008

It becomes a problem when you begin to ask yourself if it's a problem, seriously if you can live a normal life in any state of fucked up then have a good time. If you feel guilty or uncomfortable about whatever state or level you've taken it to it will show up in how you interact with your world.
posted by thegmann at 1:31 AM on November 12, 2008

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