How to drink in moderation for the rest of one's life
December 20, 2010 12:43 PM   Subscribe

My husband and I want to know about alcoholism vs. social drinking.

My husband and I both come from families where we never learned how to drink in healthy, moderate and social ways. We each have a few alcoholics in our extended family and our immediate families are chiefly religious teetotalers. We long ago rejected our family's religion and now have to set our own boundaries in life. We are both now social drinkers, and we are both pretty comfortable with the level of drinking we now do.

Here's the thing, we both NEVER want to become alcoholics in any way. We recognize that alcohol has a an addictive potential and we never want to deal with that addiction.

I (the wife part of the equation) hardly ever drink these days at all, maybe once every two to three months. This is because I am on call in a health care field most of the time. I also watch my calories pretty strictly to stay fit and I am severely reluctant to drink up a bunch of my days allotment of calories unless it is a very special occasion. Other note about me that may or may not be relevant: my extreme fear of alcoholism is partially due to an extreme revulsion for 12 step programs. I respect that they work for some people, but I find the culture, language, and concepts to be personally distasteful. The idea of having to attend these meetings is abhorrent to me.

He drinks more than I do. He will have a glass or two of red wine a night if we have some in the house. When a box of his wine runs out we may not get another for several weeks. He will drink to the point of getting tipsy maybe once a month when we are out with friends.

We know we are not alcoholics right now, but what we don't know is how to know when and and how we would ever know if we were on the road to alcoholism. We simply don't want to ever let it get near to that point, but we also value social drinking as something that enhances our lives. We are absolutely meticulous about making sure that either of us who drives is not intoxicated.

We both can have fun without drinking, but the are certain times where we would definitely rather drink than not. For example, this coming New Years I am planning to drink for the first time since halloween where I had two shots, and I would be very disappointed if I could not drink for some reason. Is this problematic?

It seems like there are common ways and questions to determine if one is an alcoholic (such as "Does your drinking negatively effect your life" etc.). But I have found no such information to tell if drinking is starting to become problematic or is on the road to alcoholism, so please tell me ways that we can identify this. We also don't have good examples to follow of how alcohol fits into a normal, healthy, non-alcoholic, adult life. Ideas about what this constitutes and about how to develop our own such culture within our marriage and perpetuate it for the rest of our lives would also be appreciated. Thank you.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (39 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
If you want models for responsible drinking, seek out couples who drink responsibly and emulate them.
posted by dfriedman at 12:48 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hiding and/or lying about quantities taken, or hiding and/or lying about the consequences of one's drinking are probably pretty good rule-of-thumb indicators of incipient trouble. I have never met an alcoholic who also was not a self- or other-kidder.
posted by facetious at 12:49 PM on December 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

What facetious said.

Every once in a while, if I notice I've been drinking more than usual, I make a point of stopping for a while and seeing if I notice the lack of booze. As long as I don't, I figure I'm good. A few times, I have, at which point I back the hell off of booze until I stop thinking of it as so much of a habitual thing.
posted by rmd1023 at 12:54 PM on December 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

My personal safety program is three-fold:

1. If you must get a little loose, stop at buzzed and way before drunk.
2. If you start to crave it for it's own sake, lay off for a week or so.
3. If it takes you 6 beers (3 mixed drinks) to get what you used to feel with half that, back off, if only to save money.

I also drink expensive beers and midrange to expensive hard liquors (straight, mostly). This helps, since I am constantly watching myself so that I can still appreciate the quality while enjoying the effects of my alcohol.

I'll have a beer or two, or a glass of rum/absinthe/etc. about four out of seven days. This might seem excessive to some, but I've been doing this for seven or so years now, with no real increase and several "dry" periods of a week to a few months due to various non-intervention reasons.

It's always better to slowly work up to your comfort level than grab some arbitrary number and vacillate between extremes on either end of it.
posted by JeremiahBritt at 12:56 PM on December 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

nthing facetious.

Also, "drinking" is what you do while you're doing something else. "Alcoholism" is something that you do all by itself.
posted by Etrigan at 12:57 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Actively wanting to drink every once in awhile isn't a problem for most people. It's perfectly normal to be in the occasional situation where you would rather be drinking than not, such as parties and other social situations where others will be drinking, or special occasions that are traditionally marked by a champagne toast, or wanting to drink something you particularly enjoy the taste of, or wanting to try something new, like at a wine or whisk(e)y tasting.

If you start feeling like you have to hide or lie about your drinking to most people, or if you start considering going to extreme measures to obtain alcohol even if you can't afford it or the stores are closed, or if you find yourself drinking enough to cause sickness, blackouts, and/or hangovers on a regular basis, then you might want to consider cutting back on the alcohol, and talking to a professional if cutting back is hard.
posted by rhiannonstone at 1:00 PM on December 20, 2010

If you came to our house and saw our liquor cabinet, you might assume we're alcoholics.

But we don't actually drink very much. Much of the liquor is there for parties; all of the single malt whisky is there because we love the taste, but we don't drink it daily. It's handier and cheaper (than going to a bar to have some) to have it in-house for when we want it.

You can tell drinking is becoming problematic because it's becoming problematic - that is, it's interfering in some way with your life. That will vary from person to person, so there's really no hard and fast rule. For you, you might find that a once-a-month hangover interferes; for someone else, it's when they start sneaking out of work at lunchtime for a couple of martinis, and then lying about it.

If you (the general "you," not you specifically) are going through a box of wine in 24 hours but you only buy the box of wine once every three months, that might be problematic or it might not. I had a friend in college who didn't drink very often, but when she did, she couldn't stop - she couldn't have just one beer, she drank until she blacked out. She didn't do it often, but she didn't like the effects even if they only rarely happened, so she quit drinking entirely.

To me, a healthy relationship with alcohol is one in which you control it, not the other way around. If you're spending a lot of time and energy thinking about alcohol, worrying about it, if you can't have just one drink - that seems like a less than ideal relationship to me.
posted by rtha at 1:02 PM on December 20, 2010

Looking forward to drinking on New Years is not problematic. It's part of the ritual, and drinking itself is a notable enough occasion for you (and pleasurable, as long as you don't overdo it) that there's no reason to begrudge yourself the anticipation.
posted by hermitosis at 1:02 PM on December 20, 2010

We both can have fun without drinking, but the are certain times where we would definitely rather drink than not. For example, this coming New Years I am planning to drink for the first time since halloween where I had two shots, and I would be very disappointed if I could not drink for some reason. Is this problematic?

Is it ? That's up to you.

Like you, parts of my family are dedicated and relentless alcoholics. I don't ever want to be like them. But I like (love!) beer, and having a nice buzz on and maybe even get a little wacky drunk sometimes. It's a dilemma.

Here's the thing - these people got up in the morning ( or afternoon) and drank. They drank for breakfast. They drank for lunch. They drank on the job, in the car, at the mall. And they've all skidded along bottom for as long as I've known them. Every success they have had they obliterated by drinking it away.

Even when I was 20 years old and doing nightly keg stands and beer bongs, I couldn't keep up that sort of schedule. It's a lot of work being a drunk.

I'm lazy and I like being sober, too. And being drunk at work sucks. I make a terrible alcoholic. I don't know how they can do it.

All this to say, that in my experience and understanding, your drinking is a problem when it is a problem. If you are functioning well, achieving your goals and not undermining yourself then you're doing just fine. You're right to make sure you're still where you want to be - but a couple of shots every few months does not a drunk make.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 1:10 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have never met an alcoholic who also was not a self- or other-kidder.

This. Be honest, keep an eye on yourself and each other, and just try to relax.

My dad was a terrible alcoholic who never quit drinking. It was a tragedy, watching him end his life with no family, no friends, no house - nothing except a bottle of vodka. I understand your paranoia and I go through phases where I worry a lot about what runs in my genes. I'm also married to a recovering addict who doesn't drink at all, which can add a whole extra level of fun when it comes to figuring out what "normal" is. What helped me is to realize: Hey, I don't get drunk. Like, pretty much ever. My goal, when drinking, is not to get drunk; it's just to have a couple of glasses of wine and enjoy myself. So I'm probably okay, and it sounds like you are, too.
posted by something something at 1:10 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well, as you suspect, there's no definitive answer to this question. Alcoholism is an 'addiction' to alcohol that manifests itself through negative consequences on your life (causing relationship or money trouble, causing you to miss work, etc.). Looking at the reasons why one drinks is also an indicator - do you feel like you can't do certain things unless you're tanked, do you find you use it as a way to control your anxiety, does it get you through your day, etc.

Addiction and dependence are really...fuzzy things. You can be just as addicted to 'healthy' things as unhealthy ones. I mean, don't you know people who are gymoholics? Perhaps even to the point of it hurting their home life? Or health nuts who have lost sight of balance and their nutrition obsession consumes them the same way the thought of a drink might an alcoholic? None of this is profound, it's just to say that you really have to look at these things on a personal and individual level. There's no general heuristic. I feel like I *need* coffee in the morning when I'm at work. Yeah, totally a coffee addict in that sense. Alcohol has a different connotation for historical and hermeneutic sorts of reasons, as well as simple pragmatic ones, i.e. because of the nature of the affect, one tends to make dumber decisions when drinking alcohol than, say, coffee. Though a great number of genius insights have been realized under the influence, to be sure.

Addiction is the result of reward circuits in the brain, and it causes us to get addicted to everything from work to shopping to yogurt. A lot of the science behind this is pretty nascent, and I think it will be pretty interesting to stay tuned in the next decade as cognitive science becomes increasingly advanced.

In the end, like everything else, it really comes down to balance.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:14 PM on December 20, 2010

Everyone I know who's wrestled with alcoholism has their own concept of when it started to become a problem. I can only contribute what I've learned from them, and my own ideas. So caveat auditor, and all.

We both can have fun without drinking, but the are certain times where we would definitely rather drink than not. For example, this coming New Years I am planning to drink for the first time since halloween where I had two shots, and I would be very disappointed if I could not drink for some reason. Is this problematic?

No, I don't think so. Drinking is fun for you, and you're looking forward to being able to do a fun thing.

Here's the metric I use, and maybe it'll help you: Is drinking fun for you?

If it is, then you're probably all right. If it isn't, and you're still drinking anyway, then maybe there is a problem.

You're right in that alcohol can be addictive but as a physical addiction it's not like some others out there. In other words, alcoholism isn't like an addiction to cigarettes. There's always more to it. The negative effects test is a good one, because for the most part alcoholism isn't about how much you drink, or how often, but what happens when you drink and, eventually, how much of your life is a reaction to the drinking. Like, if you're lying about drinking, that's a big one. So basically your drinking starts to become problematic when it starts causing problems for you outside the occasional hangover. It sounds like you're both pretty vigilant about this, so maybe just pledge to keep an eye on one another and go from there, and be willing to listen to any observations or concerns.

We also don't have good examples to follow of how alcohol fits into a normal, healthy, non-alcoholic, adult life.

I don't know how helpful this is of me to say, but: The approach you're taking right now sounds pretty healthy. Your husband's a social drinker who gets tipsy maybe once a month. You had two shots on Halloween and you'll probably have some beverages on New Year's as well. Sounds fine enough to me.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 1:18 PM on December 20, 2010

Also, as a personal anecdote, there's a sense in which drinking more has decreased my alcoholic tendencies, and by more I really mean more frequently. In college, there's the sense that you drink to get drunk. Like drinking is the main activity your doing. You start drinking to start partying and then you drink until you're obliterated and in some dorm room of someone you don't know.

Being in the 'real world' and learning that it's ok to have a beer or two after work with a co-worker or friend, say at like 5:00, and even doing this frequently, but then just chilling and not drinking the rest of the night and going to bed a little sleepy but not passing out has been a relatively healthy revelation for me. And I think it really highlights the difference in the two approaches to alcohol: drinking to relax a little, enjoy conversation with someone outside of the house you spend too much time in anyway, enjoying a nice glass of scotch or a good microbrew, even five nights a week or whatever, is probably a lot better of a balance than getting absolutely obliterated on Colt 45 or Franzia or Devil's Spring vodka for the purpose of getting obliterated a few times a week.

Not that it isn't fun to get drunk, obviously.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:22 PM on December 20, 2010

"But I have found no such information to tell if drinking is starting to become problematic"

It's becoming problematic when it's, you know, becoming problematic. Miss an important meeting because you're sleeping off your drunkenness? Hangover so bad you have to call in sick? Routinely spending money you can't afford on alcohol? Picking fights with friends? Losing friends (who also drink socially) over your drinking? People telling you when you drink you're an asshole/make bad decisions? Drinking and driving? Too hungover to get up and take care of your kids? Crave alcohol too much to avoid it before a medical procedure? Those are problems. They're all problems of degree -- personally, I'm not that worried if my friend becomes a drunk asshole and then is so hungover he calls into work sick once a year. That's some ill-advised cutting loose, but it's once a year. If he were doing it once a week I'd start to think he had an alcohol problem. If he were doing it once a month I might not think he had an alcohol problem, but I'd probably think he was making some suboptimal life choices and might need to find better ways to relax.

And it is a sliding scale. I worry less about people getting routinely hungover in their 20s than in their 40s. I'd be less concerned about someone having three drinks a night when they're single party animals than if they're married with three kids. Etc. When it becomes a problem is definitely a sliding scale; a parent of teenagers can drink a little more than a parent of babies, who are more likely to have urgent needs at all hours that they can't tend themselves (and who are pretty droppable).
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:30 PM on December 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

Enjoying alcohol is a big part of my life. I like going to bars and chatting with friends, I love the revival of the fussy cocktail, I love a glass of good wine or beer with dinner, and I enjoy making quality drinks at home. It's one of those things, like cooking well or reading good books, that makes life feel fuller and richer and more lovely. I'd be very sad to have to give up drinking. Just to give you an idea of where I'm coming from.

My parents are heavy drinkers - I wouldn't call them alcoholics, since they never endanger themselves or others and never lose control or their tempers while drinking (and in fact, they're quite jolly to be around), but I'd like to avoid adopting their heavy consumption patterns for obvious reasons. Sort of the opposite of your family, but kind of the same principle in terms of rejecting the extreme in favor of a happy medium.

Here's two things I do to "check" myself and make sure that I'm still drinking for enjoyment and social reasons, rather than as a habit or compulsion.

- My boyfriend and I both drink more like your husband does (1-2 drinks per weeknight) but I take a couple nights off each week just to make sure that I feel the same when I go to bed/wake up the next morning on the nights that I drink than the nights that I don't. If I find that I'm more rested after a teetotaller night, I scale back accordingly. Your husband might want to try this, or he might not - the fact that you go a few weeks between wine purchases suggests he's already doing this in a sort of de facto way.

- When we go out, I typically decide on a number of drinks I'm going to have over the course of the evening and stick to it. As long as you're able to stop when you've told yourself you're going to stop, you control your drinking rather than the other way around. I wouldn't worry as long as you're able to do this.

These both boil down to control - can you decide how much you're going to drink and stick to it? Can you stop drinking for a day, a week, a month, whatever, if you try? I wouldn't worry too much until one or both of you answers "no" to either of these questions. It doesn't sound like you'll get there, either.

Just as it's not bad to choose not to drink, it's not bad to enjoy responsible social drinking. You shouldn't beat yourself up for liking what it adds to your social experiences.
posted by superfluousm at 1:32 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Alcoholic here. Not that it makes me an expert on diagnosing others. But it does allow me to compare your descriptions or yourself to mine at a time before I thought I had a problem - or before others expressed a concern about my drinking.

First - I disagree with about 90% what others have posted so far. Not that they're wrong. But their ideas about what does or does not go through the budding alcoholic's head does not match my experience.

That said, I think you're just fine.

In my experience, the first significant warning sign would be how much time you spend thinking about drinking/alcohol when you're not drinking. If it's more than a brief - "be nice if I could have cold beer right about now" once in a while, then maybe it's worth looking at.

The AMA and WHO both list alcoholism as a disease - though some will argue that. As a disease (assuming you agree with the disease idea), it is definitively diagnosable. My understanding is that amounts and frequency are not necessarily indicators of alcoholism and you could already be an alcoholic under the definition of the disease (though I seriously doubt it based on your description, but I'm not a doctor). My point is, if you're really in doubt, consult a health care professional trained and licensed in addiction diseases.
posted by thatguyjeff at 1:34 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I understand your fears. I never had real alcoholics in my family, but in my 20s I was feeling rather bleak about life in general for a while, and I pretty much actively avoided buying booze to have at home because I was afraid I'd "like it too much" as an escape. But I got through that, and now I pretty freely enjoy cocktails and/or wine most days.

I don't like to get drunk, and I think that's the main thing for me. It stops being fun at drunk - the room spinning is not fun, puking is not fun, needing to stay in bed for the next day is not fun. So I learned how to judge my buzz level and keep it there. When I go out with friends, which is a couple times a month, my first Manhattan may go down quickly, but the next two get sipped much, much slower, and only rarely is there a fourth.

Also I've learned to appreciate quality liquor and cocktails like an art, and a "cuisine" if you will. So I'm not always drinking to "get buzzed" but to appreciate the flavor. You can't appreciate good Scotch if you try to guzzle it.
posted by dnash at 1:39 PM on December 20, 2010

I think the phrase alcoholic basically means drinking more then the people you directly interface with. I also think its a worthless, loaded phrase. What I mean by this is suppose you socialize with people who have a couple drinks at dinner, thats "normal". Now if you do the same thing with people who drink nothing, magically you are an alcoholic in their eyes. Therefore the term is really saying more about the people around you then it is about the subject itself.
posted by H. Roark at 1:55 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

One thing that jumps out at me from your post: you are thinking A LOT about alcohol, whether you're drinking or not. I had a mixed drink Saturday night at a party and a wine at brunch yesterday, but I couldn't tell you what alcohol I have in the house now or the last time I drank prior to this weekend. I don't know when the next time I'll drink is, but if and when I feel like it, I'll have a drink.

None of your worries cross my mind. I know that I will not drink to black-out or hangover stage because that doesn't seem fun to me and never has. I don't like being drunk, or even buzzed, so I alternate alcohol with water (usually 2 glasses water:1 alcoholic drink). I drink things I enjoy the taste of, I drink enough to enjoy the taste, and I leave it at that. I am not worried at all about becoming an alcoholic. There are alcoholics in my family -- bad ones. Much of my immediate family are therefore religious teetotalers, as yours are.

The level of focus you have put on alcohol is, to me, the most concerning part of your post. Alcoholics fixate on alcohol -- having it, not having it. You are fixating on alcohol. That would concern me a lot.

(Perhaps that's not true of your life, but it's what's coming across in your post. Worrying about drinking on New Year's when you haven't had anything since Halloween -- and you can remember exactly what you had -- seems very fixated.)
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 2:03 PM on December 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

While your examples of consumption seems to me to be almost as far away from alcoholism as teatotalling, I wanted to comment on the "negative effects" comments here.
While social/professional/familial/economic issues are obvious indicators of issues, don't forget that many people can be functional alcoholics and not have any apparent issues.

I am at the point where I really have to start dialing things back because while there are no immediate negative consequences (no missed meetings, no fights, no social problems, no economic issues, etc) there is still the nagging knowledge that my regular consumption levels are physically unwise for the next 30 years. For me, I find that long gaze in to the future to be the hardest to act upon.
posted by Theta States at 2:06 PM on December 20, 2010

" we would ever know if we were on the road to alcoholism"

If you start to need it.

However, please note that alcoholism is just one of many unhealthy ways to drink.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:14 PM on December 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

It's becoming problematic when it's, you know, becoming problematic. Miss an important meeting because you're sleeping off your drunkenness?

I know very little about alcoholism but I thought there was such a thing as high-functioning alcoholism...?

The follow-up article to the one I just linked says the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has concluded that
30 percent of people 18 and older drink at levels that raise their risk of alcoholism. And since helping those people identify themselves before they get into trouble with alcohol is easier than treating alcoholism, the institute has begun a groundbreaking preventive program called Rethinking Drinking.

The program includes a 16-page booklet for the public (“Rethinking Drinking: Alcohol and Your Health”), a product set for clinicians with a 34-page booklet (“Helping Patients Who Drink Too Much: A Clinician’s Guide”) and an interactive Web site for people who drink,, complete with quizzes, calculators and other tools.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 2:22 PM on December 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

Take the Alcoholic Test!
posted by jara1953 at 2:36 PM on December 20, 2010

High-functioning alcoholism is kind of controversial -- after all, history is full of people who drank like fish and whose lives never collapsed because of the drink (Churchill comes to mind). So were they HFAs who just got lucky, or could they just handle their obscene amounts of booze?

Alcoholism isn't like pregnancy. There isn't an easily defined distinct start and end of alcoholism. So that's why most people consider alcoholism to be "when it causes problems," whether those problems are job-related, interpersonal or medical. If you're skating along on the thin edge of "having a problem," you may well be a high-functioning alcoholic who's lucky. But maybe you're Churchill.
posted by Etrigan at 2:38 PM on December 20, 2010

>>For example, this coming New Years I am planning to drink for the first time since halloween where I had two shots, and I would be very disappointed if I could not drink for some reason. Is this problematic?

Not in my book.

"Alcoholic" is such a loaded term that means so many different things to different people. I think the things to watch for, regardless of whether they directly correlate with that label, are (1) dependence and (2) adverse consequences in your life or those around you. If you don't need booze and booze isn't causing any problems, you're probably okay.
posted by J. Wilson at 2:43 PM on December 20, 2010

However, please note that alcoholism is just one of many unhealthy ways to drink.

I can't emphasize Jacqueline's comment strongly enough.

The consumption of alcohol becomes problematic when it is done in a quantity, frequency, or even with an attitude that has the potential for negatively affecting your life. Binge drinking? Bad for your health. Publicly intoxicated alone? Bad for your safety. Regular consumption of more than 1-2 drinks daily? Bad for your health. Intoxicated to the point where you later regret your behavior? Bad for your social and mental well-being. Missing a day of work or being unable to perform your job? Bad for your career. Regularly disrupting your relationship due to drunken behavior on the part of one or more parties? Bad for your relationship.

There are a number of different ways to drink in a way that may have a negative effect, it's really a matter of health and well-being. Alcohol should not be the cause of any problems, nor should you treat it as the solution for any.
posted by mikeh at 2:52 PM on December 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

Here are my personal drinking "rules":

Only one drink if there's no company.

Maximum of three drinks if there is company but not more than once a week.

Only drink things you really enjoy the taste of and that taste like alcohol.
posted by emilyw at 2:53 PM on December 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

My personal things I watch out for are the following:
1.- when I run out of alcohol in the house, do I feel comfortable waiting until I get around to doing the shopping before buying more, or do I feel like buying more is a matter of urgency?
2.- do I sometimes go days or weeks without even thinking about having a drink?
3.- can I just have one, and then not feel disappointed or like I am having to exercise a large amount of self control to not keep drinking?
4.- does drinking cause me to behave in ways I would otherwise avoid?
5.- do I go out of my way to drink? E.g. go to a party that I am otherwise not interested in, or spend more than I have budgeted on a night out, just so I can drink?
6.- do I drink in order to feel drunk, rather than because I like the taste?

So far the only ones of these that I have fallen afoul of are 2, 5 and 6. And when I have noticed these happening, I stop drinking for a few weeks until my behaviour goes back to normal. If that didn't solve the problem, I would probably consider giving up alcohol altogether.
posted by lollusc at 3:36 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

^In my experience, the first significant warning sign would be how much time you spend thinking about drinking/alcohol when you're not drinking. If it's more than a brief - "be nice if I could have cold beer right about now" once in a while, then maybe it's worth looking at.

I respect your perspective as an alcoholic, thatguyjeff, but my experience as the kid of alcoholics is that I spend a ton of time thinking about my relationship to alcohol even when I'm teetotalling. It's not possible for me to think about my mom, in particular, without thinking heavy thoughts about alcohol. So it's not a useful metric for me for when my own drinking is getting problematic, which it does from time to time. (Jacqueline's right - there are lots of ways to be a problem drinker short of alcohol dependence.)

Maybe modify that to say "how much time you spend wanting/planning/denying yourself a drink"? Certainly that's an excellent indicator, for me.
posted by gingerest at 3:55 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I appreciate that you're thinking about this, but I also think you've been manipulated into being scared of something that doesn't necessarily need to be scary. The OMG ALCOHOLISM! lobby is a powerful one in the U.S., and is not unlike the OMG SECONDHAND SMOKE! and OMG SUGAR! lobbies, in that generally healthy people should have awareness of the issue, but not fear.

Addiction is defined by consequences. If alcohol affects you or those around you negatively -- and you continue to consume it in ways that affect you negatively -- then you are an alcoholic. There's nothing wrong with social drinking, as long as you don't have pre-existing liver problems, aren't driving while intoxicated, and don't become asshole after a beer or 2. Even the occasional binge is fine, assuming the only negative affect is a headache the next day.
posted by coolguymichael at 5:04 PM on December 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

Also, "drinking" is what you do while you're doing something else. "Alcoholism" is something that you do all by itself.


Every once in a while, if I notice I've been drinking more than usual, I make a point of stopping for a while and seeing if I notice the lack of booze.

This is the kind of self-rationalization that alcoholics do. It has NOTHING to do with whether there are people around. Or whether you can not drink for a while. Plenty of alcoholics stop for years to "prove" to someone they aren't drunks.

If you only drink once a year, but on that one time you cannot stop, you are an alcoholic. It isn't so much how often you start, but how you feel about stopping. If you can't just have one, you have issues with alcohol.

(Note that there can be confusion between physiological addiction and psychological addiction. Both are bad, and either one can be alcoholism.)
posted by gjc at 6:03 PM on December 20, 2010

As you can see, definitions for alcoholism are all over the map, and they are culture-bound. One thing we can probably all agree on is if it's a problem for you - however you define "problem," from daily blackouts to too much time spent thinking about the drink you have once every two weeks (for certain definitions of "too much time," of course) - then it's problematic. It's all very context- person- and culture-specific, which is why there's not going to be a definitive list of what to look out for.
posted by rtha at 6:20 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Agreeing with gingerest here. I think being the child of an alcoholic can really warp your concept of appropriate drinking behavior. I'm the daughter of an alcoholic - my mother hasn't taken a drink in nearly 30 years - and it took me a long time to be comfortable drinking at all, even though I've never struggled to "control" my drinking. I use quotes because it's hard for me to relate to feeling like drinking could ever control me. It just doesn't interest me enough. This differs very drastically from how my mother drank, and her willingness to discuss her experiences with me really helped me clarify my relationship with alcohol. I'm not sure if you have any recovered alcoholics in your life that you could speak openly with, but it might be useful.

I think you are pretty aware of the big obvious signs of alcoholism (health problems, job problems, etc) but here are some behaviors to me that are red flags for alcoholism. I get nervous whenever I see a friend display them:

-Telling yourself you will not drink at an event and drinking anyway to the point of extreme intoxication.
-Being unable to turn down a drink when it is offered to you, whether or not you planned to drink.
-Drinking to the point of being no longer making sense when you talk and/or blacking out.

The big theme here is a lack of control. Certainly a lot of people have had one or more of these experiences in their lifetime, maybe during a bad night in college, but most normal drinkers don't exhibit those behaviors as adults.

You could also talk to some good, trusted friends about your concerns. So much of recognizing and treating alcoholism comes from family and friends - knowing that topic is on the table and they could approach you if they ever felt like it was necessary might help you put your mind at ease.
posted by amycup at 6:25 PM on December 20, 2010

our immediate families are chiefly religious teetotalers
I suspect that this part of your background is causing you to overthink this, and perhaps to be feeling a bit of guilt about breaking those religious proscroptions. I agree with thatguyjeff that you are just fine. Read all the various suggestions here of warning signs to be aware of, keep them in mind, and keep an eye on each other's habits, but stop worrying that your moderate drinking is going to have you falling of a cliff at some point without being aware of it.
posted by beagle at 7:26 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think being the child of an alcoholic can really warp your concept of appropriate drinking behavior.

This is my feeling. I basically consider myself somewhat of an alcohlic because I had drinking problem in college -- didn't know when to say when, made a lot of bad judgment calls -- and even though I think I'm a successful social drinker nowadays, I'm pretty mindful of the fact that I don't trust myself to know how to limit my alcohol consumption in every situation. I'm probably fine, but having this sort of reference means that I'm cautious and I think that helps keep me on the path I want to be on. I have one badly alcoholic parent and one parent with a sort of fucked relationship with alcohol [enabler? I don't know how to explain it] and it makes me nervy and mindful of alcohol in almost every situation.

People have given you a lot of good suggestions. My general rules for me are

- If my loved ones tell me to quit drinking on any particular evening, I will
- If I drink to the point of blackout/puking/killer hangover, I take a month off, no questions [haven't had to do this for years, but it's good to have around]
- I don't drink as an activity
- I don't drive if I've had more than a beer
- I won't ride with anyone who has had more than two drinks

You guys have each other and it's useful for two people to keep each other in check. Make some agreements. See how easy it is to stick to those agreements. Learn to trust the other person to keep a watchful eye on your drinking [or someone else, really, doesn't have to be your partner] if you're concerned. There is nothing wrong with looking forward to having a drink on New Years.
posted by jessamyn at 7:52 PM on December 20, 2010

The Rethinking Drinking site linked above is very interesting and straightforward. It asks questions about amounts and patterns, and then suggests what your risk for alcoholism is at those different levels. In other words, it acknowledges that drinking is a problem when it becomes a problem (which you rightly note is a little unhelpful in terms of long-term watchfulness), but also that the more you drink, the likelier it is that your drinking will become a problem (more helpful, right?).

Anyway, for my drinking patterns, it gave me the following feedback:
Your responses indicate that you are among the nearly 4 in 10 U.S. adults with a "low-risk" drinking pattern. For women, this is no more than 3 drinks on any day and no more than 7 per week. Only about 2 in 100 people in this group have alcoholism or alcohol abuse.
So that's a bit of helpful advice: if you're looking for a drinking pattern that will result in a low risk of developing alcoholism, keep under the maximum of no more than 3/day AND no more than 7/week. No one can guarantee that this will shield you from alcoholism, but it gets your risk darn low.
posted by palliser at 8:40 PM on December 20, 2010

Here's what I'd suggest, if you were me. Or something like that.

- If you find yourself lying to someone about how much you've had to drink, in any circumstance (say, if you found yourself under-reporting your own drinking in this FPP) you should be concerned.

- If you find yourself drinking alone, and hoping nobody will find out, you should be concerned.

- Once in a while (a few times a year) arbitrarily decide to stop drinking for two months, period. Stick to it, not even one drink, not even socially. If you find this difficult, you should be concerned.
posted by davejay at 9:20 PM on December 20, 2010

This may have been said already but a very important factor to look at is "why"? I drank for many years, always wanted to be partying, despite jobs, parenting, finances, etc. I was a functioning alcoholic. The last 5 years were pretty unhappy years for me, in many ways (stressful jobs, divorce, always feeling like I haven't done enough, serious insecurity), and I drank more and more. I drank at home by myself while taking care of my child. I took "mental health days" from work, which were really just hangover days. I panicked if it was 7:30pm and I didn't have enough wine/vodka/whatever for the rest of the night. Toward the end, I raided my son's piggy bank, converted all the change at the local Coinstar, and bought a jug o'vodka to get me through to the next payday.

Eventually I realized how lonely and unhappy I was, and I went to rehab, and AA. This may sound strange, but now that I have been sober for 1.5 years, I see that alcohol was not my problem. My problem was me, and alcohol was the way to be happy, carefree and forget all my troubles. I know this is a long explanation, but if you are drinking for any reason other than you like a good glass of Chard or a nice single-malt, then pay attention and examine Why.

JMO, but I don't see that you or your husband have a problem at all. It's good to be mindful of actions that can get us in trouble if taken to excess. I can have a glass of wine now and then, enjoy it, then put it away. I like the taste of a rich, full Cab or a cold Chard, but not the buzz. But on those very rare occasions when I do have a glass, I always ask myself why I want it.
posted by sundrop at 5:38 AM on December 21, 2010

What's so abhorrent about 12 step meetings? They're generally a safe place in which you can unload some of the insanity that substance abuse has brought upon your life. What's bad about this? Is it some issue with being ashamed of personal failures and being exposed? Wake up, that's what the rest of the people in the room have hanging over their heads too. There's a lot to be said for being able to talk about your issues in an environment like that.

My Dad suffered from alcohol abuse and AA pretty much saved his life. One could argue he traded the socializing when drinking for that of meetings. But he didn't come home belligerent, drunk and abusive from meetings, so let's call that a win. He died 26 years sober and still held great fear of the wreck booze made of his life. I'm grateful a program like AA existed to help him survive. And so are the hundreds of other "Friends of Bill" he helped get into the program.

So don't be so quick to label something as "abhorrent", that's just offensive.

Then think about why you're obsessing about this. It doesn't sound like there's anything wrong. But what have you edited out to make it sound less-worse online?
posted by wkearney99 at 6:56 AM on December 21, 2010

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