how can i tell if i'm an alcoholic?
August 12, 2006 7:08 PM   Subscribe

how can i tell if i'm an alcoholic?

ok, here's my story. i'm in my late 20s and I've been a social drinker for quite some (since a teenager actually). I've been accused of having an addictive personality but I've never had any diagonsed problems with substance abuse. That said, over the last few years I've found myself drinking more and more often. I'm in a line of work where social drinking is not just expected but required (just trust me on that one)... but that's not what concerns me. What concerns me is what I'm doing when I'm not working.

I drink every night, usually alone or when I'm hanging out with my wife (she's usually not drinking). I don't always become what I would consider drunk, but I'm having at least 3 or 4 drinks (mainly wine/beer) a night. Sometimes it's a lot more. I've also found myself - when faced with a stressful or tyring work day - thinking about how much I'm looking forward to my first drink. Sometimes as early as 10am or 11am.

What does this mean? I've tried to stop drinking for short periods of time to just prove to myself that I can... but usually after a day or two I go back to the bottle. Do I need to seek professional help? It isn't interfering with my work or personal relationships (well, at least as far as I can tell) but I don't want this to either. Hive mind, share your thoughts.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
yup. reign it in. that's my gut reaction

but! find out for yourself, here's a fun survey!

i got there from Wikipedia/Alcoholism, which also has a lot of other info

on that page i notice they have the CAGE test
1 Have you ever felt you needed to Cut down on your drinking?
well here we are, so...

2 Have people Annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
YOU SAID: I've been accused of having an addictive personality

3 Have you ever felt Guilty about drinking?
YOU SAID: What concerns me is what I'm doing when I'm not working

4 Have you ever felt you needed a drink first thing in the morning (Eye-opener) to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?
YOU SAID: Sometimes as early as 10am or 11am.
and, iffy, but i say... Check

you win!

(sorry if you don't find that funny...)
posted by qbxk at 6:45 PM on August 12, 2006

Well try to stop drinking entirely in non-social settings. If you are unable to do so, then you may have a problem. You said you tried that but weren't able to keep at it.

Just remember that continuous drinking can have some pretty serious health problems down the road, later in life if you keep it up. So it would be good if you try to lower, and ultimately minimize your intake over time.
posted by Paris Hilton at 6:46 PM on August 12, 2006

If you can't give it up for more than a day or two, then, yes, I'd say you're addicted.
posted by delladlux at 6:47 PM on August 12, 2006

You are an alcoholic by most objective tests of alcoholism--If I were you I would try to find a physician who is Board Certified in Addiction Medicine--there are a number of new drugs that are quite safe that help enormously in the transition to sobriety--also,, they can help you figure out if you might benefit from some of the SSRI which help with undrlying anxiety and / or depression. And of course AA is an important part of sobriety. Attend a few meetings and listen--you never have to say anything--I think you will surprised how familiar your life and experiences are shared. What kind of job do you have that drinking is required--I am trying to image--Liquor/beer/wine sales?
posted by rmhsinc at 6:48 PM on August 12, 2006

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

I've been dry for 11 years, and it was the best decision I ever made. I didn't seek out professional help; I just stopped drinking, and haven't touched a drop since.

But for a lot of people, professional help is a bonus. In my case there was no physical dependency, and it sounds like you don't have either. Even so, if you're serious about this, you should probably check with a doctor first.

If you're having trouble with willpower, there's a drug called "Antabuse". It's an antagonist for one of the enzymes in your liver used to break down ethanol, and while you're taking the drug if you drink any alcohol it will make you really sick.

But if you're taking it, that can also represent a willpower crutch. You take the pill in the morning when your determination is strong, and in the evening when you're weakening and thinking about declaring a "special occasion", then you'll know that if you try to drink you'll really regret it. (If you drink anyway, you won't very many times.)

In the end, only you can do this. No one can do it for you. And you can't do it unless you're really determined. I have no use for "12 step programs" and I didn't go through one. But I did make a decision that alcohol would never be part of my life again. That's the key step; you must decide to quit completely and forever.

If you won't do that, then there's no point in trying at all.

It isn't possible to stop drinking routinely but to allow yourself to drink on special occasions. You may keep that up for a week or a year, but eventually you'll be back to what you're doing now, with nearly every evening being a "special occasion". Only a complete and total break will really free you from the bottle.

You'll never be completely free of it. Even after 11 years, sometimes I get the urge. I can remember what a dry red wine tastes like, or a dark beer, and sometimes I really wish I could try one again. But I don't. If I did, I'd be tossing away 11 years of achievement -- and that's too high a price. So I don't.

The longer you're dry, the easier it is to stay dry. But you'll struggle with it, at least a little bit, for the rest of your life.

(By the way, if you do decide to use Antabuse, you also have to be careful about some kinds of cough syrup, because a lot of them have alcohol in them. And you need to know that "non-alcoholic beer" is generally 0.5% alcohol in the US, so you can't drink that either.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:53 PM on August 12, 2006

It sort of doesn't matter if you're technically an alcoholic. What matters is if you think your relationship with alcohol is out of your control, and whether you [and/or your partner] think that you should do something about it. There are a lot of online quizzes and past questions here have shown that people have strong opinions on how to answer the "am I an alcoholic?" question regardless of what your drinking patterns are like.

If you have a solid relationship with your wife, you might want to ask her what she thinks, but be prepared to deal with the answer if she says that yeah, it's a problem.

To me it sounds like you have a drinking problem (drinking alone, waiting until you can get home to drink, not being able to not drink for a few days) but I grew up in a family full of functional alcoholics [meaning they never got in a car drunk or were the lampshade-on-head types or missed time at work] and had my own ups and downs with drinking. If you have a desire to drink less, or quit drinking, there are a few things you'll have to think about

1. if you really are some sort of alcoholic, can you keep your job if you undergo treatment/counseling? I trust that drinking is an important part of your work, so you'll have to just think about this on your own. Are there other people at work who don't drink? How would they deal with this? Could you fake it? The answer to this question will affect how you want to deal with it.

2. do you have alcoholic family members, that you know of? If so, it's much more likely that you will have a problem with alcohol. Also, think about your wife and her family. In my family, I had one parent who drank, and one who grew up with parents who drank a lot but didn't drink abnormally. They were sort of a natural fit.

3. how hard would it be to admit that this was something out of your control? Could you take yourself to a doctor? to AA? Could you admit to other people that you were an alcoholic?

4. could you be depressed or bored and self-medicating with alcohol? Sometimes you'll see this in people with bad relationships or terrible jobs or some other really soul-crushing problem and they don't feel the need to drink when the stressor has gone away. Think about whether there are things like that in your life.

In short, if you ask the peanut gallery about your own situation, you'll usually get some people who say yes and other people who say no. You'll have to decide for yourself if this is something you think you have a problem with and whether you want to change or not. My email is in my profile if you want to chat more.
posted by jessamyn at 6:58 PM on August 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

If you have to ask, the answer should be clear to you
posted by growabrain at 7:09 PM on August 12, 2006

"Alcoholic" is a loaded term, and a lot of times it doesn't clarify anything. You can have a serious drinking problem without being an alcoholic, according to some definitions. I think it's good that you've asked yourself if drinking has had bad effects on your work and relationships, because how you function is a good measure of whether you're overdoing the booze. Also, driving while intoxicated is one of the earliest signs of irresponsible drinking and of lying to oneself.

The other thing you talk about -- looking forward to drinking -- is key. If you were looking forward to zoning out in some other way, it'd be the same thing. There's a reason why you want to drink: either something missing in your life, or thoughts/feelings you want to get away from.

Stop drinking and see how you feel. You can have plain tonic or apple juice in a wine glass or some such -- no excuses about how drinking is required. Stay sober long enough to develop a routine without alcohol, and then you'll begin to realize what you don't like about being sober. People in my family who quit drugs and alcohol often say that dealing with sobriety is harder than giving up their drug of choice.
posted by wryly at 8:09 PM on August 12, 2006

It sounds to me like you are at a minimum borderline; chances are you are considerably addicted (pining for the bottle at 10 AM? Jesus). Though your current level of consumption is unlikely to totally fuck up your life in the immediate term (unless make a bad habit of driving when your are not what you "would consider drunk"), you are primed to spiral into truly ungovernable drinking if, say, your stress level exploded for some reason or a host of other reasons. Marriage problems start shortly after that.

Another issue to consider is that the level of drinking you are describing (minimum 3-4 drinks daily plus regular heavier and it sounds like sometimes very heavy consumption plus workplace consumption) is likely to have a serious impact on your health over time.

It's simple. If you can't go a week or two without a drink you have a drinking problem. Without a single drink, tell those important sales contacts or whatever the hell it is at work you're taking an antibiotic for an infected toenail and your doctor told you if you touched a drop of booze your liver will explode, whatever. When you start making up absurd excuses about why you absolutely can't go through this simple little exercise that anybody who is in control of their drinking could manage without effort then you'll know for sure that yep, you've got a drinking problem.
posted by nanojath at 8:41 PM on August 12, 2006

If it isn't interfering with your life, then no, it isn't a problem. Just make sure to maintain enough self-awareness to recognize when it is becoming an unwelcome guest. And exercise enough to make up for all those empty carbs you're ingesting.
posted by cmonkey at 9:02 PM on August 12, 2006

If you're looking forward to drinking as early as 11am, then I'd say you have a problem of some sort.

Perhaps it's not alcoholism. Could be the monster of crappy jobs, but either way, thinking about booze that early in the day isn't really a good sign.
posted by chimaera at 9:52 PM on August 12, 2006

Just to qualify my feedback, I worked in the addictions field for 10 years and trained at Hazelden (FWIW).

Probably the best place to self-test is by using the Jellinek Chart. This is the chart that most of the quizzes are based on. The linked chart is, for the most part, more informative.

There are a logical progression of symptoms involved but like others have stated, "too much" can be whatever is too much for you. Pat yourself on the back for having the recognition at this point and run with it.

If you're still up in the air, see an addictions specialist and they can administer the Jellinek test is a controlled situation and interpret your answers better than we could. Most treatment centers will offer this service or you doctor could refer you to someone who can.

Another note, someone earlier mentioned antabuse and I would steer clear of it. The side-effects can be nasty and is usually only used in a controlled setting with chronic alcoholics. I used to administer antabuse and have seen some pretty nasty reactions to it. If your doctor advises you to use it, be aware of the dangers.

Feel free to email me with any specific questions you may have.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 10:33 PM on August 12, 2006

You say you're married and in your 20s. If you are thinking about having kids soon, try to resolve this before they come along. The stakes are much higher when you have kids, adn you will likely be under more stress that will make quitting/cutting back harder.

What you describe sounds to me like a problem. I think nanojath and jessamyn both have good advice. The difficulty with cmonkey's advice is that you can be very very far down the road and still honestly feel like it's not interfering with your life; addictions make you blind to the real effect they are having on your life. I think you are wise to be concerned about this and think about how to cut back or quit altogether. Here are three thoughts about how to start:

Step 1, make it hard for yourself to have an easy relaxing drink by yourself. Don't have any alcohol in the house. This is something that should be under your control! If you find this thought unbearable, or continually find rationalizations for why you "need to have alcohol in the house now, just this week, but next week you will definitely get rid of it", that's THE sign that this has gotten out of hand.

Step 2, do social activities that don't revolve around alcohol. If you and your friends spend a lot of time in bars, try to shift some of that time over to... coffeeshops, movies, going for dessert at a restaurant, couples dance classes, rec league softball, bike rides, etc.

Step 3, I don't know if this will apply to you. If you are looking forward to the escape of alcohol because you're depressed, a major way to cut back depression is to exercise. Try to start an exercise program, even a modest and easy one, but one that will be most days of the week and that will become a new routine for you. Start going for a short run (or even a walk if you're really not in shape) in the mornings, or it might be easier to sign up for some class at a gym where you will be expected to show up (to get yourself into the routine), maybe a martial arts class? It should be something that takes you out of the house, too; I find routines are easier to stick with when they come with definite spatial boundaries.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:38 PM on August 12, 2006

My thoughts are you're already in it deeper than you think, you're wise to ask for objectivity, and in denial about what the job's doing to you.
posted by scheptech at 11:24 PM on August 12, 2006

Your story sounds very familiar. I was just the same all the way to my late 20's. Social drinking from a teenager and then into a job where that was expected on a nearly daily basis. Waking up feeling low level hungover every day, deciding that there was no way that I'd do the same tonight and by mid morning starting to get that empty feeling in my mouth that only a drink could make better.

Not sure whether this will be a popular bit of advice but no-one seems to be focussing on the job here. I'd say have a really good think about whether this work is what you really want to do with your life and if not, make a plan to ditch it as soon as possible and move on to something that suits you better that doesn't involve this drink culture. If your work expects drinking of you on as regular basis as you say, then it's no surprise that on nights where it doesn't, your body is still expecting its fix.

The fact that you've identified this as a problem at this stage is a good thing. A very good thing. My experience was that once the job went away, then the associations with drinking every night went away too and I stopped naturally. I stopped having that group of peers who encouraged that cycle or were stuck in that cycle themselves. Now I go out for a few drinks maybe once every 2 to 3 weeks and enjoy it for what it is, a part of going out with friends and having a good time and having fun talking crap or setting the world to rights ;-). The important thing is that alcohol stops being the focus of these times out and just becomes something you do as just one part of going out and doing something fun. Make sure that you also do things that are fun that don't involve drinking and make those the majority of the fun times.

Oh and when you're at home, don't be the only person drinking. No matter how you feel, it's never fun for someone else to be with someone who's getting drunk while they're not, so get the booze out of the house. Sure buy some wine or beer on the day that friends are coming over but don't have it always there. There's no need to have this temptation around at this stage.

If you do all this and still can't break the habit, then go seek professional help, but really from my experience I'd say have a long, cold look at your lifestyle and your job first, and make a short term plan to get rid of the bits that are making you unhappy enough to post a question to metafilter about it.

Huge wishes of good luck with it all.
posted by merocet at 1:51 AM on August 13, 2006 [2 favorites]

Oh and on preview, What LobsterMitten said!
posted by merocet at 1:52 AM on August 13, 2006

Everything that merocat said.

Get out of that job, break the routine you're in, and THEN see how you feel. Try getting a day job so you have to be up early every morning. Stop going to the same bars, stop hanging out with the same people.

If it's your situation causing the problem, you shouldn't have too much difficulty getting back to a normal state. If this doesn't happen, seek help, but do try getting out of that rut first.
posted by bink at 6:21 AM on August 13, 2006

As was said before: If you have to ask, the answer is yes.
posted by Merdryn at 8:07 AM on August 13, 2006

Not knowing the answer to that question is a very unpleasant place to be in. An answer that you can live with, either way, is in fact a relief, because then you can plot a course.

Without any judgement, I would recommend sounding out an AA meeting, just to find out what goes on there. It's difficult (for all the Penn and Teller nonsense) to understand what AA is about without attending a meeting. That experience may leave you angry, turned off and screaming for a drink (you wouldn't be the first) but you'll have a better idea of the lie of the land and what's on offer. Alternatively you may find the humor, the self-knowledge and the sense of lives lived in depth, interesting and helpful.

Alcoholism is an immense problem which will touch you many times in life (whether directly or indirectly). It will do you no harm to get its measure, as fully and as early as you can.
posted by grahamwell at 9:28 AM on August 13, 2006

That chart is a bit reefer madness, isn't it?

It is possible to just have a beer or two on a regular basis, even by yourself, and not be an alcoholic. It is possible, especially today, to wonder if you're drinking too much and come back with a correct answer of no, despite what AA says.

As far as addiction goes, desire is irrelevant. It's behavior that matters. It doesn't matter how bad you want a drink if you aren't, in fact, having one when you shouldn't. I want to kill people sometimes, but that doesn't make me a murderholic. It sounds silly but I think it's actually a profound statement, because what that means is you aren't what you desire. Your ego isn't you. Everyone has animal, physical desires as well as more lofty, spiritual desires. Denying or stigmatizing the mere existence of the animal side of your nature is denying your humanity. Of course, satisfying your animal urges over the objections of your spiritual side is just as bad. You gotta find the balance. It's all about finding the balance.

My personal guidelines:
  • If you think you're addicted, try going a week without. If you try, sincerely, several times, and talk yourself out of making it the whole week every time, then you might be addicted.
  • Go for quality over quantity, that makes it mostly self-limiting.

  • posted by Mr. Gunn at 8:55 AM on August 14, 2006

    "Alcoholic" is a loaded word, so I'm not going to use it. But I am going to say that you're drinking waaaay too much, and absolutely should cut down or stop right away, because alcohol is obviously taking a central role in your life. You already know this.

    One or two people -- you included -- have said things along the lines of 'if it's not affecting your [life/work/relationships/etc], then it's not a problem.'

    But if you're drinking every single night, it is affecting your life, and your work, and your relationships, whether you're ready to admit that or not. You're spending all of your free time drunk. Yeah, okay, not *really* drunk, but still drunk. You're hungover every morning. Yeah, okay, not *totally* hungover, but still hungover. If you're drinking every single day, then every moment of your life is being affected by it: you're either actively using it, you're recovering from it, or you're looking forward to it.

    When you're not drinking, you're looking forward to it. When you try to stop, you can't. When you're having a bad day, you're looking to alcohol as the thing that will make it better. These are not very subtle signs.

    (What does your wife think about the fact that she doesn't get to see you sober very often? No, what does she really think? Have you two ever talked about it? Maybe you should.)

    (When you tried and failed to stop drinking, did you tell anyone you were stopping? Or was it a secret? Secret promises are a lot easier to break.)

    You might not need professional help or AA. (It'll be a lot easier to cut down or quit if you have some help, but it is possible to tough it out alone.) You might not even need to stop drinking altogether. (It's much more difficult to say "I'm only going to drink socially" and actually follow through on that than it is to just say "I'm not going to drink anymore", but it is possible.)

    It might be enough to just stop drinking alone. Or to just have one glass of wine with dinner, instead of killing the whole bottle every night. Or to only drink on weekends. Whatever. You're going to have to decide what level of use you're comfortable with -- none of us can (or really even should) do that for you. But you already know you're drinking too much (or you wouldn't have tried to quit, wouldn't have asked this question)... and I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that you're not actually enjoying the high very much anymore. If you can get back to a place where drinking is something you do occasionally, instead of all the time, it can actually be fun again. Guess how I know this.

    Or those might not be enough. If you keep trying different strategies to cut down and they keep failing, then yes, it's time to get some help. AA, therapy, friends, family, or all of the above.
    posted by ook at 3:12 PM on August 14, 2006

    Here are AAs 12 questions. Also, AA can work for agnostics/atheists - my (now deceased) atheist step-grandfather was quite active in AA.

    As for socializing - Coke in a highball glass doesn't look any different from rum and Coke in a highball glass. Vodka tonic your drink? Have Sprite instead. And if someone is rude enough to question your non-alcoholic drinks, tell him/her to fuck off. Or, alternatively, you're on a prescription that says you can't drink alcohol.
    posted by deborah at 9:33 PM on August 14, 2006

    That chart is a bit reefer madness, isn't it?

    The vernacular is, yes because it came out many years ago but in terms of relevancy, it has held up over the years and is used quite widely.

    It sounds silly but I think it's actually a profound statement, because what that means is you aren't what you desire.

    To a certain extent, true but with alcohol, when thinking about it constantly interrupts normal actvities and concentration then it's time to rethink that. Like the old saying goes: "If you hang out in a barbershop long enough, eventually you're gonna get a a haircut."
    posted by KevinSkomsvold at 9:18 AM on August 15, 2006

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