How do I know if I’m an alcoholic?

Write for Advice

There are certain signs that I have a problem with alcohol, but nothing terrible has happened so far.


Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAY 27, 2005

Dear Cary,

You write so eloquently about alcoholism and drinking problems in so many of your columns that I hope you can help me.

I’m drinking a nice cool beer as I write to you, despite the fact that I’ve gained 30 pounds in the last year from this habit of nightly drinking. I’m not sure I’m an alcoholic — in fact, I don’t think I am — but there’s no arguing that I look forward to my evening drinks the same way I used to crave cigarettes, which I stopped without a problem 15 years ago.

I went to a 12-step program for close to a year. While I didn’t drink during that time, I felt like an outsider there. I rarely have more than about five or six drinks at a time, even though I do it virtually every day, and usually without others knowing. However, other than the weight (which isn’t yet a real deterrent, since I’m just slightly overweight), I don’t suffer visible consequences, so it’s hard for me to relate to the stories of woe and loss. I also usually stop around five drinks, so I can’t relate to the “I drank ’til I was toast” stories. I can’t drink anything other than wine or beer, even if I try. I would never drink and drive and never do. And I know it’s external evidence, but I am an attractive 40-year-old woman with a good job, well-liked inside and outside work, own a cute house, a nice car and have family, friends and a loving boyfriend who care about me.

However, I do feel a creeping sensation of “I must do this,” and this is beginning to worry me. For example, if I know I am staying somewhere I won’t be able to drink as much as I want, I put some beer or wine in my suitcase to be safe. The nightly drinking, which started last fall, also worries me, although another side of me says it’s OK since it’s not that much, just a habit.

I dread going back to that group. I spent the most depressed year of my life there, although physically I felt great. I went there in the first place because I had a few bad incidents, and in fact have never resumed that level of drinking. According to all my research, I appear to be an alcohol abuser rather than an alcoholic, but practically speaking, I’m not sure what alternatives that creates. I’ve been to two therapists and neither helped. I’m keeping this a secret from my family and boyfriend — well, he knows some of it — and so they can’t help much either.

Reading my story, do you think I’m alcoholic? And are there alternatives other than stopping completely? I tried Moderation Management and I felt even worse there — to me, a bunch of truly problem drinkers not wanting to deal with it. I feel like I don’t quite fit anywhere. Any help you can offer would be appreciated.

A Friend

 

Dear Friend,

One of the things we lose as we become full-blown alcoholics is the ability to make sound judgments. Luckily, it appears that you still have that ability. Unlike somebody who is too far gone to know what is good or bad for her, you are probably capable of making a clear-headed assessment of where you are in your drinking career and where it is likely to lead. For that reason, I suggest you return to those meetings you were attending with that very purpose in mind. They can offer you a wealth of anecdotal evidence on which to base such a judgment. I suggest you listen particularly for stories of people like yourself who have achieved a fair amount of success in life. I also suggest you tell your story to other people so they can perhaps help you identify the similarities and differences between what you are experiencing and what they have experienced.

In that way you can accomplish two things. You can assess the likely outcome of your drinking, based on the outcomes of others. And you can also be of service to others who want to stop drinking. By being present there, you give others the courage to be present as well. There may be women there who, like you, cannot relate to tales of utter devastation and loss, but are indeed concerned about their drinking. Perhaps they can relate to someone like you who has it pretty much together — although she does pack bottles in her suitcase for emergencies.

If you gather from those meetings that most people who reached the point you are at with their drinking found they were able to quit with relative ease when they decided they wanted to, then your mind may be put at ease. If you find, however, that many of those who lost everything were at one point roughly where you are now, it may give you cause for grave concern. This might be a good time also to take a look at the “20 Questions” pamphlet prepared by Alcoholics Anonymous. At the very least, if you do these things, you will have ample evidence before you and, being of sound judgment, can make a sound choice.

There is, in addition, a third reason to go back to those meetings, and this may the most directly relevant of all. You say that for the almost year you were attending those meetings, you did not drink. You note that you were not particularly happy during that period. But your reason for writing to me is not that you are unhappy. It is that you are concerned about your drinking. It sounds like the meetings did keep you from drinking.

As far as happiness goes, many people find that after an initial period of adjustment they can live quite happily without drinking. My guess is that you are not all that different from the rest of us, and that if you do finally decide to give up drinking, you will be just fine.