When does drinking become a problem? Are there objective criteria for determining that you’ve crossed a threshold (other than physical addiction to alcohol)? How can you know that recreational use of alcohol has moved beyond its limitations and become problem drinking?
We review and answer these questions here. Then, we invite your questions, comments and feedback at the end (Ex. Should or can I stop drinking alcohol in the first place?). We try our best to respond to all queries with a personal and prompt response.
Problems, problems, problems…
Let’s examine a word we all take for granted: Problem. Merriam-Webster offers (among others) the following:
- something that is difficult to deal with
- something that is a source of trouble, worry, etc.
- a source of worry or vexation
When drinking is a problem, it certainly qualifies under all three of these definitions. The question then becomes: When does drinking become a problem? Are there objective criteria for determining that a threshold has been crossed, that recreational use of alcohol has moved beyond its limitations and become problem drinking?
Families tend notice problem drinking first
It would be easy to say that the drinker’s family and loved ones could accurately assess this boundary-crossing, as they are the direct victims of the drinker’s behavior, but even that wouldn’t be true. The boundary itself is elusive, and those closest to the problem-drinker are equally vulnerable to the phenomenon of denial.
Alcoholism is a family disease, and as it progresses family members, along with the alcoholic, make adjustments in their behavior and expectations. The “it’s-not-that-bad” lie clouds perspective to the point that all three of the above definitions, though they describe a situation entirely, are somehow brushed aside, however unrealistic that might be.
Professionals work with self-reported data
Treatment centers and professionals can only judge by what is reported to them, which is often minimized. Also, criteria like the amount of drinks consumed—and during how many sessions per week—can be misleading: there are individuals who drink more than the norm in terms of quantity and consistency, but their lives and health do not seem to be adversely affected.
Criteria for drinking problems
So what can we use as criteria to determine when a line has been crossed from recreational use of alcohol to when drinking is a problem? Here are a few guidelines:
- Have there been consequences related to drinking that should be considered in terms of the possible necessity to moderate or quit altogether?
- Does the drinker minimize these consequences, or attribute them to outside causes (e.g., blaming a DUI on the police, or the “system,” or saying “I wasn’t that drunk,” or “It was a fluke.”)?
- Can you control the amount once you start? Or is there a tendency, even if only occasionally, to “overshoot the mark”?
- Can you predict your behavior when drinking? Or is it possible that you will make decisions you wouldn’t make, or act impulsively when normally you would be more cautious?
- Have people – family, loved ones, friends, acquaintances, employers or coworkers – commented on your drinking?
- Do you feel an absence of something when not drinking? Is it difficult to abstain once the idea takes root that it’s a good time to have a drink?
- Does drinking help alleviate negative feelings like anxiety, irritation, depression, or loneliness?
- Does the idea of stopping consumption of alcohol altogether cause anxiety, resistance, or irritation and defiance?
- Is it possible that the absence of alcohol could be a good thing, if someone could demonstrate that everything alcohol offers – fun, conviviality, relief, and a sense of confidence and personal comfort – could be had without it?
When drinking is a problem
When drinking is a problem, these questions are easily deflected in favor of maintaining a self-image of a functioning and healthy user of alcohol. They should be examined on an ongoing basis. Other resources are available online and can be extremely useful in determining whether one should at least attempt to scale back one’s drinking or, if that proves difficult, seek help.
Do you have problems with drinking?
Please let us know about it. You don’t need to suffer alone. And there is help, including finding motives to stop drinking. Please leave us your questions or experiences in the comments section below. We’ll do you best to respond to you personally and promptly.