Are you an alcoholic just because you drink too much?
I was giving a talk on alcoholism recently and I was running it by a loved one to check it was clear what I was saying. And he said to me “What is an alcoholic? Will everyone know what that means?” I was a little bit stunned, seeing as I am an alcoholic and he has had many years of experience of the problems I caused when drinking.
But it's true – while we continue to debate alcoholism and excessive drinking, no one seems to have paid attention to the difference between the lifestyle choice and the actual illness of alcoholism. You can be a problem drinker and abuse alcohol without being an alcoholic.
For clarity's sake, an alcoholic is someone who is ADDICTED to alcohol. Addiction means:
A habit or practice that jeopardises one's life and when ceased causes trauma.
A pathological relationship to mood-altering experience that has life damaging consequences.
If you drink too much alcohol, this does not mean you are an alcoholic. If you binge drink, this does not necessarily mean you are an alcoholic. But if you drink alcohol and you can not stop drinking it no matter how hard you try and no matter what the negative consequences of continuing are, then you are an alcoholic.
Addiction is marked by an absolute obsession and an uncontrollable compulsion. Alcoholism is a mental and physiological disorder and there is evidence that it is a neurological disorder too – a disease. When an alcoholic has the first sip of alcohol, it sets up a seemingly uncontrollable craving to consume more; but if the alcoholic does not have a drink, then they are often obsessed by thoughts of alcohol and how they can get it. This is not the same as someone who drinks too much or drinks irresponsibly.
I think the stigma of alcoholism lies partly in the fact that non-addicts do not understand that the addict is absolutely powerless over their addiction. It is not a lifestyle choice. We can not just cut back or switch to the weaker stuff for the sake of our loved ones. We can not control this disorder.
In the UK especially we are experiencing a health crisis as more people are drinking irresponsibly than ever before. You don't have to be an alcoholic to give yourself liver damage, you just need to be an irresponsible drinker.
If you can't yet tell if you're an alcoholic or just someone who drinks too much, let me put this simply: If you think you might have a problem, then you have – of one sort or another. And it is time to take action if that is the case.
There is a very simple test you can take to see if you are an alcoholic or someone who just needs to drink less. Try cutting back. I don't mean taking a week off drinking. I mean trying to control the number of drinks you have per session. You'll soon find out if you're an alcoholic if you discover that is not possible to moderate how much you drink for an extended period of time no matter how hard you try.
If you can just cut back and have a few drinks less and space them further apart, then great - you'll be doing your liver a massive favour and you'll get yourself off that slippery slope. If you can't, then seek professional help. The good news is that all types of alcohol disorder can be treated with the right commitment, the right support and if necessary, the help of a skilled and understanding professional.