Trying to figure out if you have a drinking problem can be a confusing and complicated process. Your family and friends may want to convince you that you’re fine, or they may be quick to judge your drinking as problematic—but how can you be certain? It might seem like everyone has a different and personal definition of what a drinking problem is. Don’t stress about it, though: there are some definite warning signs you can learn and understand. Better understanding of your own drinking behavior can help you determine whether or not you have a problem, and what steps you can take if you do.
What is a Drinking Problem?
Until recently, most treatment professionals categorized problem drinking into two distinct categories: alcoholism and alcohol abuse. Alcoholism is more severe and is best understood as an addiction to alcohol. Alcohol abuse was seen as a less severe form of problem drinking in which some but not all of the symptoms of addiction were present.
Alcoholism has been defined by the medical community as a chronic, progressive, bio-psycho-social disease that impacts multiple areas of one’s life, and is characterized by the loss of control over alcohol. It’s a disease that affects many different aspects of life, from your mood to your decision-making, to your physical health.
What are the Most Common Signs of a Drinking Problem?
One important sign of a drinking problem is the existence of problems in your life. These problems may pop up in your personal relationships (family, friends, lovers, etc.), relationships at work (trouble getting along with colleagues or your boss) or as money problems, legal problems, and physical health or mental health problems. While everyone experiences some challenges at times and life certainly has its ups and downs, people who develop drinking problems tend to have a litany of troublesome things going on in their lives all the time, and these problems tend to get worse, not better, as time goes on.
Put another way, drinking problems impact how you function in at least a few areas of your life. If you are developing a drinking problem, it often shows up as problematic behaviors, such as getting caught drinking and driving, or getting into a fight while under the influence and getting injured or destroying property. Problem drinking impacts intimacy, so take a hard look at how things are going with your spouse or lover. Have you been more distant? Are you feeling more and more like you just don’t want to be bothered with the difficult aspects of relationships—like you just want to be left alone? Are you having trouble being sexually intimate, either with the mechanics of sex itself (having trouble achieving or maintaining an erection or experiencing an orgasm), or with the emotions associated with physical intimacy? Drinking problems interfere with these aspects of sexuality and intimacy.
Unpredictability related to your drinking is another common sign of a drinking problem. Perhaps sometimes when you go out with friends and intend to have just a couple of drinks,that is exactly what happens— you have a nice evening out and everything seems fine. You have two beers and go home. No problem. But other evenings, for no obvious reason, you start out with the same intentions and end up binging. Two beers becomes beers and shots and a drinking episode that lasts hours, with a lengthy recovery period needed afterward. Being unable to accurately predict how much you will drink indicates a problem. Further, having your intentions or plans not necessarily match up with what happens is another sign of a problem.
Anxiety and depression can also be indicators of a drinking problem. Increased irritability and moodiness coupled with increased drinking is a sign that your drinking has become problematic. Feeling irritable and defensive about your drinking itself is another sign that your drinking is becoming a problem.
What are Some Questions to Ask Yourself About Your Drinking?
According to recently updated diagnostic criteria, drinking problems can be classified as mild, moderate or severe instead of the old two-tier classification of addiction versus abuse. The severity is determined by how many “yes” answers you give to a series of questions about your drinking. If you answer no to all of the following questions, you can safely conclude that you do not have a drinking problem:
- Have you noticed that you are developing a tolerance to alcohol? Tolerance means that you can drink more before you notice any effects—the “buzz” you used to feel after two beers now requires three or four.
- Have you tried to stop drinking on your own and failed? Do you want to drink less, or drink less frequently, but feel like you just can’t? Do you feel ashamed or guilty about how much or how often you drink?
- Does it seem like you are always on your way to or from a drink? Do you tend to organize your time around when you can drink? Do you avoid going places where you can’t drink?
- Along the same lines, does it seem like you obsess about drinking? Do you crave alcohol when you aren’t drinking?
- Do you drink and drive, or engage in other dangerous activities (such as swimming or using power tools), when you’ve been drinking?
- Is drinking interfering with your ability to fulfill your responsibilities and obligations? Have you blown off important work or family responsibilities to drink?
- Have you gotten into trouble for drinking—for example, getting caught drinking on the job or at school? Do you continue to drink in those situations, despite the problems drinking has caused?
- Has anyone told you to cut back on drinking or quit? Has anyone told you that your drinking is a cause of problems in your life? Do you continue to drink despite that professional or personal advice?
- What does a hangover look like for you? Do you get physical symptoms such as shakes, or sweats, nausea, vomiting or other symptoms of withdrawal after stopping drinking?
- Do you feel angry or irritated when family members or medical professionals want to talk about your drinking?
- If asked how much and how often you drink, do you automatically “round down” and give an answer that you think sounds better than the truth?
Remember, a problem drinker might not resemble that mental picture you have from childhood of what an alcoholic looks like. Drinking problems affect people from all walks of life, all races and ages, wealthy or poor, and everything in between. In addition, not all drinking problems are the same: some people develop problems with alcohol despite maintaining a very high level of functionality in other areas of their lives. Media images and childhood beliefs may be powerful yet they are often inaccurate.
Testing Your Control
How did you answer all of those questions? If you’re not sure what your honest response really is, one way to find out is to challenge yourself. Try some of the following challenges and see how you feel.
Stop drinking. The most draconian way to determine where you fall upon the continuum of mild, moderate, severe, or no problem at all, is to try not drinking. That’s correct, just don’t drink at all. Don’t pick a convenient date in the future, after your friend’s wedding, or on Monday, or any other date. Just stop—right here, right now.
Too severe? Not necessary? Try cutting back on your drinking. You can reduce the frequency, or you can reduce the quantity, or both. One common limit many people choose is to eliminate all drinking on “school nights” (or work nights). Another common limit you can try is to alternate club soda or a soft drink for every other drink.
You can try limiting drinking by determining a specific amount of money you are willing to spend on alcohol. How much per month is what you’d like to spend. Set that aside and stick to it. If someone gives you a gift or buys a round, deduct that amount from your total as if you spent it yourself.
If you think you might have a drinking problem, seek help. Many people are successful in recovering from alcoholism and living rich, fulfilling lives without the stress and constant drama that drinking problems tend to create. As hard as it can be to get sober, living with drinking problems is more difficult.
- Alcoholics Anonymous. Free, accessible and discrete—AA meetings are a great way to begin dealing with a drinking problem. Go to a meeting and as hard as it might be that first time, say something. You don’t have to say everything at that first meeting, but don’t be silent. Speak up, be honest, and say as much as you can about what’s going on with you.
- If you know that you’re carrying around some baggage you really need to unpack, try psychotherapy. Again, be honest and open up about what’s happened in your past. You may find there are links between past events and current behavior that you can understand. Understanding yourself better can help you increase your motivation to change.
- Inpatient care. If you have been drinking large amounts for a long time, you may need medical help to safely stop drinking. See your doctor and open up about your drinking. There are ways to stop with medical supervision that are safe and much more comfortable than going “cold turkey.”
As with many other chronic illnesses, catching a drinking problem early, while still mild, can save you years of heartbreak, pain and suffering. The key is to be brutally honest with yourself about your answers to the questions above, give the self-tests a decent shot, and then assess your results. Seek support and professional help if you’re having a hard time, and have faith—life does get better if you address the challenges that arise from problem drinking.