This article describes 5 signs of alcoholism to help you to determine whether or not you might be an alcoholic and what you can do if you think you are one.
First, we will examine what an alcoholic is.
Secondly, we will look at 5 warning signs that you might be an alcoholic.
Finally, we finish up with 2 short self-diagnostic tests you can take right now to determine if you or a loved one are an alcoholic.
(We also briefly explore what you can do if you think you are an alcoholic).
What is an alcoholic?
Contrary to popular belief, being an alcoholic does not mean you drink every day. It simply means that using alcohol has become your default emotional response to certain overwhelming emotional situations.
Every human on this planet sometimes faces overwhelming emotions, and most have some form of emotional problem. An alcoholic is merely someone who uses alcohol to deal with theirs.
Once the underlying emotions have intensified to a certain point, getting relief through alcohol becomes the brains default response, and all other consequences beyond that relief are pushed out of mind.
Perhaps these examples of 5 signs you might be an alcoholic will help make things clearer.
5 signs of alcoholism
1. You feel like you have no control over when you decide to drink
You may notice this common theme throughout all of these 5 signs: because an alcoholic’s drinking decisions take place at an emotional level (out of sight of their conscious, rational mind) alcoholism is characterised by a feeling of not being in control over one’s drinking (e.g. “I tried so hard not to drink but somehow I ended up drinking anyway”, “I don’t know why I drank”).
Remember, for alcoholics the decision to drink is an emotional response: our default and automatic response to certain emotional situations is to drink. We cannot control when we experience these emotional situations. Therefore until we learn how to reprogram our default response to these emotions, we cannot control when we drink. We are at the mercy of our emotions.
This means that although we might want to, we are unable to stop drinking: the decision to drink is made automatically at an emotional level. This feels like we are being controlled by our emotions, like we do not have control over our decision to drink. Naturally, this results in unplanned drinking and situations where you end up drinking despite your best intentions, often waking up the next morning with no idea why you drank.
2. You experience cravings for alcohol
A craving is a strong need or urge to drink. In alcoholism this strong urge is created by a need to relieve a feeling of overwhelming emotional discomfort. At times, these overwhelming emotions are so intense that we lose sight of everything else except relieving them.
Harvard psychologist Lance Dodes compares this state to that of being in a blind rage: when you are furiously angry, you do not care about any consequences: you simply must express your rage. It’s too late for rational thought and logic. Similarly with alcohol cravings: once the underlying emotions have intensified beyond a certain point, relieving this overwhelmed feeling becomes the sole priority and all longer term consequences are ignored. This is why we drink even when we had planned not to: as in a rage, we are blind to the consequences.
3. You feel like you should cut down or stop drinking
As we’ve already seen, because alcoholics drink in response to certain emotions, they drink at times when they don’t want to. Drinking when you don’t want to results in the feeling that you’re drinking too often, so the natural reaction is to want to cut down i.e. “I didn’t want to drink last night but I did anyway – I don’t want to do that again, I need to try to stop drinking as often”.
This is a logical conclusion. However, it’s hard for an alcoholic to cut down – sometimes they can last for a few days, weeks or even months – but ultimately they will find themselves in an emotional situation which is unbearable without the relief of alcohol.
This leads to experiencing the next sign of alcoholism:
4. Experience feelings of guilt, depression and self-loathing after drinking to excess
Until an alcoholic realises what is happening, alcoholism can be extremely confusing and unpleasant. The alcoholic is likely to feel weak willed and unreliable, always breaking promises to themselves and others to reduce or stop their drinking. They cannot understand why they drink even when they have planned not to, as they are unaware of the reason for their drinking. They will likely assume it’s because of some defect of character on their part and blame themselves. This leads to feelings of depression and self-loathing.
The reality is that the alcoholic is not at fault at all. They simply need to recognise that this is an emotional problem and tackle it accordingly. [Read how to stop drinking to learn more about how to deal with reprogramming these emotional responses to eliminate alcoholism]
5. The prospect of having a drink later calms you down as much as actually having that drink
The fact that the mere prospect of drinking (with no alcohol actually entering the body) is able to provide relief is a clear sign that alcohol is providing relief at the emotional level. An alcoholic drinks because it enables them to control their emotions. Just deciding that they will have a drink later allows them to feel in control of their emotions and has a similar effect of relief as the drink itself. Alcoholics may refer to this “invincible” feeling of knowing that they will soon be drinking – they get this feeling despite having no alcohol in the body.
After reading these 5 signs of alcoholism, if you are still unsure whether or not you’re an alcoholic then hopefully these 2 diagnostic tests will help you get more clarity.
Here are two simple diagnostic tests you can take to determine whether you might be an alcoholic. Please note that these tests are only a starting point – if the results indicate you might be an alcoholic then you are advised to seek a professional diagnosis.
The CAGE questionnaire [source]
- Have you ever felt you needed to Cut down on your drinking?
- Have people Annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
- Have you ever felt Guilty about drinking?
- 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?
2 or more “yes” answers means means that the possibility of alcoholism needs to be investigated further.
The MAST (Michigan Alcohol Screening Test) [source]
Answer yes or no to the following 22 questions:
- Do you feel you are a normal drinker? (“normal” – drink as much or less than most other people)?
- Have you ever awakened the morning after some drinking the night before and found that you could not remember a part of the evening?
- Does any near relative or close friend ever worry or complain about your drinking?
- Can you stop drinking without difficulty after one or two drinks?
- Do you ever feel guilty about your drinking?
- Have you ever attended a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)?
- Have you ever gotten into physical fights when drinking?
- Has drinking ever created problems between you and a near relative or close friend?
- Has any family member or close friend gone to anyone for help about your drinking?
- Have you ever lost friends because of your drinking?
- Have you ever gotten into trouble at work because of drinking?
- Have you ever lost a job because of drinking?
- Have you ever neglected your obligations, your family, or your work for two or more days in a row because you were drinking?
- Do you drink before noon fairly often?
- Have you ever been told you have liver trouble such as cirrhosis?
- After heavy drinking have you ever had delirium tremens (D.T.’s), severe shaking, visual or auditory (hearing) hallucinations?
- Have you ever gone to anyone for help about your drinking?
- Have you ever been hospitalized because of drinking?
- Has your drinking ever resulted in your being hospitalized in a psychiatric ward?
- Have you ever gone to any doctor, social worker, clergyman or mental health clinic for help with any emotional problem in which drinking was part of the problem?
- Have you been arrested more than once for driving under the influence of alcohol?
- Have you ever been arrested, even for a few hours, because of other behavior while drinking?
Give yourself a score of 1 for ever “yes” answer (except questions 1 and 4 – give yourself a score of 1 for each of these questions if you answered “no”) and add up your total score.
- A score of 0-2 indicates likely no drinking problem
- A score of 3-5 indicates a likely drinking problem and warrants further investigation
- A score of 6 or more indicates an extremely high probability of a drinking problem
A final word on alcoholism and the results of these tests
The results of these tests and the 5 signs of alcoholism described are only a starting point in diagnosing whether you might be an alcoholic. If the results indicate you might be an alcoholic then you are advised to seek a professional diagnosis. You can find further details on how to stop drinking and the various supports available to you here