You can’t swing a New York Times these days without hitting a memoir or celeb interview, or radio or TV show about alcoholism and addiction. Clearly, stories of addicts and alcoholics and their struggles are capturing mainstream America’s attention.
But how do you know if you’re an alcoholic? Apparently, there are as many paths to figuring this out as there are people on the planet.
After years of abusing cocaine, Heidi, a 40-something with over 10 years of sobriety, cleaned up and remained sober for 15 years. Then she had a date with a guy she “really really” liked. “I told him of my previous addiction and he asked why I couldn’t drink if my former drug of choice was cocaine,” she recalls. “I answered that I didn’t know. So I ordered a glass of wine with my dinner. I came to the next morning in his bed not having a clue what had happened.” Heidi drank for another few months before she came to believe she was an alcoholic and started attending meetings. Today, she’s grateful she was able to find sobriety for a second time. “I consider myself one of the lucky ones who didn’t get a DUI, lose everything or not know where to go or what to do to find my solution,” she says.
Like many alcoholics, Heidi didn’t fully understand her plight until she realized she couldn’t stop drinking without help. For many of us, getting to that realization is more difficult—especially if we still have homes and jobs, and look to the outside world like high functioning adults. According to Sarah Allen Benton, a therapist and the author of Understanding the Functioning Alcoholic, “If you are trying to ‘control’ something such as drinking, then the problem is generally out of control.”
When Nina, a 30-something with more than three years sober, told her mom she was going into an alcohol treatment center, her mom was puzzled. She’d never seen Nina drink very much “or get sloppy with alcohol.” Nina persisted, and for the first time said out loud what she’d secretly believed for several years: “It’s not about how much I drink—it’s about how much I think about drinking.” In that moment, she recalls, “I had a sensation of looking at myself from the outside, knowing something true and important: that my relationship with alcohol was toxic on a psychological level.” This true and important “something” takes many of us years to unravel. Maybe it’s the final job loss, or divorce, or DUI that brings us to our knees.
In order to help patients determine whether or not they’re alcoholics, Benton recommends that they look at their drinking patterns for the following five indicators: physical cravings (once drinking, he or she is unable to “shut off” and a craving to drink more is set off), mental obsession (preoccupation with drinking), compromising morals and values (either when intoxicated or due to making alcohol a priority above all else), repeating these patterns willingly or unwillingly and being unable to image life without alcohol.
This inability to manage life without alcohol caused Ann, a 30-something with more than two years of sobriety to wonder if she might be morphing into a problem drinker. But when she asked her doctor about it, she made sure to lie about how much she truly drank. “After I told him I had a glass or two of wine a night, he reassured me that this was considered moderate drinking and that it might even have health benefits,” she says. “I continued to drink for another five years believing I was a moderate drinker.” What finally got her sober? Missing a few key events at her children’s school because she was hung over. “I just couldn’t hide it anymore,” she says.
For many alcoholics, the pressure and input of family and friends sometimes backfires—even when these well-meaning folks are in recovery. Lauren, who’s in her twenties and has under a year clean, had a family history of alcoholism that she swore she’d never repeat. Yet “I suspected I was an alcoholic the moment I tried my first drug,” she confesses. “I knew alcohol gave me the lack of inhibition to try something I said I would never do. However, I only realized my powerlessness after four months of doing heroin; it took another three months to quit.” Lauren finally concluded that “no matter how big my willpower was, I was powerless over everything.” Trying to quit the heavier drugs, Lauren turned to alcohol and pills and quickly found herself hitting rock bottom. She returned to her hometown, asked for help and has been able to stay clean and sober for a few months now with the support of family, friends, and AA.
Given the sometimes limited success of family and friends to convince someone who’s not ready to quit, what role can intervention play in someone’s recovery? For Sarah, who has nearly eight years sober, it made all the difference but she had to first be ready. She had tried everything—including Moderation Management therapy, which she was “determined to make work in order to keep alcohol in my life.” But she couldn’t follow the guidelines for moderate drinking: “Alcohol,” she says, “was in control.” After the Super Bowl of 2004 festivities, she recalls, “I woke up and knew that I never wanted to feel the guilt, shame and anxiety that I experienced after a heavy night of drinking. I also realized that I was an alcoholic, because I was truly powerless over my alcohol consumption despite the techniques that I tried to moderate.” The next morning, her friends confronted her about her drinking and she agreed to go to a local hospital for an alcohol assessment. She has not had a drink or a drug in seven years.
So how do you know whether you’re an alcoholic? You may already have a few clues that you might be (say, you drink more than your friends, you drink before events to make sure you have enough, or you can’t seem to leave it alone). Or maybe you know and don’t care. But alcoholic death is slow, painful, and grim. Even the lowest of the low deserve better than that. People who come to AA and wonder aloud whether or not they’re alcoholic are often told that normal drinkers don’t tend to just check out AA—that if they’re there, they may as well take a seat and follow the program. AA also prints out a handy 20 questions pamphlet and suggests that if you answer yes to three or more of them, you are definitely an alcoholic.
In the end, if you’re questioning it, just remember that you’re the only one who can help yourself.