Heavy Drinkers Aren’t Necessarily Alcoholic
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Heavy Drinkers Aren’t Necessarily Alcoholic


Cheering up

This post was originally published on December 4, 2014.

According to a new study out there, heavy drinkers aren’t necessarily alcoholics. Is this interesting? Sure. But most any alcoholic in recovery could have told you that.

The first thing they teach you in recovery is this: the signs of alcoholism are more complicated than simply how much you drink. Alcoholism has less to do with how much you drink and more to do with a lack of control. We learn this by listening to each other’s stories, and every alcoholic’s got one.

The Signs of Alcoholism

Not being able to control your drinking—not being able to cut down if you want to and not being able to stop drinking once you start—are signs you might be an alcoholic. At meetings, you’ll hear people say, “It’s the first drink that gets you wasted.” This means that no matter your intentions, just one drink can lead to you sleeping on a bathroom floor. Speaking of which, here are some signs of alcoholism: sleeping on the bathroom floor. After puking in the cab. After getting into a fistfight with a stranger at the bar. After breaking up with your boyfriend. After quitting your job. After coming on to your boss. After drinking beyond your limit. After what was meant to be just one drink. On your birthday.

In other words, Bad Things Happen when an alcoholic drinks. And while bad things can happen due to excessive drinking—more on that in a sec—heavy drinkers may not wake up and do it all again the very next night, in spite of every promise they’ve made to themselves and their loved ones that it’ll never happen again.

What Alcoholism Isn’t

No, alcoholism is definitely not only about how much you drink. In 12-step recovery, the first step to accepting a diagnosis of alcoholism is connecting your drinking to unmanageability in your life. It’s not just what happens while you’re drunk, it’s how your drinking affects your sober hours. Alcoholic drinking will cause you to say and do things you regret—things that can’t be taken back. The alcoholic has trouble showing up for work or other important commitments. He loses jobs and friends. She hurts herself or others. This doesn’t necessarily mean drinking a lot or every day. It means that when you do drink, people worry. You sometimes worry. It takes days to recover. You make excuses or hide your drinking. You feel guilty and ashamed. You suffer serious health problems, or have been ticketed or put in jail for alcohol-related offenses. And yet, in spite of all this, you continue to drink.

I knew a lot of heavy drinkers around the time I got sober. I had a friend who drank plenty more than I did. And yet somehow he never ended up sick on a bathroom floor. Years later, when I met him to make an amends, he admitted conversationally that while he no longer went out to the bars, he still nursed a large glass of whiskey every night at home before bed. He’d been doing this for years. He never tried to switch from whiskey to wine, or in any way modify the habit. Why? Because he wasn’t bothered by his drinking. Sure, it wasn’t exactly healthy, but is he an alcoholic? Probably not. He had never suffered any negative consequences as a result of his drinking. For as long as I knew him, he’d held a job, maintained healthy relationships and had hobbies and interests beyond getting drunk. By the time our friendship ended (disastrously), I didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong. Excessive drinkers—as this study points out—put themselves and others at risk. From car crashes to liver disease, alcohol isn’t a “health elixir” that other studies claim it to be. As a society, we encourage one another to medicate with alcohol, as it seems my friend may have been doing with his nightly whiskey routine. And, certainly, college is hallmarked by drinking to excess. In our culture, abusing alcohol is more or less normal. But what’s not normal is blacking out or being drunk for days at a time and losing control of your body or getting sick and continuing to drink. That was how I drank. I’m an alcoholic.

My Own Diagnosis

Like many alcoholics, I worried that I didn’t drink enough to qualify for a program of recovery. I drank three or four nights a week, three or four drinks a night, sometimes more— which is a lot, but not as much as the people I hung around with. Never mind that I’m 5’3,” less than 120 pounds and was taking medication I was instructed to not drink on (but hey, it got me drunker, faster). I didn’t recognize myself as an alcoholic until I finally did, which started happening some months into recovery. Thankfully, the only requirement for membership in AA is a desire to stop drinking—which, after years of suffering as a result of my drinking, one day I finally had.

Bottom line: It’s not about how much you drink, it’s about how drinking impacts your life. If drinking negatively impacts your life, and you have a desire for this to stop happening, you might want to check out resources for alcoholics, such as 12 step recovery meetings. They’ll help you figure out what your problem is—and offer a solution different than solutions for people who just drink a lot and want to cut back. For me, as an alcoholic, the solution was to take drinking off the table entirely. Nope, alcoholism isn’t about how much you drink. In fact, these days, most alcoholics I know drink nothing at all.

Photo courtesy of LabSaints

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About Author

Melissa Petro is a freelance writer and writing instructor living in New York City. She has written for NY Magazine, The Guardian, Salon, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, Jezebel, xoJane, The Fix and elsewhere. She is the founder of Becoming Writers, a community organization that provides free and low cost memoir-writing workshops to new writers of all backgrounds and experiences.