Am I an alcoholic?
First, let’s look at the whole “alcoholic,” thing. No one is an “alcoholic,” It is a prettier term than “drunk,” but it has exactly the same medical usefulness -- none. These are labels, and they don’t really serve a helpful purpose.
Now, sometimes terms like this can be used like a shorthand; I find I sometimes refer to myself as a drunk or a drug addict, during certain times in my life. I say that I use it in “affection,” about myself, as a way to introduce a chuckle while being descriptive, but honestly, that’s not quite right. I’m not a drunk now. And that is really a terribly stigmatizing, reductive and dismissive term. It’s not nice. It’s like calling myself a dummy or a slob periodically. I think I’ll look at that more and stop doing that.
Traditionally, AA and 12-step have encouraged people to “own” their behavior by labeling themselves, as a way of sort of looking oneself in the eye and telling it like it is. I agree with the value of honesty, but disagree with this method of labeling and reducing ourselves to a single problem as identity. Models such as SMART Recovery, the Life Process Model, harm reduction, psychology, social work. coaching and peer support, with their no labels, no stigma approaches to growing beyond addiction, are much more helpful, in my opinion.
Now, these days, the medical terms have evolved into various “use disorders -- substance use disorder, alcohol use disorder,” which is more neutral and accurately descriptive, though they don’t exactly roll off the tongue. And then they categorize as mild, moderate or severe. I have some issues with the whole medicalization of every aspect of addiction. There are holes I don’t think that framework explains or addresses fully. I’m also not against medications, but let’s set that aside for now. I’m going to focus, instead, on the fact that we can make changes to improve our lives, regardless of the chemical/physiological effects and mechanisms of drugs or alcohol or pharmaceutical treatments for them.
A lot of people spend a LOT of time trying to answer that question, “Am I an alcoholic,” using different words. I was obsessed with it. Was I or wasn’t I; could I or couldn’t I? And I’m not sure that dividing line matters as much as we think it does.
Again, with emphasis: No. You are not an alcoholic or any other sweeping label based on one particular issue.
The Questions We Ask Ourselves. Why, why, why?
It’s natural to look for the answer as to why something happened to us. It feels like we have more control if we can pinpoint it and possibly have a “valid” reason for why we are the way we are. But this is so elusive, and I think shaped by untold factors!
So before we get to that, I think there are other questions we can ask, like “What is going on with my drinking. Is it going in a direction I don’t like?” “When does that happen?” “Have I tried to cut back or take a break?” And even better, “How can I make things better?” “What can I do toward making even a small improvement?”
It should be easier to stop drinking, or ...
Yeah? Who says?! That sure would be nice. But seriously, who ever promised that life would be easy? It doesn’t have to be painful or scary or dangerous or miserable, though.
Sometimes life is hard
We do lots of things in life that are hard. It was hard getting through high school. It’s hard getting our first job. It’s hard learning to swim or ride a bike for the first time. Sometimes we take off and it goes great, but a lot of the time we get some scraped knees and some bumps and bruises. But we usually do learn, and we go on, and many of the skills we pick up become automatic and even pleasurable.
And sometimes we make it feel harder than it actually is
If we dread something and anticipate it being the worst experience in life, that we are being “deprived” of a pleasure in life, drinking (or anything, really), then we will fight tooth and nail not to have that taken from us. If we consider the benefits we might gain, and remember that we have choices that are ours alone, it can be easier to act in our own better interests.
Or if we glamorize how great drinking is, it feels like a forbidden treasure. IS it really the peak of satisfaction and experience, though? For me it often looked more like sitting in front of the TV after several drinks, watching something I wouldn’t remember the next day and then passing out on the couch, waking up to clutter, feeling icky and draggy, at best. Maybe it doesn’t really feel as good as it used to or as we imagine(d) it. My reality was pretty boring and kind of distasteful.
Sometimes the way we drank doesn’t fit in as well any more with life. Separating out how we drink, when, under what circumstances -- can help. What kind of drinking is sustainable and adds enjoyment to life? When is it impulsive and risky? We change and adjust our lifestyles all the time.
And I think there’s a corollary to that, “Why is it so hard,” question:
If it's hard, does that mean I’m doomed to be an alcoholic and struggle for my entire life?
Again, the answer is “No! Of course not.” You are definitely not doomed! Not by any means. (And you’re not an alcoholic.)
You may conclude you want to cut back. You may decide that you’re better off without, AND you may find it hard. And this is true no matter where you are on this journey or how bad things may be.
When Does Drinking Cross the Line?
Many of us drink as a way to soothe ourselves, and that’s something that can easily become habitual and quasi-medicinal. There’s nothing overtly “wrong” with this. It’s just that if something starts to tip our world in a way where we need real comfort or medicine, alcohol (or overuse/abuse of a substance/activity) just isn’t all that helpful. Even though it FEELS like it is at the time, and we BELIEVE it will be, with all our hearts
And it’s true, many people (our whole society) use alcohol, as an accepted crutch, to get over some of the worst times in our lives. Shared sorrows are as binding as shared celebration to us, as humans, and alcohol can enhance both of those connections (think funerals and weddings), and drinking and other distracting activities are used all the time when we suffer loss -- a breakup, a move, feeling lonely in a new town, or just feeling down or bored.
So, is there a magic line that shifts it from something that works okay for us to something that starts to become a problem? It’s a tough one to pin down, because sometimes it seems to work, and then other times it creates problems of its own or makes things worse. And sometimes it starts to feel vaguely too habitual, too intrinsic to getting through daily life.
For some it’s clearer -- something monumental happened in their lives, and lacking other coping skills, drinking or drugs or another addictive activity, started to feel necessary to cope. Even when it stopped actually helping. In the meantime, the very feelings and events that we don’t want to process still lurk and sometimes get bigger and scarier, the more avidly we try to avoid and escape them.
For others, it creeps up more slowly. We get used to the conviviality of stopping for drinks after work, or having a glass of wine when we get home or over dinner. We start to find it enjoyable on lots of occasions, and we start to look for those that are conducive to drinking. We get comfortable coming home to a six-pack or a bottle of wine and lose interest in doing things and seeing people. It’s easier.
And then, maybe it starts to feel like it’s a necessary part of the day -- and life. A prerequisite and a needed accompaniment to enjoyment of anything. But are we really enjoying life so much with it? How’s our overall mood? How do we feel physically and mentally? Problems start to become more noticeable, at least to others. People seem to be giving us a hard time. The world feels pretty unfriendly, and we listen to the promises of respite that drinking claims -- even though it lies.
But if someone is an alcoholic, doesn’t that mean that they have to hit rock bottom before they can really change?
Well first of all, this whole idea of hitting rock bottom is faulty. People make changes in their lives regarding addictive habits and general life patterns and routines all the time. We start exercising. We cut back on sweets. We work on getting up earlier. We decide to start a better housekeeping routine, we change jobs for a variety of reasons. And people routinely adjust their levels of drinking or other, depending on what’s going on in their lives.
For some, becoming aware that there are some danger signs is more than enough. They adjust to social drinking or moderate their drinking easily.
It doesn’t even have to be an awareness of danger, as much as accepting that different phases in life have different focuses and limitations. When we’re kids there’s a lot we can’t do because we’re too young or we’re not allowed. When we’re older, we can do whatever we want, but much to our dismay, we learn that we have different constraints. We want to get through school. We want to make money. Or we have children to look after or other responsibilities. And so we adjust our lifestyles accordingly.
And then, please remember that a watershed moment for one person is barely a bump on another person’s radar, depending on their life experiences. Going to jail is rock bottom for some. For others, it’s going away for a bit. Just a natural part of life. A chance to take a break, even.
As long as I haven’t had any serious consequences from drinking, isn’t that okay?
I go to work every day, come home for dinner, etc. …
Let’s circle back. Forget about the labels for the moment. If alcohol or something else is getting in your way, you might want to make a change. You can decide how much of an influence you want it to play in your life, and you can take the steps towards that. Some people find they need to make significant changes and others find pathways to incorporate it better into life.
That question, “Is it okay?” I think the real question is, “Is it okay with YOU?”
It’s a choice that’s up to you, based on your own unique circumstances, and what you care about in life. (And what do you care about in life?) Is it worth what it does to you? Are the costs acceptable? There are big costs and littler ones. Is it okay to wake up with a slight headache 90% of the time? Maybe. What if it were only 50% of the time? What if you felt great every day? What’s the potential in that!?
NOTE: Because I am saying drinking or using or acting out are choices is not to be taken in a disparaging or blaming way. If we don’t believe we have a choice, we effectively don’t! However, once we learn differently and really embrace that idea, that we CAN choose -- to drink or not to -- that’s hugely empowering!
Consequences of Drinking
What’s the risk in terms of something like jail or a hospital? Is a night of “fun” worth ending up there? Not just in the moment, but longer-term? How bad could that be if things went wrong?
How about relationships? If every argument with your spouse is about drinking, is the drinking worth the arguments? Is there an acceptable level of either? What is acceptable in the other person’s eyes? What would allow them to trust and feel safe? What would the relationship look like without that source of discord?
And take a look at your own energies. How much time and energy are you spending worrying about your drinking or use? Hiding it from others? Trying to maintain? Trying to function and pretend everything’s okay? Planning so you don’t run out.
Benefits of Drinking
Now, what are the benefits? How do they stack up? Pay attention to these. There are real benefits! Doing these things gives us something. Are there other, better ways we could get these things? Are there some things we’re willing to give up? (Frat party blow-outs? Day drinking with girlfriends? Friday night hanging at the bar?) What can we do instead, so we don’t feel miserable and deprived?
Don’t be Afraid to Experiment! (With Caution)*
So, I think that figuring out the relationship with addictive substances or activities opens us to all the rest the world has to offer us. Which is … everything else!!
Shifting gears can be illuminating! There’s no harm in trying to pay attention, reduce harm, cut back, moderate, or see how you feel if you go without. Try stuff. Practice it for a bit. See what happens. People get comfy in their own little ruts, but we also like novelty, and the familiar is not always better! Explore what works for you in life. You might be surprised.
Send me a text! I’d love to talk to you.
*NOTE: If you drink or use benzodiazapenes heavily or regularly, please seek medical advice before stopping abruptly.