I Drink a Lot. Does That Make Me an Alcoholic?

A man drinks at a bar
If you drink a lot, you may wonder if you have a problem. Hero Images/Getty Images

Question: I Drink a Lot. Does That Make Me an Alcoholic?

Answer:

If you drink a lot, you are not necessarily an alcoholic -- though you could be. The term “alcoholic” has become highly stigmatized, and is generally used to refer to people with severe alcohol dependence or addiction. Use of this term has been embraced by the AA movement, and those promoting the disease model of addiction. More recently, terms such as "heavy drinker" and "binge drinker" have become more common as it is being recognized that there is a broad range of drinking patterns, and that alcohol causes many more harms that addiction alone.

Some people find it useful to apply the label of “alcoholic” to themselves and others, particularly if they find AA helpful. Generally, however, there is a trend of moving away from labeling people with diseases and conditions, because of the stigma it causes to those affected. The terms “alcoholic” and “drug addict” have been relatively resistant to this trend, though.

In 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition, also known as DSM-5, which is the gold standard for diagnosing mental problems including those related to addiction, replaced the concepts of alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence with a new diagnostic label, alcohol use disorder. This term includes both the physical problems associated with drinking too much, and the psychological and social problems that can develop as a result of heavy drinking.

Often when people ask whether they are an alcoholic, they are concerned about their drinking and see alcoholism as an all-or-nothing label.

This is generally unhelpful, because the amount people drink, and the extent to which their drinking affects their body and other aspects of their lives, varies a great deal. If you are concerned about your drinking, some of the issues you should consider include:

  • Am I harming myself, physically or psychologically, by drinking as much as I do? Sometimes it is difficult to know the answer to this question, because health problems can develop gradually over time, but a check-up with your doctor could help give you an idea.
  • Am I hurting my family because of my drinking? Sometimes, you may not be aware you are hurting them, because you are physically abusive, but family members can be hurt by your physical or emotional absence, your unpredictable moods, or even just seeing you drunk.
  • Is drinking getting in the way of forming good relationships (beyond “drinking buddies”)? Be honest with yourself -- good relationship are more than just having fun together, and avoiding difficult situations.
  • Is drinking affecting my work? Could my career be doing better if I drank less? You may be coping OK with work, but could you be more ready for promotion or taking on new challenges at work if you weren't dealing with a daily hangover?
  • Could I be putting others at risk through my drinking?
  • Could I cope with the stress of life without alcohol?

And of course, the key addiction question:

  • Could I cut down or stop drinking if I wanted to?

Please remember to seek medical help -- through your family doctor, for example -- before attempting to quit drinking.

It is dangerous to quit cold turkey without medical management.

Source

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (fifth edition). Author. 2013.

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