NOTE: I have to caveat this majorly. I don't identify as an alcoholic, I don't think I was "pre-determined" or biologically programmed to be anything. This post is simply to answer the question - how does one know when one has a problem. My mission is to not only help people find tools to take control of whatever is controlling them, but to also make sobriety accessible as a choice, not a consequence. Because for me that is exactly what it was. A choice. I think many people unnecessarily struggle with drinking, and assuming a label of any sort - be it addict, alcoholic, active addict, non-active addict, normie - is what stops most of us from looking at it. Thank you!! LOVE.
Before I stopped drinking, before there was a "drinking problem", when I was on the other side of the fence "happily" binge drinking on the weekends with my friends and downing expensive wines with my fancy San Francisco dinners, I had many firmly held beliefs about alcohol addiction. In summary, it seemed to deeply suck and I wasn't going there, ever. No matter what. There was a line, I'd remain vigilant of where it lay, and I'd stay as far to the left of it as possible.
What hell to have to admit you couldn't control your drink. What a pity to miss out on EVERYTHING because EVERYTHING in life that's fun involves alcohol. How scary to live like that, knowing you'd always be tempted to do it. How utterly demoralizing and embarrassing. What a blow to ones pride.
Go too far, cross that line, and your with the other people Holly. Mind that fucking line.
But of course, in the back of my mind, no matter how much I was actually drinking or how little or big my problem really was…there was always the fear that I might already have crossed it. On those weekend days when I woke up hungover, forgetting parts of the evening before, dry heaving, aching - in my thirties for fucks sake. In those moments where I sat around a dinner table wondering if I was drinking faster or more than other people. On those nights after work where I sped walked home for that glass of wine that would over time become those glasses of wine.
Was my drinking normal? Was it indicative? I remember wondering to myself whether everyone had these thoughts, and whether just having them to begin with meant I had a problem.
"Nope", I'd reassure myself quickly. "Not me."
How easy it was to reassure such things.
There were plenty of pieces of evidence to the contrary. First, there were people who were CLEARLY worse off than me. There was the neighbor who transported his empty twelve-pack to the trash every morning, the friends who got visibly trashed every time they drank and were reputed for it, the guys you saw at the bar every night no matter what night YOU went. Second, safety in numbers. If I had a problem with it, then surely my circle of friends did too. Didn't they all drink the same number of drinks when we went out? Didn't we all have the same hilarious stories of dumb things and dumb people we did when we drank too much? Wasn't that part of being a hip, single thirty-something urbanite? Third, it wasn't constant. I could go weeks without it, and to prove it, from time to time I would. On those special occasions of sustained abstinence I'd text my friends "I haven't had a drink in 13 days. Let's go get trashed." Words that were met with glee and relief and excitement. She's back. Thank GOD.
I went on. Life continued to accumulate. My heart broke, my drinking increased. My work ate more of my life, my drinking ate more of my life. My heart broke again, ante up. And there it was, the line. I touched it. It didn't feel as scary or consuming as I thought it would. It felt normal.
I collected more evidence to disprove the drinking problem theory. Some of my friends would casually refer to their "alcoholic periods" - "Oh yeah, that was in my 'alcoholic phase' one would say and we'd nod in that knowing, non-judging way friends often do, like we were talking about PMS.
This is normal, Holly. This is a phase, Holly.
I stepped to the right of the line. I drank by myself more frequently and into utter oblivion at times. I accepted hungover as a normal state. I accepted not remembering entire conversations as a normal occurrence. I accepted a beer belly and little broken blood vessels and private shame and an ever-increasing feeling of loss of control. And then somewhere along the way, my "alcoholic period" became the norm and the dry periods became the abnorm.
Yes, I was decidedly to the right of the line. But what about those dry periods? Weren't they proof that I was still okay and could pull myself back?
Then one day, I could not keep pulling myself back. It was exhausting - too exhausting. I tapped out. Alcohol won. I lost. I would have to move to the other side.
So there I was, in that one damned place I'd always feared, that one place I'd always promised myself I wouldn't be. I was entering what I had always in my mind imagined as the gates to the sad club. I had no choice but to admit that I couldn't control my drink. What hell.
Except, it wasn't hell. It was the escape from hell.
The real hell I would come to realize was not that I was destined to become addicted…it was that I wasted half of my life slowly moving closer to a line I was desperately afraid to cross without once considering that I could stop well before the line. The real hell was my decades-long concerns over whether or not I was or would become addicted as I slowly developed that addiction. The real hell was realizing that I had cared more about keeping alcohol in my life than I did about my health, my finances, my self-confidence, my pride, my future, my mind, and many other things.
And heaven? That was the freedom from ever having to ask myself whether or not I had a drinking problem again.
Alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction are both clinically defined by a specific set of behaviors and a certain number of drinks. Fine. But what I know now on this side better than any book or article or expert is that a drinking problem is not defined by anything else but this: if it feels like a problem, it is. And the solution to any problem is never to ignore it until it goes away. Because it won't.
Yesterday, I ran into a friend. We hadn't spoken in a while, and I told him what I was up to. He started asking questions about how I personally knew when I had a problem, and went on to say that he had taken the online quizzes, and it had classified him as an alcoholic. Furrowed brow, I told him the thing I tell everyone.
You don't need an online quiz, you don't need to know how much other people drink, or what the classification of normal vs. disordered drinking. If you are worried about it, if it takes up mind space, if you have shame around it, if it weighs on you, if it doesn't align with how you want to live your life, if it stands in the way of your dreams, if it prevents you from doing the things you know you have the potential to do, then you already know the answer.
If I could go back, I would have spent much less time searching whether or not I did or didn't have a problem, considering whether I was or wasn't an alcoholic, and looking for the evidence to prove it one way or the other. I would have instead asked myself two questions.
"Is alcohol causing a problem?"
And if so, "just how much am I willing to sacrifice for it?"
You may also like.