Alcoholism is sometimes considered a clandestine condition, because it can infiltrate your life gradually and without warning. One day you’re enjoying an occasional wine cooler at a party, and a few months later, without any dramatic changes in your life, you may find you need a slug of vodka just to get out of bed in the morning.
Alcoholics Anonymous, the organization founded by Bill Wilson in 1935, describes alcoholism as “an allergy of the body, an obsession of the mind.” Wilson and the other original 99 founding members only dealt with the most desperate, hope-to-die alcoholics (“last gaspers”). Today the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) estimates that one out of every 12 U.S. adults is either dependent on alcohol or abuses the substance.
Alcoholism and alcohol abuse are similar, but different. Though both conditions are serious and potentially deadly, those who abuse alcohol by sporadically drinking to excess (binging) are not necessarily dependent. An alcoholic, on the other hand, has a physical and psychological addiction.
The signs of alcoholism are often obvious to a concerned objective observer – family, friends, and co-workers -- but they aren’t always easy to recognize in oneself. If you suspect you have a problem, or it has been suggested that you might, experts recommend taking a sobriety challenge: agree to stay abstinent for a period of weeks or months.
Normal drinkers wouldn’t consider this a challenge at all, because ‘normies’ can take alcohol or leave it. It would be like swearing off American cheese for a period of time. If you are unable to imagine life without alcohol, you may have a problem. Or, if you do embark on a period of abstinence and don’t make it -- same diagnosis.
Another assessment option is to solicit input from your family or a close friend. Ask them what they honestly think about your alcohol consumption. Most alcoholics are afraid to hear the truth (what they already know). They often feel guilt, shame or are in denial, so this method of diagnosis rarely occurs.
Here are some signs that your social drinking may have crossed the line into alcoholism:
As an alcoholic, your personality may shift frequently from the life of the party to the downer. Friends no longer enjoy hanging around you when you’re drinking. Perhaps you start fights (verbal or physical) and are prone to making inappropriate comments. These comments may be in person, on the phone or in email. Both women and men often lose their inhibitions, leading to unwanted and dangerous sexual practices.
Lowered inhibitions also may cause legal trouble. You do things you wouldn’t even consider if you hadn’t had that cocktail. Many alcoholics face the fact that they have a problem only after being arrested for driving while intoxicated, losing yet another job or worse.
Every alcoholic has a ‘bottom’, some more tragic than others, and everyone’s is different. It is up to the alcoholic to decide when he’s sick and tired of being sick and tired. In AA, there is a saying: “Your alcoholism is like an elevator going down – you can get off whenever you’re ready.”