How Do You Define An Alcoholic?

In answering this contentious question, so frequently debated by individuals,

significant others, and the public at large. I hope to provide insight for those wishing

to understand the condition, and resonate with those, who are questioning their own

drinking patterns and behaviour.

It is often assumed you have to be drinking ‘around the clock’ or ‘hit rock bottom’ to

have an indisputable problem with alcohol. Unfortunately, physical, and psychological

dependence can develop long before these cliched traits do. Because Alcoholism

presents on a sliding scale of intermittent binging, regular, or daily use. Defining and

marking the essential difference between enjoying a drink, in the truest of sense of

the word; with the ability ‘to take it or leave it’ to compulsively wanting or needing

a drink.

“When I tried to control my drinking, I didn’t enjoy

it, and when I enjoyed it, I couldn’t control it.”

No one of us immune, all vulnerable to alcohol’s intoxicating lure, but the majority

maintain moderation respecting this toxic liquid, while others gradually slip or

rapidly fall onto the spectrum of dependency. A state which uses alcohol to block

the worst of times and magnify the best; and for about 10% becomes

dangerously very much part of their identity and sense of self. This group further

stigmatised into functioning or non-functioning, when diagnostically no different.

The renowned addiction expert Dr Gabe Mate, describes the state as:-

“Any behaviour which a person craves, gets temporary relief

and pleasure from, produces long term negative consequences

but is unable to give up.”

In the last 30 years alcohol is 60-70% more affordable, with sales in the UK more

than doubling to over £20 billion per year. Advertising and marketing campaigns

promote lifestyles which glamorise drinking, suggesting they equal superior, happier

times. Endorsing its chemical cocktail of artificial highs and relaxing properties to

enhance a sense of collective belonging. Everyday messages and slogans skilfully

used to sell, tap into our subconscious, normalising daily and excessive alcohol use.

Seen in social media posts boasting drinking exploits, and confidently sharing

hungover selfies the morning after. According to Public Health England (2017/18), an

estimated 82% of dependent drinkers are not accessing treatment.

Alcoholism is not:-

• Confined to any specific, gender, race, or class.

• A matter of self-control or willpower.

• Always visible or obvious to the onlooker.

Defining an alcoholic is clearer cut than you might imagine, because it is in the

‘reason why’ someone drinks. Why there is a need to change mood and feelings

with the quick fix, and instant gratification alcohol delivers. The original euphoria

long gone, but still there exists an internal force, a need which is often described

by those afflicted as “to just feel normal again.” Why there is an unrelenting

craving, a secretive self-talk and chatter which justifies the idea another drink is

deserved, and the reason why control is still an unproven notion.

Pay attention to your patterns.

The way you learned to survive,

may not be the way you want to continue to live.


• Is a progressive life threatening, relapsing mental disorder.

A short term coping mechanism and solution to a deeper problem.

• A condition of poor mental health awareness and management.

With long-term negative consequences, to self and families.

• A medical and treatment paradox, with no definite cause or cure;

with the shared symptom of denial, and most common prevention, stigma.

Alcohol is a perfect solvent: It dissolves

marriages, families, and careers.

In the main drinking lifestyles begin as a hospitable ritual, where society and

tradition encourage us to embrace alcohol’s feel good factor. Used to mark a

nervous expectation and give a fun-loving sense of social assurance. If and when

drinking increases to become a habit, a routine, consistently rationalising and

acting upon a prompt or cue; behaviour is vulnerable, and at risk of progressing

towards addiction. This may not be a daily way of life, but none the less

subconsciously a shift in thinking has changed the way a person drinks. One that

without intervention, is in danger of becoming an automatic process. A way of

being, where alcohol becomes a safety net, a contingency plan, a self-medicating

comfort zone.

Learn the difference between your intuition

guiding you and your trauma misleading you.

Mainstream thinking judges the criteria to be linked largely to those who replace a

morning coffee with a swift vodka or two. A timeworn misconception, far less

significant than on-going drinking patterns, which may increase over just a few

months or few years.

The key to understanding the root of alcoholism is when drinking is used to gain a

temporary emotional or mental relief, through life’s trials, and tribulations. But

equally through life’s, milestones, highlights, pleasurable and agreeable times

which are rewarded with a drink. Alcohol becomes a ‘prop’, an associated connection

to navigate private and public ups and downs; to fast forward and stimulate ‘our

happy mode’. The manner of drinking, seldomly recognised, as self-destructive

behaviour, with low self-worth at its heart.

What triggers you also reveals what you need to


Social drinkers on the other hand enjoy an occasional drink, able to apply

moderation and pace themselves. They do not lose control, personalities don’t

dramatically change, becoming argumentative or over emotional. Nor become

agitated if drinking is out of bounds, unlike those whose drinking is imbalanced,

increasingly preoccupied with thinking and planning their next drink. Prioritising

time and money over previous interests and hobbies, over professional and

personal responsibilities; and certain friends who appear judgmental are side

stepped or neglected. Particular circumstances and specific emotions to the

individual are “drunk on”, easing tension initially, but over time accumulate to a

new norm of increased anxiety and low mood. A perpetuating list of unique and

subjective issues, problems, memories, or narratives are used to fuel drinking.

Hoodwinked by alcohol, caught between the illusion of self-control; and the

inability to recognise or accept their own reality.

I never knew I was addicted until I tried to stop.

It is in the relationship a person has with alcohol which determines the true

answer. Health Professionals and Psychiatrists use the Diagnostic and Statistical

Manuel o Mental Disorders (DSM) to diagnose an ‘Alcohol Use Disorder’ the latest

terminology and less controversial definition of Alcoholism. The number of units

and type of alcohol never questioned in the eleven criteria but focused on the

individuals relationship, and behaviour around alcohol, how it has negatively

impacted a person’s life.

You never really understand something unless it

happens to you.

In defining an alcoholic, I hope I have provided an informed, personal evaluation of

what alcoholism means to me, and I have supported others to overcome. For those

who have a loved one or close friend afflicted and suffering from this condition

understanding that as long as the drinker does not recognise the negative impact

alcohol causes them, overcome their denial in admitting their unmanageability and

loss of control over alcohol, will they recognise there is a problem that needs

addressing. Not until the drinker is willing to ‘get out of their own way’. To ask for

support in a place they can trust, to practice honesty with a will to succeed, over

vulnerable egos and imagined fears... will recovery be wished for.

Denial has to be broken and honesty achieved

before the drinker is ready to change.

For those who resonate with these words, and still are doubting, or questioning their

own drinking patterns and behaviour.

Consider two different groups of drinkers...... those that have to rationalise or justify

to others and more importantly themselves; why ‘they are NOT an alcoholic’ - to

those who do not ruminate or explain this dilemma to others. Because without any

negative impact or problems caused by drinking, they are in a very different place.

There simply is no need to try and justify or rationalise their relationship with alcohol,

to others or themselves..

I would rather go through life sober believing I

am an alcoholic than go through life drunk trying

to convince myself that I am not.

Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong | Johann Hari

The Power of Addiction and The Addiction of

Power: Gabor Maté at TEDxRio+20


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