If you’re worried about your drinking, the chances are that at some point or another, you’ve wondered: “Am I an alcoholic?”
I remember googling this so many times and I never got a very clear or helpful answer.
I was pretty sure I wasn’t an alcoholic, but my drinking was causing problems.
So I felt stuck, because it seemed as if I didn’t (yet) have enough of a problem to qualify for the ‘must stop drinking club.’
Fast forward to today and an awful lot has changed. Not only am I six years sober, but I’ve realised that “Am I An Alcoholic?” isn’t the right question to ask. Here’s why:
What is an alcoholic?
Is it someone who regularly drinks above the recommended guidelines? Probably not, because most drinkers do that. Is it someone who regularly drinks more than they intend to? A lot of people do that too.
What about those who are physically dependent on alcohol? Who have to drink every day and start the morning with a few shots? Again, it’s not so straightforward. This study found that only 10% of excessive drinkers are officially ‘alcohol dependent’.
Meanwhile, Professor David Nutt (the UK government’s former chief drugs adviser) says “We know a third of the people coming into the liver unit with alcohol-related liver damage do not meet the criteria for alcoholism.”
Drinking isn’t black and white
If you’ve filled out a questionnaire about your drinking, the chances are it might have been this one (if you’re in the UK) or this one (if you’re in the US). Notice how neither questionnaires use the term alcoholic. Instead, both refer to alcohol use disorders – something that is more of a continuum. The questionnaires are about finding out where you are on the spectrum.
When we type “Am I an alcoholic?” into google, what we’re really looking for is a yes / no answer. But as the questionnaires show, it’s just not that straightforward. We can’t wrap this all up into one neat thing. Alcohol is messy and there are lots of grey areas.
“Am I an alcoholic?” makes it all about you, not alcohol
Can you imagine a smoker hunching over their laptop and fearfully typing “Am I a nicotineoholic?” into google? Can you imagine their angst as they wondered what was wrong with them – why couldn’t they control their intake of this addictive drug? No? It sounds crazy, right?
We accept that nicotine is addictive, so when people become addicted to it, we don’t blame them – we blame the drug. It’s just a no brainer. And yet with alcohol, we do the exact opposite. We shame people for having too much and not being ‘in control’.
In doing so, we’ve created a culture where it’s really hard to question your alcohol intake without being labelled. I think that’s a real shame, because we should be able to examine our relationship with alcohol in just the same way we do with sugar and gluten.
It encourages rock bottom thinking
Behind the “Am I an alcoholic?” question lies another one: “Are things bad enough for me to need to do something about this?” And behind that question lies the belief that life without alcohol must be awful; so terrible that you’ll only put up with it as a last resort.
The truth is, we don’t need to be anywhere near rock bottom in order to decide we’re going to raise our standards and do something different. What if we let go of this idea that alcohol was somehow essential to a happy life, and saw it for what it really was instead: just a drug. Something you can choose to use, or choose to leave behind.
What to do instead
– Unless the ‘alcoholic’ label empowers you to change (which I know it does for some people) then feel free to ditch it. You are perfectly entitled to explore different lifestyle choices without needing to label yourself first.
– Observe your drinking. Keep a record of how alcohol is making you feel. It’s easy to minimise and rationalise the reality of your drinking when you’re keeping everything in your head and forgetting things. Writing it down makes this stuff real.
– Rather than asking if your drinking has become ‘bad enough’ for you to need to quit, focus on whether it’s good enough instead. All things considered, are the side effects worth it? Are you happy to keep putting up with things? I wrote more about this concept here.
– Find help. If you’re struggling, don’t go it alone. My online stop drinking course is for women who are curious about living life alcohol-free, but need a bit of help to make sobriety stick.
I know my drinking is a problem because it prevents me from doing things that I want to do but don’t because Of my drinking. I’m now at the stage where I have managed 2 weeks sober and I realised and appreciated the benefits this time gave me. I will try again and hopefully the benefits I’ve known from my 2 weeks of sobriety will spur me on to try to achieve what I know deep down is the best thing for me.
Keep going Paula – it will be so worth it!
I wished someone had got me to examine years ago “if what alcohol did for me was good enough”…
I can see how that approach might have helped save me years of futile further research.
Just past 90 days sober, it’s taken 10 years to get to where I am now, ditching all the traditional negative recovery anchors has been key in moving me forwards
Good start, try to go it again so easy to make up for it and binge. Next break try for 6 weeks it’s a magical number fir me and really gives a head start on breaking the habit.
I wish you well the sober world offers so much more fun.
Love this perspective Kate! The alcoholic label has never sat well with me. I quit drinking (thanks to your course) because alcohol was making me tired, stressed and unhappy. That was enough reason.Life is so much better now.
I’m so pleased to hear that Linda! Life is better on this side of the pool 🙂
I also quit drinking Thanks to Kate’s course.
I remember logging in here, to The Sober School so many times and not being sure if I was ready or not to take the course. I am so glad I did. It was the best decision ever. I feel so good now.
I’m so happy to hear that Elvira! Thank you for sharing your experience 🙂
I’m on day 237 after Kate’s Sober school last January – thank you Kate! Receiving this today was a “friendly reminder” of how drinking just wasn’t worth it anymore – the stakes got too high. I never liked the term alcoholic – it is still jarring to read even in a post like this – I just knew that it had a control over my life that didn’t serve any of my dreams. Thank you Kate – after 15 years of trying on and off to quit I finally feel like myself again!
Congratulations Kate! I’m so happy to hear how well you’re doing. You’ll be celebrating one year sober before you know it ❤️
Exactly! The word “alcoholic” is completely misleading.
There is absolutely no flaw, or fault whatsoever in people who cannot handle alcohol – I now realise that obviously I can’t handle alcohol, it’s a drug, so of course I can’t.
Far better to just end that pointless battle 🙂
Well done for realising that and deciding to do something different! 🙂
I know I’m an alcoholic. I’ve been struggling for years. I dont like the LABEL of it. I’m a Health/Wellness coach you would think and know the dangers physically, mentally, and spiritually, what alcohol effects your life.
My biggest struggle I ask myself what is my fear of letting go of something that does NOTHING positive in my life.
It’s been a long long battle!!
I suspect you are gaining something from drinking right now… it’s just a matter of working out what that benefit is and then looking at how to tackle that. If you’d like any help to do that, and to make sobriety stick, my online course could be a great fit for you. I only run it a few times each year, but the next class is coming up at the end of September. Here are some more details: https://thesoberschool.com/course/
For me (subjective) this is one of your best posts. I hate the label of alcoholic!!I find it so degrading, humiliating and makes me feel even worse about myself. I have an internal battle of, really? I’ll stop drinking and show you who’s low but end up hugging the bottle for comfort, which of course does the opposite. A few years ago I broke my leg not because I was drunk, which I was but because I have severe osteoporosis. I would have broken my leg as I did my ribs when sober. It’s now on my medical records that I’m an raging alcoholic! So no matter what ailment I have the nurses or doctor looks at me sceptically/without respect. You get drunk once or twice and you are pepermanently labled an alcoholic?! That’s horrible and not what you need when you’re already feeling bad about yourself.
I’m sorry to hear you had that experience Anna – how frustrating 🙁
I love reading your blog and I feel as though everything you say is so relevant and truly resonates. I would love to do your course – so with my attempts at sobriety I am planning on saving the money I would have spent on alcohol to put towards paying for the course. Wish me luck
I hope we’re able to work together soon K! 🙂
Thank you for your article. I’m 20 weeksAF and couldn’t agree more with your thoughts I’m 55 a regular gym goer . Love my yoga and body pump. I eat a healthy diet. My problem was my drinking wasn’t good enough. I could go weekdays not drinking or just having one glass of wine and at weekend maybe a bit more but sometimes my stop button didn’t kick in . I’d wake up with a hangover feeling guilty and disappointed.i was constantly trying to regain control of my relationship with alcohol. It controlled me . Even if I wasn’t drinking I would be thinking about the weekend when I’d have my glass of wine. Abstinence is easier than moderation.
Kate’s posts are insightful and inspiring! I’m up to 3+ weeks AF and feel great. Took a small supply of alcohol free beer to a wedding yesterday and had a club soda on the rocks. A few people knew I was AF, but I find people are more focused on their own drinking. Had a great time dancing and enjoying the moment. This morning I KNOW that I didn’t do anything regrettable, I remember my conversations, I slept THROUGH the night, and felt fantastic when I got up today. Oh, and I’ve lost 5 pounds. It had gotten so I’d drink 4-5 drinks every night, and by noon I’d be thinking about cocktail hour. My husband is very supportive of my change. I hope I can really do it this time, that the 3rd time will be the charm! Thanks Kate.