What is an Alcoholic?
Despite our society’s belief that most people are normal drinkers and only assholes become alcoholics, alcoholism is more of a journey than a destination. It’s true that some people are predisposed to travel faster due to genetic and biochemical factors such as the way the body metabolizes alcohol and the feeling that alcohol produces in the brain. (If you have a high tolerance or experience euphoric relief, you’re moving faster.) Lifestyle factors can slow the process. A person with a job that has no room for sub-par performance is highly motivated to abstain from drinking during the work week. Someone who lives in an alcohol-free home will naturally drink less than a person who keeps a loaded bar. Put those same people in a different life (or on vacation. or in quarantine) where regular drinking is acceptable, normalized and even expected, and addiction accelerates (alcoholism is a progressive disease).
The cross-over from normal drinking to problem drinking occurs when a drinker learns that alcohol (temporarily) solves the problems created by alcohol. This can happen quickly or over a lifetime, consciously or unconsciously. Have you ever gone to a weekend wedding? Many people over-do it on Friday night (I used to call that a rookie mistake). The women separate from the boys on Saturday morning when the “normal” drinkers sleep it off and the “professionals” grab a hair-of-the-dog and literally jog past the struggle bus to the party. Alcohol anesthetizes pain.
People who drink to relieve stress are especially prone to developing alcoholism. The more you drink on a regular basis, the more anxiety, depression and mood problems linger below the surface. These symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are attributed to external stressors (finances, spouse, kids, Karen, dinner time, trains, roadblocks, elections, things that break, and days that end in “y,”– all problems that are never your fault), and can be quickly relieved by more alcohol. It’s a cycle that ensnares many of us and accelerates as slowly or quickly as our circumstances allow.
Looking at my own decent into the disease, I’ll use an analogy (that I made up–all credit or criticism goes to me). Every person is given a limited, unknown and random number of free drink tickets for the bar of life. The quicker we use them, the sooner the tab starts. Eventually, the bill comes due. My life allowed me to drink more than I might have in a parallel universe. I don’t have to work long shifts or a second job. I didn’t have to choose between alcohol and other necessities. I could buy my gluten-free, vegan cake and drink too. In my mind (held hostage by alcohol), I didn’t have enough reasons to not drink. I felt privileged and entitled to live the good life, and was brainwashed to believe that the good life included fine wine and pricey liquor. I was a normal drinker for many years, abstaining through my pregnancies and moderating as life demanded. But I was always a drinker, and thus was marching at a steady pace into addiction.
But I didn’t know that. Because for a long time, I qualified as a “normal.” The red flags were few and far between. I was as healthy and happy as I thought I could be–stoically dealing with the ever-growing symptoms of alcoholism disguised as WTF Day #389). There were people around me who drank far more than I did. Their existence kept me safe and secure in my own habits. I wasn’t like them! I was good. I was better. At the very least, I was normal. And it’s easy to see how I suffered such delusions. In our society, you are either an alcoholic or you are not. I was high functioning, and therefore had plenty of evidence that I wasn’t an alcoholic. I knew I needed to cut back and I wasn’t happy that it seemed difficult. But I believed that the problem was a lack of willpower. Motivation. Energy. The problem was me (and everyone else’s bullshit)–not the drinking. Every day, I tried really hard to stop what was happening to me and internalized the guilt and shame of perpetual failure. What I couldn’t swallow I blamed on other people. And every night, alcohol both relieved the pain and fueled the flames.
The truth is that alcohol is a carcinogenic, mind and mood altering, addictive, psychoactive neurotoxin. The truth is the problem isn’t any of us. Occassionally, you meet an ex-drinker who is still an asshole. But as a general rule, recovering alcoholics are emotionally intelligent (maybe more so than the general population as overcoming addiction takes a great deal of courage, reflection and humility). The mental illness associated with alcoholism is a side effect of drinking the poison. I know that to be true because with the poison out of my system, that broken and pathetic version of myself is healing. My integrity, joy, productivity and compassion have returned. I’m not pretending to be okay anymore. I am ok. Placing blame on those of us that succumb to alcoholism only offers immunity to the $1.5 trillion-dollar industry that profits from disease. Transferring blame to people instead of the product prevents the “normal” drinkers from seeing the danger.
I quit drinking in April, 2020 because I was miserable. So many things were out of my control (Covid-19 and the subsequent quarantine, financial distress, e-learning for my kids, isolation, etc.—not to mention the amount of alcohol I was consuming). While I have always believed that alcohol reduces stress, and is therefore therapeutic, my daily experience was not aligning with that belief. My stress had become physically and mentally overwhelming. I was so desperate that I made the only change I really could, and did something that I hadn’t imagined was possible (or pleasurable).
I stopped drinking.
Seven months later, I can report that sobriety feels amazing. Even bad days sober are better than good days drinking. Now, I’m trying to figure out what this means. Am I an alcoholic? What do you think?
Evaluating whether or not you should quit drinking (for a while or for good) using the question, “Am I an alcoholic?” may be irrelevant. It doesn’t really matter. Let’s assume the self-assessment you take on a random website says, “No.” Then what? Do you keep drinking and hope things getter better? [Spoiler Alert: Hope is not a strategy.]
The real question should be, “Is my use of alcohol enhancing my body, mind, life and relationships?” Even the answer, “I don’t know,” is a call to action. There’s only one way to find out.
P.S. When I decided to quit drinking, I did something very uncharacteristic. I acknowledged that I needed help. That was the best thing I ever did. Within an hour, I had a temporary sponsor and attended a support meeting. I could not have made it without the help of people who have gone through it. There is so much support out there. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, call your local A.A. hotline, find groups online. Find REAL people as soon as you can. Ex-drinkers that are active in support communities get it. They fucking care. They will be there for you for as little or long as you like. You are not alone.
Sobriety is the gateway to self-care. You can overcome alcohol use disorder if you understand how to manage post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) and learn how to tolerate emotional discomfort.
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Colleen Kachmann is a Master health coach and certified recovery professional. She is the founder of Recover with Colleen, an online sobriety program to help professional women reverse alcohol use disorder. She offers a 12-week masterclass, on-going group support and private coaching to women navigating post acute withdrawal syndrome.. Buy her book on Amazon. Find her on YouTube.