Alcoholism is one of the most difficult forms of substance abuse to detect reliably, simply because people aren’t quite sure where the boundary is between recreational drinking and problem drinking.
Illicit drug use is a major problem, but most of the time if someone sees illicit drug use, they immediately recognize it as a problem, regardless of the circumstances or quantity. Very few people will see someone snorting cocaine and simply think, “wow, look at what a great time they’re having!”
Alcohol use, however, is closely associated with healthy social activity and stress relief. That aforementioned “wow, look at what a great time they’re having!” reaction is a common one when people see friends sharing a beer, or ordering drinks with dinner, or cocktails at a club. These things all generally have positive connotations, and none of them would set off warning bells if you saw them (or did them) yourself.
But while recreational alcohol use in moderation isn’t necessarily a problem, how can you tell when you’ve crossed that line into problem drinking and alcoholism?
The signs and symptoms are different for everyone, so there isn’t any one-size-fits-all test that can determine for certain if alcohol is a problem for you. That’s ultimately a decision you need to come to on your own, and it’s especially difficult since denial is actually one of the symptoms of addiction. But here are some things to look out for:
- Drinking alone
- Drinking to “relax”
- Building up alcohol tolerance
- Inability to limit drinking
- Neglecting responsibilities
- Risky behavior
- Inability to abstain from drinking
If you match more than a couple of these, it may be time to talk to someone and find out if you need help, especially if there is a history of alcoholism in your family. But before you go trying to diagnose yourself, let’s talk about these signs in more detail.
You Do Most of Your Drinking Alone
Okay, so you’re a social drinker. There’s no problem with that. But if you’re doing your drinking in secret, and starting to lie about it, you can’t really call that “social,” can you?
This is a sign of someone who either senses that their drinking might be problematic, or perhaps of someone who has been told their drinking is an issue. Drinking in secret, or hiding the amount of drinking you do, is a way to avoid those concerns, not address them.
The problem with this symptom is that by its very nature, it’s hard to detect by anyone but the person doing the drinking. If they’re keeping their drinking secret, then it stands to reason that the people around won’t notice the problem, because there are no people around.
On top of that, since secretive drinking is often a way for problem drinkers to sink into denial about the existence of a problem, they are often not prone to identify it as a warning sign. In their minds, secretive drinking is not a problem, but rather the solution to avoiding questions about their alcohol use.
You Drink to “Relax,” “Unwind,” or “Feel Better”
It is exceedingly common for people to have a drink to relax after a long day of work, alleviate anxiety, or cheer up after a bad day. It’s something to numb the bad feelings people invariably go through in their daily lives.
It’s also a gateway to creating a really bad habit for yourself. Dealing with stress, anxiety, depression, or other negative emotions by turning to a substance is a very slippery slope that almost always leads to somebody getting hurt.
Alcohol and heroin are very different substances, but one of the reasons heroin is so destructive is because it forces the brain and the body to associate it with happiness. People who take heroin say that the drug releases a rush of positive emotions, and washes away any bad feelings they had previously. But that rush is only temporary, and it eventually leaves the user much worse off.
When you rely on a substance to help you manage your emotions, you’re using that substance as a crutch. And at some point, the link between your substance abuse and your emotional management will become so strong, it will become nearly impossible to feel anything positive without resorting to that substance. It happens with both heroin and alcohol every day.
You’ve Built Up a Tolerance to Alcohol
Sure, it’s a fairly normalized thing to boast with your friends about who can drink more than who. High alcohol tolerance is lauded, while a low alcohol tolerance is laughed about and makes you the butt of a joke.
People have different alcohol tolerances naturally, just because of their own metabolism and body composition. But it is also possible to increase your alcohol tolerance over time.
Here’s a tip for how to increase your alcohol tolerance: Don’t.
Increasing your alcohol tolerance means your body is changing its own chemistry and composition in order to accommodate more and more alcohol at a time. That’s also what happens when somebody becomes alcoholic, and it doesn’t start happening until you’ve exposed yourself to alcohol on a regular basis over a long period of time.
See, your body building up a tolerance to alcohol means it’s coming to expect it. It’s not so much your body saying “you can handle more alcohol now,” instead it’s saying, “where’s today’s dose of alcohol?” And that means if you start going without alcohol, there’s a good chance you may start experiencing withdrawals.
Not only that, but pragmatically speaking, building up an alcohol tolerance means it requires more alcohol to get to the level of drunkenness you’re looking for. And putting aside any high-minded ideals and the problems with health and your personal life – alcohol is expensive. Why would you want to spend more money to get the same result?
You Can’t Stop Drinking Once You Start
Maybe you think you’re going to just have a little drink or two. It’s harmless, it’s not a problem, not gonna bother anybody, it probably won’t even give you a buzz.
That’s what you think.
What actually happens is you throw back the first drink, then the second, then before you know it you’ve gone through a whole bottle and are looking for another.
One of the biggest differences between a recreational or social drinker without a problem and an alcoholic with a problem, is that the recreational drinker has no problem stopping at one or two drinks. The alcoholic has the first one, and never stops. Sometimes they drink until they’re blacked out, or they’re forcibly cut off.
If you can’t remember the last time you were drinking and said to yourself, “yeah, that’s enough for now,” think about why that is. If you find yourself drinking until there’s nothing more to drink, or until someone else cuts you off, doesn’t that mean you’re not in control?
You Neglect Responsibility and Put Yourself in Dangerous Situations
This is a point where you might find more people are starting to notice something is off with you. This is where the destructive side of alcohol abuse starts to rear its head and wreak havoc on your day-to-day life.
Hopefully, you will be able to recognize your alcoholism before it gets to this point, because at this point, things start going really bad.
Alcoholics, at a certain point, will start putting alcohol above all else. Showing up to work drunk, or not at all, is unacceptable under any circumstances. And your employer knows it, and will react accordingly.
Yet many alcoholics still take that chance, because once they’re deep enough into their alcohol abuse, the next drink take precedence over everything else. Alcoholics will run into trouble with work, relationships, and even the law as a result of their drinking.
They also put themselves into unnecessarily risky situations, like drinking first thing in the morning before driving somewhere, or drinking with medication against doctor’s orders.
These are the kinds of things people do that indicate alcohol is the top priority in their lives. Even if nothing bad has happened as a result of impaired decision-making, it’s only a matter of time.
When You Try to Quit Drinking, You Get Withdrawals
This is a really vicious cycle. Once alcohol abuse has reached a certain point (full-blown alcoholism, generally), it doesn’t just let go because you want it to. At this point, if you go a day or two without drinking, your body will let you know about it
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be some of the most unforgiving of any form of substance abuse. They can kick in just a couple hours after your last drink, and range in severity from shakes and minor anxiety to seizures and potentially fatal delirium tremens (DTs).
If your alcohol abuse is at this point, there’s little reason for you to keep reading this. Go get help now, and consider starting with a alcohol detoxification program to get you through the difficulty of the withdrawal stage.
Withdrawals don’t happen without addiction, so if you feel these kinds of physical discomforts when you’re not drinking, there’s not much left to wonder about. You have an alcohol abuse problem.
Of course, even if you’re not experiencing actual withdrawal symptoms, an inability to quit – even when you’re telling yourself you want to – is a telltale sign that something isn’t right.
What You Can Do About Alcoholism
If you’re still not convinced, you can take this free alcoholism self-test. Alternatively, you can read up more on drug and alcohol addiction.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of signs to indicate alcohol abuse. Everybody’s path to alcoholism is a little bit different, driven by different factors, with different characteristics.
In your experience, what signs did we miss that should be included? Be sure to let us know in the comments below.