Alcoholism, like all manifestations of the disease of addiction, is a cunning disease that is marked by denial, dishonesty, deflection, and deception. Unless they are compelled to do so, most alcoholics will not come right out and say, “I have a problem“. Recognizing a drinking problem can be difficult because unlike most other substances of abuse, alcohol is legal. A person of age has the right to responsibly enjoy alcoholic beverages. On top of that, alcohol plays a part in many social interactions – meeting someone for drinks, having wine with dinner, celebrating with champagne, drinking beer at a baseball game. So how can you know when someone – and that someone may be YOU –has gone beyond enjoyable social drinking and has crossed over into the more problematic areas of drinking—abuse, dependence, and addiction? Luckily, the science of addiction recovery has progressed enough to be able to produce a list of recognizable symptoms and behaviors to watch for when you think that you or someone close to you may be misusing alcohol.
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Drinking Levels Defined
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has defined binge and heavy drinking:
- Binge drinking is a pattern of behavior where a man drinks five or more alcoholic beverages in less than two hours. For women, the standard is four or more alcoholic beverages within the same timeframe. Regular binge drinking can result in changes within the brain.
- Heavy drinking is drinking five or more alcoholic beverages on the same occasion on five or more days during the past month.
Physical Warning Signs of Alcoholism
Alcohol abuse can have a dramatic, recognizable effect on a person’s appearance. Chronic, heavy drinking causes such changes as:
- The constant smell of alcohol on their breath
- Noticeable weight loss or gain
- Broken capillaries on the face, especially on and around the nose
- Dry skin
- Brittle fingernails and hair
- A red-based, flushed appearance
- Yellow eyes or skin, possibly indicating liver damage
- Poor personal hygiene – body odor, teeth not brushed, hair not combed
- Uncharacteristic lack of personal pride in one’s appearance
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when abstaining from alcohol:
- Extreme agitation
- Delirium Tremens
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Behavioral Warning Signs of Alcoholism
A person’s behavior is usually the truest test of whether or not there is a current problem with alcohol. Most of these signs have to do with how a person drinks or how they go about acquiring their alcohol.
- Drinking alone
- Hiding alcohol use – both the amount and frequency
- Intense daily cravings
- Being unable to control either the amount or frequency of consumption
- Making multiple, unsuccessful attempts to cut back or quit drinking
- Constantly looking for reasons to drink – a good day at work, a bad day at work, a child’s birthday, etc.
- Drinking to ease loneliness
- Using alcohol to cope with stress or frustration
- Engaging in dangerous behaviors in order to drink – driving drunk, drinking even with a health condition, etc.
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities
- Missing work
- Poor job performance/Decreased production
- Skipping school
- Worsening Grades
- Neglecting to attend family events – plays, recitals, birthdays, dinners, etc.
- Spending excessive time acquiring alcohol
- Buying alcohol with money used for more important things such as rent, car payment, insurance, etc.
- Stealing to support drinking
- Domestic Violence
- Child Abuse or Neglect
- Out-of-character promiscuity
- Trouble with the law – DUIs, Public Intoxication, assault, etc.
- Using other intoxicants – inhalants, prescription medications, illicit drugs – when alcohol is unavailable
- Continuing to drink, in spite of negative consequences – divorce, criminal charges, health problems, etc.
- Promising to one’s self – or to others – to cut back or quit – and then breaking that promise
- “Bargaining” with drinking – switching from liquor to beer, vowing not to drink except on weekends, not drinking during the daytime, etc.
Personality Warning Signs of Alcoholism
As the disease of alcoholism progresses, the alcoholic’s brain will undergo profound chemical and mineralogical changes. Those changes can alter a person’s thought patterns and personality in a way that should be glaringly apparent.
- Co-occurring disorder – anxiety, depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, ADHD, or schizophrenia
- Obsession or preoccupation about alcohol
- Extreme anxiety or agitation when alcohol is unavailable
- Over-excitement at the thought of getting alcohol
- Defensiveness on the subject
- Guilt and remorse after drinking
- Memory loss
- Mood swings
- Denial – refusing to admit that a problem exists, even when it is apparent to everyone else
Personal History Warning Signs of Alcoholism
Often, a person’s personal history can set the stage for the development of a substance abuse disorder such as alcoholism:
- A close biological relative with any substance abuse disorder – father, mother, grandparents, or siblings
- Childhood exposure to substance abuse – the children of alcoholics are four times as likely to become alcoholics themselves
- Past traumatic experience – rape/sexual assault, violence, accidents, war, etc.
- Experimenting with alcohol at a young age – the younger the age of initiation, the worse the risk becomes
- Previous substance abuse issues of any kind
- Environmental exposure – peer pressure or being in a culture that celebrates drinking, such as the military
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Evidence That Can Be a Warning Sign of Alcoholism
Often, an alcoholic will try to hide the evidence of their drinking. But as the disease progresses, even that becomes of secondary importance to their real priority – getting more alcohol.
- Empty liquor, wine, or beer bottles or cans
- Alcohol containers are hidden throughout their house, car, or office
- Carrying alcohol with them secretly – in a thermos or flask, for example
- Unrepaired damage to their vehicle or home
- Hanging out with friends whose focus is drinking
- Unsupervised children
- Unpaid bills/repossessions
- Missing or unaccounted for money
- Relationship problems—separation/divorce
- Someone has expressed concerns about drinking habits and behaviors
Most of these warning signs are not, in and of themselves, definitive proof of alcohol abuse. However, when several of these signs exist, then that is a strong suggestion that the person may have a drinking problem. Alcohol addiction is a progressive, incurable disease – it WON’T go away on its own, and without intervention, it WILL get worse. A person struggling with alcoholism needs timely and effective professional treatment for alcohol abuse if they are to learn how to manage the symptoms of their disease and live a stable, productive life.