You Don’t Have To Be An Alcoholic To Have A Drinking Problem

How to know you’ve got a drinking problem.

Most heavy drinkers reach a point where they find themselves on Google cautiously typing the words, “Am I an alcoholic?”

Sure, you’ve been told you might have a drinking problem in the past, but that doesn’t make you an alcoholic? Right?  

These are vulnerable moments when we teeter on the edge between two identities. Are we the fun-loving party guy or gal who occasionally goes a little overboard or are we out of control and need help?

Nobody likes that word – alcoholic.

In fact, there are those in the recovery community who reject it altogether. Some even claim it’s not a real thing. I don’t know about all that and it’s a fight I see no value in.

Here’s what I do know – no matter what you call it, the issue is the same.

You have a drinking problem and you need to get help.

What’s the definition of an alcoholic?

woman wondering if she's an alcoholic checking her phone in bed
understanding if you have a drinking problem

An alcoholic is someone who has become alcohol dependent. Drinkaware, and many other sites that deal with alcoholism, provide bullet points to let you know if YOU are one such person. These are the scary black dots that call us out on our shit.

They look something like this:

  • Worrying about where your next drink is coming from and planning social, family and work events around alcohol
  • Finding you have a compulsive need to drink and it hard to stop once you start
  • Waking up and drinking – or feeling the need to have a drink in the morning
  • Feelings of anxiety, alcohol-related depression and suicidal feelings – these can develop because regular, heavy drinking interferes with neurotransmitters in our brains that are needed for good mental health
  • Suffering from physical withdrawal symptoms, such as sweating, shaking and nausea, which stop once you drink alcohol.

Source: Drinkaware: “Am I alcohol dependent?”

I’ve read countless lists like these and thought, “Okay, yes, but…”

Or, I’d take an all or nothing approach. If you don’t tick yes for all the criteria, you’re still fine.

My biggest cop out was the fact that I never woke up in the morning and drank. Somehow that absolved me of all my other bad behavior.

One problem I see is that we get caught up on the label itself.

“Alcoholic” is a heavily stigmatized word. People become so afraid of it that it paralyzes them from taking action. If the word scares you THAT much, you don’t have to use it.

But you do have to get sober.

 

7 Reasons I Knew I Had A Major Drinking Problem

I’ve always had a problematic relationship with alcohol. Even though I didn’t drink very frequently until my late 20’s, when I DID drink, it was to excess. I often lost control and made a fool of myself.

This made holding onto friendships and romantic relationships mostly impossible.

At first, I limited my drinking to the weekends and certainly never alone, so it didn’t occur to me that I had a drinking problem despite the fact that it consistently turned me into a raging lunatic.

Fast forward to my late 20’s when my drinking REALLY took off.

Those little “alcoholic” checklists began to describe my life a little too perfectly. Here are seven things I did (or didn’t do) that let me know I had a drinking problem.

If you find yourself nodding your head to anything on this list, it’s definitely time to take your drinking seriously.

 

1. Solo drinking.

drinking alone
signs you have a drinking problem: drinking alone

I eased into drinking alone by making it a natural extension of happy hour. I worked a difficult job that I was highly unsuited for. My colleagues and I always found ourselves at the neighboring bar on Fridays.

We all went HARD. I just tended to go a little harder. 

Who was always the first one to get there and the last one to leave? You guessed it.

I lived in Brooklyn at the time and, conveniently, maybe six blocks from my job and the bar we frequented. So it was nothing for me to walk home, stop in at one of three bodegas on the way and pick up a six pack of hard cider. I enjoyed my buzz and wanted to keep it going. 

And sometimes I wanted to get completely obliterated.

Eventually, that six pack doubled because I had a very real fear of running out that controlled nearly every aspect of my life.

Within a year, that six pack (or 2) pick-up had become a daily routine. Add that on to a pack of HEAVILY taxed cigarettes (we’re talking $13 USD a pack) and my bank account started to drain.

I easily spent $30-$40 USD per day on my addiction which is why I could never seem to afford to take vacations like my work friends. 

And that brings me to #2.

 

2. My bank account took a major hit from drinking.

empty wallet from a drinking problem
financial losses due to drinking problems

You don’t HAVE to, but if you want a nice reality check, crunch the numbers. On average, I was spending $11,000 USD on my drinking and smoking per year. Just looking at that figure makes me queasy.

Once I moved abroad to a country where alcohol is heavily taxed, I easily doubled that.

It’s not just the alcohol that breaks the bank. There’s also the late night takeout purchases and the groceries that go bad because you’re too drunk to care about cooking. For me, alcohol produced crippling anxiety, and I found myself compulsively purchasing things just to get a little dopamine hit.

It’s a snowball effect.

I feel depressed and hungover so buying a pair of shoes might perk me up. Or let’s get this kitchen appliance that I’ll never really use because I don’t cook anymore! Buying things and drinking felt like a compulsion. 

Because my drinking problem caused me to pack on the pounds, I had to buy a whole new wardrobe. Often times, I purchased things just because I felt so terrible about my body and wanted to look good. The irony is that I never went anywhere so they mostly stayed in my closet, tags on.

I could’ve saved thousands of dollars as an expat living a tax-free life, but instead found myself in debt or barely breaking even.

 

3. I became a sneaky liar.

woman hiding her drinking problem at the bodega
sneaking around to alcohol at different bodegas

When I lived in Brooklyn, I had my bodega rotation mapped out. (If you don’t know, a bodega is a local corner store in NYC.)

I would walk several extra blocks if it meant not having to return to the nearest bodega for another six pack after buying one just three hours earlier.

It could be 11 o’clock at night, freezing rain, and I would dutifully put on my boots and trek 7 minutes to the next avenue to get more to cider.

I strategically spaced out my alcohol purchases.

In hindsight, I wasn’t fooling anyone.

It was fairly normal for me to go into a bodega right before it closed for another six pack and attempt to play it off like I wasn’t already six bottles in and slurring my speech.

Occasionally, I’d make up a lie to cover up the obvious. “Hey! Having friends over and looks like we need some more cider!”

Why I felt the need to do this is beyond me. Nobody ever asked. 

There was one incident when a bodega worker asked me why I always drank alone. He didn’t even work at one of my go-to spots. I was mortified. How did he know?

I didn’t go back there for at least a month.

shame from drinking problem
experiencing shame from your drinking

My favorite liquor store game was to browse the wine section like I was trying to make a purposeful wine choice and even engage the clerk in some recommendations for the dinner I was hosting that night. (There was never any dinner.)

Then there were the social invitations I turned down.

I would wait until the last minute and lie about why I couldn’t make it. The real reason was because I’d already started drinking and was too wasted to get dressed up and go anywhere else.

Eventually, the invitations stopped.

 

4. I stopped caring about my physical appearance.

experiencing shame from drinking
how heavy drinking can impact your physical appearance and health

I have no photographic evidence because I was too embarrassed to hop in front of cameras during the great weight gain of 2014-2016.

At the time I moved abroad, I was 59kg. That was the HEAVIEST I’d ever been in my whole life. By the end of 2015, I was 10kg heavier (that’s 22 lbs for my fellow Americans).

It wasn’t just the weight. I had a very alcoholic face. (Yes, that’s a thing.)

I constantly had a red, puffy, tired look about me. And my hair? A lifeless, stringy mess. My chest had broken out with these tiny red lines, which I later learned is a sign my liver wasn’t doing so good.

Then there was the rosacea and the broken capillaries all over the sides of my nose.

Was I happy about any of this? Absolutely not!

Did I care enough to do anything about it? Also, no. Much easier to wallow in self-pity with a glass of whiskey and buy the next pants size up. 

 

5. My mental health became a major problem.

For whatever reason, we get the idea that turning into the hulk after we’ve had some drinks is both normal and forgivable.

There’s the raging dude bro who always wants to fight after he’s had about five beers or the weepy friend who frequently experiences an existential crisis by the end of the night.

And what do we say to them?

It’s okay. You had a lot to drink.

But it’s not okay and I say this as someone who quite frequently lost her mind while drinking.

mental health and heavy drinking
the impact of heavy drinking on your mental health

As time went on, my mental health took a major hit. I’ve always struggled with depression, but after years of heavy drinking, I added anxiety to the list. 

I don’t know if I’ve always had anxiety or if the drinking caused it. Either way, it’s still a problem I have to manage after 2.5+ years of sobriety. 

During my heavy drinking days, I had severe mood swings and depressive episodes which often caused me to lash out at people. Sometimes I became so absorbed by my own sadness that I had nothing else to talk about.

If I’d been watching the same behavior in another person, I would not have hesitated to call them crazy.

Because I decided to treat my problems with alcohol, I ended up losing most of my friends and causing major stress in my marriage.

We don’t realize it at the time, but what we say and do does matter to other people. When you don’t think you have any value, it’s difficult to believe that others would see any value in you either. We end up hurting a lot of people this way.

And that’s exactly what I did. I don’t begrudge anyone who managed to escape me over the years. 

 

6. Drinking endangered my safety.

risking safety while drinking
putting yourself at risk when drinking

There are countless incidents in my memory that make me wince. Times when I drove and shouldn’t have, got wasted in public and barely made it home safely, or drunkenly wandered around the streets of New York at night, alone.

Even now, I hear people at social gatherings brag about how they don’t know how they got home the night before. Like it’s a badge of honor. 

There’s nothing heroic or admirable about getting blackout drunk and putting your safety at risk, even if you end up surviving yourself.

The last person I heard brag like this was a 40-something mother of three who lives in a country where being that drunk can land you in jail for several years and then ultimately deported. Why take that risk?

I used to be that woman and can’t help but wonder if people looked at me the way I looked at her. Probably.

Related Post: Stop Ignoring Red Flags About Your Drinking

 

7. Once I started, I couldn’t stop (and I ALWAYS started).

Drinking became a remedy for the silliest things. Oh, some guy cut me off in traffic? I’m having a drink when I get home. The mall was a bit crowded today? Having a drink when I get home!

There was a giddy anticipation to parking my car and finally being able to sit on my balcony with a pack of cigarettes and an endless supply of whiskey and Sprite. It felt like exhaling after holding my breath for a long time.

Which, in a way, I was.

Once I managed to take the edge off, I kept going. The part of my brain that fears scarcity went into overdrive. I drank and smoked like someone was going to snatch them away from me at any moment.

unable to stop drinking
incapable of stopping after you start drinking

I hated to take breaks, which is why I always canceled plans to go out because going would mean stopping my drinking to shower, put on clothes, and hop in a cab.

No thank you!

Eat? I mean, if I have to…

Usually I ordered food which sat there and got cold until it was absolutely necessary to eat. I’d reach a point in my drinking for the night where if I wanted to continue, I was going to need to eat something.

That was my primary motivation for having dinner.

And vomiting? No problem. I’d rinse my mouth and get right back to it.

 

Does any of this sound familiar?

Because it’s likely that you live in a country where alcohol and getting drunk is considered a normal part of everyday life, it is very easy to brush off these behaviors as “no big deal.”

Everyone does it! It doesn’t make me an alcoholic.

I downplayed my behavior for years until it got so bad that I had zero control over it.

Your life doesn’t have to be completely wrecked (or wrecked at all) for you to have a drinking problem. High-functioning alcoholics, like us, are constantly trying to walk the line of “I just like to drink” and “I have a problem.”

In fact, if you have to ask Google if you have a drinking problem, I’m very certain that you do.

Here’s what that does NOT mean.

  • It doesn’t mean you are broken or flawed.
  • There’s no scarlet letter painted on your chest.

Whether you adopt or reject the label “alcoholic” is entirely up to you, so long as you DO accept that your relationship with alcohol is problematic and will continue to be unless you stop.

Related Post: Drowning in Alcohol Culture

 

Breaking the Stigma of Sobriety

breaking the stigma in sobriety friends comfort each other

Personally, I rejected dealing with my drinking because I didn’t want to associate myself with “those” people. I had no real experience with alcoholism,  AA, or the recovery community beyond the dimly lit rooms in church basements I’d see on TV.

Those people didn’t look very good. They seemed sad, dull. Ruined. Who would want such an existence?

But that’s not who we are.

Maybe sometimes we feel sad or dull.  But it isn’t who we ARE at our core and it for damn sure is not who we have to be forever.

Notice I said “we?”

 

You are not alone.

If you’re reading this, chances are you or a loved one has a problem with drinking and so I’m inviting you into the fold right now.

There are millions of people in this world who understand what you’re going through. They’re from all walks of life, from the most successful CEO’s and celebrities to regular Joe’s like you (maybe?) and me.

And you know what the great thing is?

More people are speaking out publicly about their sobriety. Sometimes it’s because they were/are addicted and other times, it’s because they just don’t see a purpose to drinking alcohol.

As much as it makes my head spin to have to say this, it’s becoming more socially acceptable to NOT drink alcohol.


 

Are You Still Unsure If You Have A Drinking Problem?

I took dozens of quizzes when I first entertained the idea that I might be an alcoholic. Even though I always got the same answer, I’d continue taking different quizzes on different sites hoping for another outcome.

It’s something I think a lot of us go through on our journey.

If you want to take an assessment to see if you have a drinking problem, you can find one here.

Do you need some support?

Soberish has an incredible, private Facebook group for anyone struggling with alcohol. We are a tight knit group of people at various stages in the sobriety process. Some of us have a few (or more) years under our belt and others are in the early stages.

We’ve got members who are struggling to stay sober for more than a few days at a time and members who are starting on Day 1.

The point is that no matter where you are in your sobriety, you will fit right in.

Visit the Soberish Facebook Group and request to join.

Additional Resources If You Think You Have A Drinking Problem

For UK readers:

For US readers:

Visit AlcoholRehab.org for a comprehensive list of services both national and according to state.

Additional Resources:

If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol addiction, here are some resources to help get you through it.

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Alicia @ Soberish

Hi! I'm Alicia, the woman behind Soberish. I write about sobriety, mental health, and the reality of making big life changes. Oh, and I get to call myself "mama" to the cutest little girl in the world.

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