How To Tell If You Have A Drinking Problem Or Just Love To Drink
January 6 marked my seventh year of sobriety from drugs and alcohol.
SEVEN FREAKING YEARS. It’s even hard for me to believe I’ve gone that long without ingesting a substance stronger than caffeine. Like, are we sure I didn’t sleep-snort some cocaine or something sometime in the past seven years?
In the recovery circles I run in, January sobriety dates seem to vastly outnumber any other month, which leads me to believe that at least a few of you out there are probably wondering about your own drinking habits right about now.
And look, despite being a recovering alcoholic, I’m not a prude about booze. I obviously think drinking is awesome and super-fun or I wouldn’t have done so much of it that I had to quit permanently.
There’s a reason every culture since pretty much the beginning of time has been into altering their mental state with whatever beverage or plant or fungi some local knucklehead realized could give you a buzz.
I know people who love to go out and get wasted on the regs who are not alcoholics, just like I know people in recovery who didn’t drink all that much by some people’s standards. That’s because alcoholism is more about the reasons you drink than the amount of drinking that you do.
But there’s a saying in recovery circles that our drinking was fun… until it wasn’t. Here are some symptoms of alcoholism that signal your drinking has escalated from a good time to a potential problem.
You can’t stop drinking once you start.
I generally describe my alcoholism as being like a switch that gets flipped once I ingest even a sip of alcohol. Basically, I have never in my life had one or two drinks. Once I start, I’m going to keep going until I pass out or vomit or am otherwise physically stopped from continuing to drink. (Vomiting didn’t always stop me either; in my day I was the master of a little thing called the “shoot and reload.”)
I am completely unable to understand people who stand up and just leave a table with a little bit of wine or beer left in the glass. Or people who go somewhere where alcohol is served and don’t order any, just because they “don’t feel like drinking” that night. Or anybody who opens a bottle of wine and doesn’t drink the whole thing. (Related: People who don’t eat the entire pint of ice cream in one sitting, who ARE you?!)
I also lose the ability to keep myself safe once I’ve started drinking. I’ll get in cars with strangers, go anywhere with anyone, stumble precariously close to the subway tracks (possibly because I’m puking onto them) and wander the perilous streets of NYC in a total blackout.
The fact that I wasn’t murdered or accidentally killed during my drinking days is pure luck.
You find yourself obsessively monitoring the alcohol situation.
When you’re at the bar, listening to your girlfriend’s latest Tinder disaster, are you focused on her story? Or are you looking past her at the bartender, trying to catch his eye to order another, even though your current cocktail is still half-full?
If there’s a bottle of wine on the table, are you watching the levels instead of paying attention to the conversation, trying to decide how you can make sure you get enough while still remaining socially appropriate?
As Caroline Knapp, the author of “Drinking: A Love Story,” which I would recommend to anyone wondering if he or she may have a drinking problem, describes it:
When someone sets a bottle of wine on the dinner table, do you find yourself glancing at it subversively, possessively, the way you might look at a lover you long for but don’t quite trust? When someone pours you a glass from that bottle, do you take careful note of the level of liquid in the glass and measure it secretly against the level of liquid in the other glasses, and hold your breath just for a second until you’re assured you have enough? Do you establish an edgy feeling of relationship with that glass, that wine bottle; do you worry over it, care about it, covet it, want all of it for yourself? Can you bear the thought that it might run out, that you’ll be left sitting there without it, alone and unprotected?
I’ve quoted this passage in my writing before because it just perfectly describes that strange and obsessive pull that alcohol has over people like me. I was always monitoring the amounts of alcohol available, always afraid that I wasn’t going to get enough.
At parties, I’d hide beers in the couch cushions or under my skirt for later. At restaurants, I’d grab the waiter and inauspiciously order another bottle of wine for the table then act like I didn’t know where it came from, or excuse myself to the bathroom, then have a “secret shot” at the bar. Before leaving a party, I’d tuck a “road beer” into my purse.
I just literally never wanted the party to end.
You black out regularly.
Look, I’ll give you a blackout here and there. Sometimes we all forget our limits and lose the tail end of the night. (Did I take a cab home, or …?) But if you’re blacking out on a regular basis, it’s a pretty good indicator that something’s off with your drinking.
My last drunk was on January 6, 2009. I blacked out around 8 pm and got home somewhere around 5 am, with very little memory of what happened in between. Somewhere along the way, I lost my cell phone and my wallet and twisted my ankle careening down the street in my high-heeled boots, one of the hazy memories I retain from those nine lost hours.
I vaguely remember getting lost within blocks of the bar I was trying to find and falling into people while trying to ask for directions. (Remembering just portions or flashes of your night is sometimes referred to as a “brownout.”)
From what I’ve found out in sobriety, regular blackouts are actually not normal, and are in fact one of the major symptoms of alcoholism.
Similarly, peeing yourself after drinking is a pretty bad sign. I woke up in a wet bed after a night of drinking quite a few times, including once when there was someone else in there with me. He was kind enough to maintain that it was possible he’d gotten too drunk and peed on my underwear.
You drink when you don’t want to.
Alcoholics usually find themselves incapable of moderating their drinking. That means that even when you start an evening fully intending not to drink or at least not to get drunk, you find yourself doing it anyway, driven by a compulsion you can’t control.
I once went out the night before a big job interview, fully intending to just hang out for a few hours and have a drink or two. Deep down inside, I think I knew I would end up the same way I always did, closing out the bar before spending another hour smoking and drinking with the other regulars after hours. I showed up to the job interview on two hours of sleep, probably sweating out booze, red eyes blearily rejecting my contact lenses. (Weirdly, I still got the job.)
If you continually try not to drink and drink anyway, that’s a pretty big sign that you’re not in control of your drinking.
Another bad sign is if you repeatedly fail at attempts to moderate. Many of the alcoholics I know tried things like switching from hard liquor to beer, switching from beer to wine, alternating alcoholic beverages with glasses of water, keeping track of the number of drinks consumed by marking them in Sharpie on their arms, only drinking on weekends, etc. Nothing worked to make them drink like “normal” people.
Your life is unmanageable.
When you spend half your life drunk and the other half hungover, a lot of stuff starts to slip through the cracks.
I knew I had a drinking problem for years, but I didn’t know it was why my life was unmanageable until I got sober at 25. A lot of us think we’re drinking because of our problems, only to find out when we stop that our drinking was actually causing a lot of our problems.
It felt sort of like everyone else had gotten a rule book I didn’t have access to. How did people make it to work on time and without reeking of booze? How did they go to the gym? How did they do any of the cultural things I always intended to engage in on the weekends but instead ended up sleeping half the day and nursing a hangover for the other half?
A recovering alcoholic I know once told me that she didn’t have curtains on the windows in her bedroom, so she slept in her closet for a year. That’s amazing alcoholic unmanageability right there — when you’re perpetually in a drunken fog or recovering from one, your brain doesn’t work that well.
You find ways to just live with your problems instead of taking basic steps to fix them. You’re too focused on drinking to really care or notice the details that other people call “real life.”
Oh, and constantly losing your belongings is a bad sign too. I must have gone through three to five phones a year in the worst of my drinking days.
You’re ashamed of your behavior while drunk.
I don’t remember that much about how I acted while I was drinking because of all those ~blackouts~ I mentioned before. But from the reports I sometimes got the next day, it’s probably for the best that I don’t remember.
To this day, something I did while drunk will pop into my head, and I’ll find myself cringing with years-delayed embarrassment. The morning after a super-wasted night, I would remember, say, a yelling scene I’d caused outside a bar or the fact that I’d flashed my bare ass during karaoke and experience a speedball of guilt and shame so toxic that I thought of it as a “black monster feeling” and pictured it with teeth and claws. It would be too uncomfortable to endure without drinking more alcohol to numb the pain.
Some alcoholics turn into a different person when they drink — meek people turn into angry ragers, loyal people turn into cheaters, shy people turn noisy and rude. If alcohol changes your core values and personality, and causes you to behave in a way you’re ashamed of, it could be a sign that booze affects you in a different way than it does normal drinkers.
You do things you don’t intend to do while drunk.
I was always kind of the “bad” good girl, The Lindsey Weir who smoked cigarettes in the high school parking lot but was also a National Merit Scholar. Sure, I drank and used drugs, but I was a “smart girl.” I was “going places.”
But at some point, my life seemed to start to slowly veer off course, and I found myself doing things that “weren’t like me,” almost against my will.
For example, my boyfriend at the time had bought tickets to see my favorite band as a gift. I went out the night before the concert and ended up partying all night and into the next day. It got later and later into the afternoon and I was still hanging around the after-party, telling myself I’d leave soon and get some sleep before our big date, around 7 pm that night.
Of course, it eventually got to the point where there was no time to do anything but shower, show up and hope he didn’t notice.
Spoiler alert: He noticed.
When I showed up at his door after drinking and using a certain stimulating drug for two days straight, he immediately told me we weren’t going anywhere, gave me some Nyquil, and put me to bed. Not only did I disappoint someone I loved, I missed seeing my favorite band play, a show I’d been looking forward to for months.
Another time I went out partying and passed out so deeply afterward that I caused my boyfriend and I to miss our planned vacation. I finally woke up, mid-afternoon, to a million missed calls and that “Oh sh*t” stomach drop feeling (and wet sheets, incidentally).
After not being able to reach me, our friends had decided to leave without us. I told my boyfriend I must be sick, but deep inside I knew I had f*cked up deeply.
Everything inside me screamed that this kind of behavior just wasn’t me. Each time I screwed up, I blamed it on something like “drinking on an empty stomach” or “drinking while on medication,” but these incidents and others began to prove to me that the problem was alcohol itself.
Alcohol was causing me to become someone I wasn’t and do things I didn’t feel good about. And I couldn’t control it.
Your drinking has negative consequences in your life.
This is probably the biggest difference between people who like to binge drink recreationally and people who have a problem.
I had what is referred to as a “high bottom” in the sense that I never lost a job due to my drinking, never ended up in a hospital or rehab, never became homeless or went to jail. But my drinking had consequences in my life, some I could see and some I couldn’t.
When I got sober, it was largely because I knew I was finally going to lose my relationship if I didn’t get myself together. My boyfriend at the time just wasn’t going to put up much longer with the irresponsibility, the risk-taking and self-destructive behavior, the 10 pm “I’m leaving now” texts that resulted in a 4 am arrival time.
But beyond that, I just felt miserable. I’d wake up each morning and hang my head between my knees while I sat on the toilet, wondering why I even existed, and what the point was of facing another day. Addiction had made me sick in my soul. I felt ruined, like I’d seen and experienced so much darkness that I’d never be able to come back from it.
After 7 years of sobriety, I can see lots of other little ways my drinking was sabotaging me. Although I’ve still had to deal with normal life problems in sobriety, my career has exploded in the years since I quit drinking, I’ve become a mother, something I never would have been capable of before, and I have a new sense of dignity and integrity. Having a clear head and a new set of priorities takes you a long way in life.
One great thing about the increasing awareness of alcoholism is that more and more young people are getting sober before they lose everything, before they have irrevocable consequences. The parable is that the elevator is only going down, no matter where you get off. You can choose to get off before you hit the bottom.
You spend a lot of time questioning whether you might be an alcoholic.
This is kind of a trick, considering the whole point of this post is to think about whether or not you’re an alcoholic. But in general, people who don’t have a problem with drinking don’t spend a lot of time wondering if they do.
If you’re plagued by questions about whether you drink normally, your instincts might be trying to tell you something.
This is a whole other post, but trust me — while I never would have believed it before I tried it, sobriety can be fun. In fact, I am happier on my worst day sober than I ever was on my best day drinking.
If you think you might have a problem with alcohol, the good news is that help is available. Ask for some, whether it’s from a therapist, a doctor, a local 12-step group, a sober friend, or a hotline. You can find a list of resources here. As someone told me when I first stepped into a meeting: You don’t have to live that way anymore.
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