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The most challenging aspect of answering this is that it depends entirely on what we believe an alcoholic is.
Alcohol is entrenched and celebrated in our country. It is expected that adults drink in most social situations. It's normative for people to use alcohol as a way to relieve stress and have fun. Conversely and hypocritically, our society stigmatizes those who develop problems with alcohol.
Prevailing social norms dictate that all we need to do when drinking causes us problems is to temporarily abstain. We're encouraged to go "on the wagon" for a brief period and then resume. Despite our knowledge that alcoholism is a disease, we respond to it as though it were some variation of the flu. All a person needs is to rest and regroup. Millions of us have cycled this way. The red flag we often ignore is that it gets worse each time we return.
The Question We Don't Want to Answer
The question that gradually haunts many of us is:
"Am I an alcoholic?"
The most challenging aspect of answering this is that it depends entirely on what we believe an alcoholic is. Clinically, we've come to define substance abuse and addictionas existing on a continuum, which is anything but definitive.
It's uncomfortable to consider a question when we're afraid of the answer.
We are further hindered by our inability to fully trust ourselves. The bottom line is that it's a personal choice whether or not to identify yourself as an alcoholic.
At the start of each new year, treatment centers and 12 step programs tend to see an influx of folks who seek to reduce or eliminate their use of alcohol. The catalyst is most often being uncomfortable with what drinking has cost us. We experience losses financially, in health, relationally, and in our overall quality of life.
This is one of the greatest red flags for alcoholism: The cost progressively increases. Until we're confronted by major losses, this can be difficult to identify. We tend to be externally focused, which means that instead of truly taking stock of our own lives, we measure our drinking and our problems relative to others.
"I'm Not Like Them (Y.E.T.)"
Comparisons are always problematic. Measuring how alcohol has impacted our lives relative to others is most often a means of minimizing our problems. We generally won't contrast ourselves to those who show no evidence of a problem, only to those who do. We then consider that we're okay because we haven't fallen as far as they have.
To this sentiment we must add, "Y.E.T." It's a great recovery acronym for "You're Eligible Too."
The fact that we haven't experienced the losses others have in no way ensures that we won't. We must be willing to broaden our perspective. When we compare, we're not seeking to relate or identify, we're looking to be different. In recovery this is referred to as being terminally unique and should also be considered a red flag for alcoholism.
100 Forms of Alcoholism
We are unique and we're the same. We drink in different ways for different reasons and we're all the worse for it. Some of us drink until we black out. Some of us only need a few drinks to make really bad choices. Some of us drink very little, everyday, and find we can't be okay without it. Closet drinkers, whiskey drunks, wine snobs, binge drinkers...
If there are a hundred ways to drink, then how many forms of alcoholism are there?
Our greatest commonalities are that alcohol negatively impacts the course of our lives and we won't see it until we're forced to. It's the fishbowl affect. When you're living in it, it's hard to see the big picture. If you're on the outside looking in, spotting the red flags is like watching an ice fishing derby.
One of the biggest red flags for developing a problem with alcohol is when we negotiate with ourselves. We establish limits as lines we won't cross. When we say,"weekends only" or "no more than two or three" we often find a progression in which the limits change. We start telling ourselves, "not before noon" or "I'm not getting drunk tonight."
At the same time, we start to rationalize and justify our drinking. We say things like, "It doesn't affect my job performance" or "Everything at home is just fine." It doesn't seem to occur to us that if it wasn't a problem, we wouldn't feel any need to justify why it's okay to keep doing it.
It's Not Fun Anymore
We find that we don't enjoy drinking as we once did. We feel bored, empty, and angry. Depression becomes a constant companion. We drink not to feel good but to avoid feeling bad. We find ourselves frustrated with how other people drink. Progressively, we either drink alone or with those who drink like we do. As my friends in AA say, "We needed more and more of what doesn't work."
We're all or nothing people. How much is enough? All of it. Yesterday. We're control freaks who progressively lose control of everything. The most tell tale aspect of having a problem with alcohol is when we cannot with any degree of certainty predict whether we will lose control when we drink.
What Kind of People are Alcoholics?
Despite our addictive personalities, my experience is that alcoholics are disproportionately intelligent, talented, hard working, and creative. Unfortunately, we are most often building on a foundation of fear and shame. This results in being our own worst enemies with an uncanny knack for getting in our own way.
Getting Off the Road to Ruin
Embracing simplicity allows us to move toward a clear course of action. Rather than endlessly considering whether we're an alcoholic, we can reason as many have that,"If drinking alcohol causes you to have a problem, then you have a problem with alcohol."
Please also consider the recovery adage that, "Even if you're not an alcoholic, you still don't have to drink."
Alcoholism takes countless forms. The most important distinction may be that of being a "high-bottom drunk" or a "low-bottom drunk." We say that folks have to hit bottom before they embrace change on this magnitude. Losses accumulate and they're painful. Alcoholics tend to have a high pain tolerance. The problem with this is that for most of us, as long as we can tolerate it, we probably will.