Sunday, March 21, 2010

Alcoholism Q & A. Or maybe just Q.

There are some questions about alcoholism I get kind of a lot, not because I'm so smart, or I know more than anyone else, but because I blog about it for the world to see.

By far, the most common question is how to tell if someone is an alcoholic - this either comes from someone who is worried about their own drinking, or from someone who is worried about someone else's drinking.

The answer, in my opinion, is simple yet unsatisfying:   there isn't a way to know for sure.    There are signs, or symptoms, but there is no blood test to take, like for other chronic illnesses.   There are countless questionnaires that people can take that ask about their drinking habits:   how often, how much.   But there is no silver bullet - no definitive way to diagnose alcoholism - at least not that I have heard about.

Even discussing this is treading on thin ice.   People are very opinionated about this topic.   If you ask 100 people about this, you will likely get 100 different answers. 

When I'm asked, this is what I say:   it doesn't matter how often, or how much.   It matters what it does to you.

I don't wake up every morning wondering how I'm going to get my hands on, say, Roquefort cheese.   I don't go through my day thinking about the Roquefort cheese I can have at the end of the day, as my reward for existing successfully.     I don't eat Roquefort cheese to access my emotions, dull the edges, entertain or distract myself.   I don't hide my Roquefort cheese consumption, or lie about it.   I can have one piece of Roquefort cheese.   I can even have half a piece.  In other words:  I don't obsess about it.   Because, to me, obsession is the definitive characteristic of addiction.

So I can't point to someone and know whether they are an alcoholic or not by how they look, or even what they tell me.   Because denial is such a huge part of addiction, often behaviors that are indicative of a problem aren't even acknowledged, consciously, by the person doing them.   At least it was that way for me.

It's a double-edged irony, if such a thing exists:  it is a disease that tells you that you don't have it, and at the same time only the person suffering from it can diagnose themselves.

I can share some of the signposts I missed along the way (and some that I didn't).   If someone identifies with any of them, then it is up to them to decide if they have a problem or, most importantly, if they want to do anything about it.   Here are a few things I wish I had paid more attention to along the way:
  • Feeling possessive about alcohol.   Even early on, I would watch how much was in other peoples' glasses, always looking to be sure I got my fair share.
  • Thinking about drinking earlier in the day.    I could snap myself out of a bad or bored mood at noon, just thinking about the drink(s) I could have that night.
  • Lying about my drinking.    I make the analogy to when people are asked how much they weigh.  Most of us fudge it a little, shave a few pounds off the truth.   I was like that with alcohol.   When asked how much I had the night before - even when I was with a group of friends and we were comparing hangovers - I would always diminish the real number.  
  • Sneaking drinks.   Even before I actually hid bottles around the house (it's hard to lie to yourself about that one) as I was pouring wine for my husband and myself before dinner, I would pour one for me and slug it down (when he wasn't watching, of course) and then pour myself another and act like it was my first drink. Or, if he left the room, I'd top off my glass, or drink some of his.  
  • I always, always finished my glass.   I was never the type to drink half a glass and forget it was there.   It baffled me - even early on - when people could drink half a glass and pour it out. 
  • Having one glass was almost impossible.    Once I had the first, I always wanted another.   Even if I didn't have another, I always wanted one.
But by far, the primary symptom was how much time I spent thinking about drinking.   Even when I wasn't drinking - when I was trying to cut back - I'd think:   here's me not drinking.    As my drinking progressed, what had been a pleasant anticipation of drinking turned into a full blown obsession.   That, to me, is addiction.  

I'm bracing myself a little for the comments on this post.   I don't claim to be an expert on addiction. I don't claim to have any answers.   I am sharing a bit about what it was like for me.  That's all.  

Please add other comments or insights from your own experience. You can post anonymously if you wish. 


  1. You are so right about there not being any certain way to tell. I always had my own internal test that I passed with flying colors because I never drank during the day and certainly not in the morning. It wasn't until I started communicating with other women who had the same patterns as me that I realized (like you said) it wasn't how much or when, but how I treated alcohol and what it did to me. I'm 21 days sober today and the more I read the more I understand how powerful alcohol really is. This post is very helpful for those seeking more information for themselves or those they love. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  2. This is a great post Ellie! I agree, there is no way for one person to identify another as an alcoholic, because it's all in the obsession towards alcohol. I never hid alcohol around the house, that doesn't make me any less of an alcoholic! Some women at my meetings would drink 10 drinks a day, some would only drink 3 (Ha, I said ONLY 3) and some would just binge drink occasionally. But we are all alcoholics because we all had/have that obsession.

    For me, another trademark is there in the first step, "We were powerless over alcohol". Non-alcoholics don't become different people after one drink. Non-alcoholics can know they have something to do, a PTA meeting that night, a presentation in the morning, and easily just have one without a second thought to another. An alcoholic usually can't. In my case, never could. As soon as that first sip hit my lips I was done for. It didn't matter what I had going on, what promises I had made to myself about just having one, all that flew out the window and I was a slave to the bottle. Like you, even on the nights I managed not to have another, I thought about it constantly. It was admitting that once I had any alcohol at all I completely lost control of drinking that finally got me to say, out loud, that I am an alcoholic. And for me there was no going back from that point.

  3. Very well written Ellie. I'm a big believer in the face that you can be an alcoholic even if you drink one time a year. It's how you drink. Where your mind goes (or stays....)

    Thank you for putting this out there :)

  4. Ellie, I like you more and more each day. :) You are one BRAVE lady!

    IMO you hit it right on the nose, the obsessing is the biggest key ... even if you're not thinking about a drink until it's after kiddos go to bed, it's how you think about it after you get that 1st one. I always had to be sure there was enough, i.e., way too much. Hubby was the same way, he'd be the guy heading out to the store at 11:50pm to get another liter of wine, just because we'd just opened the 2nd liter bottle. Hording your alcohol, and watching what others drink, to be sure they don't get more than you ... yup! And the idea of just one? Never ever got that ... never. Obviously I had the gene - hell, as it turns out I was born into a martini glass of addiction! lol! Thanks Mom! ;)

  5. Ellie, by the comments, it seems like you nailed it!

    I have always thought alcoholism (and having little experience, even second or third hand) is identified by the impact on one's life, but from what you're saying, it's more mental. The signs to the loved ones I guess are more subtle early on and that is a good thing for everyone to be aware of.

  6. I have a question for you, and this stemmed from your post about when your husband found the wine in the washer: how can your brain work so quickly when you're "hungover"? Meaning, when your husband woke you up after a night of drinking heavily, you were able to put the "face on" and answer the way you thought he wanted you to answer pretty soon after waking up.

    Is the morning after for an alcoholic different than the morning after for someone who simply drank too much the night before? And would that be a potential identifier?

    Thanks :)

  7. Beanie -

    Good question. Again, I can only speak from my own personal experience, and I'm not sure I can explain it well, but I'll try. For me, the fear of being "found out" was SO great, that my brain would kick into some kind of survival overdrive - an adrenaline (sp?) rush that would overcome any hangover, fatigue, sickness. Granted, I wasn't always nearly as clever as I thought I was being.

    To answer another part of what I think you're asking - for me, it was also true that I didn't really get hungover anymore - not in the way most people probably think of hangovers. For me it was more of a constant, low-grade achiness, weariness, anxiety. I would get headaches and other symptoms of hangovers, for sure, but I got used to it - it just became the way I felt all the time.

    Does this answer your question(s)?

  8. When I read this it reminds me of how I feel about food, which makes me sad, because I can never just quit food cold turkey and so I feel very hopeless in my situation. But those are exactly the feelings. The obsession is dead on.

  9. It sure does, thanks!

    I'm glad you're sober. :)

  10. Ellie
    Thanks so much for sharing...In my heart and mind I knew for a long time I had a problem, but the thought of admitting it was unfathomable!
    When I finally got sober, after a few weeks, I called a friend to tell her I had stopped drinking and was in recovery. She asked me if I could "stop for a while, then control it." I stopped, and answered "No. I can't drink in safety." After that phone call, I was able to say out loud I was an alcoholic.
    I agree, that first step, knowing you are powerless over's a big one...but it saved me. Bottom line.

  11. I can relate to almost all your points and I know that I can't drink safely or moderately at all. By many peoples definitions I am an alcoholic.

    I am receiving some sessions of alcohol counselling at a local treatment centre and trying to get my head around the concept of 'one day at a time'.

    The term alcoholic for me though suggests a heavy physical dependence on alcohol which I don't have. My dependence is more psychological so saying I have a problem with drink seems like a slightly more honest way of describing my symptoms.

    It really is fantastic to have found some other women in recovery. I read all your stuff Ellie, although AA doesn't work for me on any level really. I do not accept that I am powerless over alcohol. It is my choice whether or not to drink. It is difficult but not impossible, so I do have some power. I just don't feel comfortable absolving myself of responsibility like that, and I was wondering how you understood that first step and what it meant to you. You don't sound like a powerless woman to me.

    Also, did you get constant sugar cravings when you first stopped drinking? Mine are driving me insane.

  12. Gappy -

    Thanks for your message - you bring up great points for discussion. For me - and, as usual, this is only for me - admitting I was powerless over alcohol was actually freeing. I had tried every which way to control it on my own, and nothing worked. Understanding that it was a disease, and that if I had one drink I no longer controlled what happened was a great relief. So for me, step one is all about staying away from that first drink, and admitting that my will power no longer applies if I drink. That powerlessness relates to my drinking.

    However, I do not feel powerless over my sobriety. I do feel like if I am sober I do have control over how I choose to live my life. So, in that sense, I don't feel powerless at all. I make sure, though, that I'm not alone in this, that I'm not the one calling all the shots - I surround myself with other people who understand, who help, who guide me all the time. Who help me choose sobriety, when left to my own resources I might not.

    I don't know if that makes sense, or answers your question, but I'm really glad you brought it up! I'd love to hear from others on it.

    And YES. The sugar cravings were UNREAL in early sobriety.


  13. Thank you for your reply. Yes I understand what you mean I think, that you have the power not to take that first drink, but that once you do drink you lose your power. That would be the same for me too.

  14. "Because, to me, obsession is the definitive characteristic of addiction."

    Well, crap. According to this definition I'm a chocoholic!

    (you think I'm kidding but I'm not) :(

  15. I once heard a very compelling statement from an alcoholic who said that:

    Alcoholics make "rules" about their drinking...if you don't have a problem with alcohol, you don't even think about having rules, but when you do, you make rules to try and justify/hide/control your drinking.

  16. I've heard that too, Tammy - and it's a great point.

    Another expression I heard once was if you agree with the following statement, you might have a problem: "When I enjoy it I can't control it, and when I control it I can't enjoy it".

  17. "..I could eat you up, I love you so"

    Your "signs" are great, and really apply to all addictions. No, you aren't a "professional" in the addictions field, but your story is exactly what people need to hear.

  18. You are so good to share your experience. I know you are helping many.

    Ah sugar... there's a reason they serve doughnuts at all of the old school AA meetings...

  19. Wow.........thank you.

    I am 15 months sober, haven't really thought much about drinking in the last few weeks at all. Then today, totally out of the blue I thought about having a glass of wine and sitting on the back proch in the sunshine.

    I MUST remember the points you made abt people w/o problems can have just one, or leave a glass half full. If we were at a restaurant and someone didn't finish their drink, I always finished it for them. And really, what it the point of just one? And the rules I made for myself.... Then the lies....

    I am grateful I had a 'high bottom' and that I got help when I did, but I must never forget that indeed I AM an alcoholic. And I can't have even one drink. {Because it was never one}

    There IS hope.

  20. GREAT post and a great discussion. That step one is a doozy - I had the same issue that Gappy did. Since I was an 'occasional' or binge or whatever you want to call me (meaning, I did not drink every day - I was not obsessed to do so...etc) BUT, and here's a big but. When I did drink, there was just no telllin' how it would end. So when someone said to me - are you powerless after that first drink hits your lips? I said. Hell yea. And I haven't had a problem with that step since. Welll, that's not totally true. Powerless as you said is both a win and a tough pill. But it is freeing to just be like, yep. got that disease. Glad I have a solution...

    Sorry for the ramble. Again thanks for your thoughts and the discussion that ensues.


  21. "..I could eat you up, I love you so"

    Your "signs" are great, and really apply to all addictions. No, you aren't a "professional" in the addictions field, but your story is exactly what people need to hear.

  22. You are so good to share your experience. I know you are helping many.

    Ah sugar... there's a reason they serve doughnuts at all of the old school AA meetings...