Unlike using illegal drugs, drinking alcohol is a socially acceptable activity. We do it when we’re out with friends and at home. Consuming alcohol is commonplace that it can make be difficult to tell when someone has lost control.
One of the most common questions we get at Alpine Recovery Lodge is, “How can I tell if my loved one is an alcoholic?” It never surprises us when people ask because we know how confusing and upsetting it can be to wonder if someone you care about is addicted to alcohol and needs help.
Casual Drinking Vs. Alcoholism
If you’re worried that someone you know might have a drinking problem, there are some simple questions and observations that can help you understand the differences between casual drinking and alcoholism.
What is Alcoholism?
Let’s start with a definition of alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder. A person who is an alcoholic has great difficulty controlling their drinking. They drink more than average and continue to do so even when their drinking begins to cause problems.
Alcoholism usually involves consuming alcohol every day. This behavior means they require support groups or rehabilitation in order to stay sober.
Another way of looking at it is that alcohol abuse is any pattern of drinking that leads to problems with a person’s health, safety, or well-being.
When someone with an alcohol use disorder suddenly stops drinking, symptoms of withdrawal can be seen including anxiety, nausea, and even seizures.
What is casual drinking?
Casual drinking is a pattern of drinking in low doses on rare occasions. Casual or social drinking are those who will drink occasionally, usually in a responsible manner, meaning they rarely get drunk or black out.
Casual drinkers meet the following criteria:
- They know when to stop drinking
- They drink only a few times each month
- They seek out a sober driver if they drink too much
- They do not drink in order to get drunk
- They typically don’t drink on an empty stomach
For the social drinker, it’s about companionship, having fun, and relieving stress. The enjoyment of a drink is part of celebrating life with the people you enjoy being around, rather than drinking to forget your troubles.
While alcohol may help to relieve a stressful day, casual drinkers do not rely on drinking to relieve every stressor. They choose the time and place to drink and do not let it interfere with work or family obligations.
According to the CDC, moderate drinking is one drinker per day for a female, and two drinkers for a male, right in line with typically casual drinker behavior.
How to Tell If Your Loved One Is an Alcoholic
Now, let’s look at some of the key hallmarks of alcohol abuse and contrast them with casual drinking.
1. A High Tolerance for Alcohol
The first thing to ask is whether your loved one has a high tolerance for alcohol. People who drink regularly develop a tolerance as a matter of course. For example, if you drink one glass of wine with dinner every night, you probably won’t be affected by it very much. However, if you had two or three glasses, you would feel the effects.
By contrast, alcoholics tend to have a very high tolerance for alcohol. Where you might feel tipsy or even drunk after three glasses of wine, they might need to drink a bottle or two to get the same feeling.
2. Secret or Forbidden Drinking
Does your loved one drink at times when they shouldn’t be drinking? One of the biggest warning signs of alcohol abuse is drinking in secret or drinking at times when it’s not appropriate to do so.
Drinking in secret might mean hiding bottles of alcohol from the family or drinking only when alone. It may also include lying about drinking when asked about it. Forbidden drinking might include drinking at work or while driving. A casual drinker doesn’t do these things.
Casual drinking is often a social affair. We meet friends for a quick drink after work or go to a party. We don’t cut ourselves off from the people we care about.
On the other hand, someone who abuses alcohol may isolate themselves and avoid loved ones, particularly if they’re worried that people they care about may notice that they have a problem. They may also avoid situations where there won’t be any alcohol available because they need it to get through the day.
4. Missed Commitments and Obligations
Casual drinkers can perform all the functions of daily life. They get to work on time, do their jobs, and are present when the people they care about need them. They are able to control and limit their drinking and not allow it to interfere with their responsibilities.
An alcoholic may show up late to work or call in sick a lot. They may also take unnecessarily long lunches because it’s an opportunity to drink before coming back to the office. In addition to missing work, they may also skip out on social and family obligations. As their need for alcohol increases, their ability to focus on other things decreases.
5. Mood Swings
We all have days when we feel good and days when we struggle. That’s part of being human. Mood swings by themselves are not a sign of alcoholism, but frequent mood swings and irritability combined with drinking may be a sign that there’s a problem.
Being an alcoholic puts a tremendous amount of stress on a person’s body and brain. Many alcoholics live in constant fear that their problem will be discovered. They worry that people are judging them, and they often judge themselves quite harshly, too.
Their anger may flare up whenever someone attempts to confront them about drinking or says that they’re concerned. In these situations, the anger is born of defensiveness and fear, but it can be frightening to witness.
6. Physiological and Behavioral Changes
When a person drinks casually, the alcohol they consume doesn’t take precedence over self-care. The opposite is true for a person who has an alcohol addiction.
It’s common for alcoholics to stop caring about their physical appearance and surroundings. They may not shower as frequently as they used to, wear makeup, or get dressed. They may also neglect their homes, not doing dishes or laundry and letting trash accumulate.
There are many levels of cleanliness and a tendency toward messiness may not be a sign of alcoholism. But if your previously meticulous loved one is suddenly sloppy and doesn’t seem to care about it, it may be a sign that their drinking has crossed over into alcoholism.
7. Blacking Out
Most casual drinkers have, on occasion, had too much to drink. Sometimes our resistance is down and sometimes we got caught up in the moment and lose track of what we’ve consumed. Overindulging occasionally doesn’t make someone an alcoholic.
However, a person who has regular blackouts and persistent memory loss due to drinking probably does have a problem. Because alcoholics have a higher tolerance for alcohol than casual drinkers, they may think they can handle the amount of alcohol they’re drinking. Blacking out is not normal and is a serious warning sign of alcoholism.
8. Risk Taking
Alcohol consumption lowers our inhibitions. A person who might normally need a lot of cajoling to get up on the dance floor, for example, might go more readily after a couple of beers. That’s normal and not something to be concerned about.
However, heavy drinking and alcoholism can often lead to risk-taking behavior. For example, a person who has a problem with alcohol might drink while taking medication despite having been warned not to mix their meds with alcohol. They might get behind the wheel of a car and drive even though they know they’ve been drinking, thus endangering themselves and other people.
9. Making Excuses for Drinking
Most of us have said, “I need a drink” at one time or another. We say it after a hard day at work or when we feel a lot of anxiety. That’s normal and not a warning sign of alcoholism.
An alcoholic might make excuses about drinking as a way of masking their problem. For example, they might say that it’s a special occasion or that they’re stressed out. They may even claim that they’ve earned the right to drink because of their stress or for some other reason.
Is Your Loved One an Alcoholic?
Looking at the above signs, there is a considerable difference between casual drinking and alcoholism. Determining whether a person is an alcoholic can be difficult. But, as a rule, if your loved one exhibits three or more of these signs, there’s a good chance they have a problem with alcohol.
At Alpine Recovery Lodge, we have the resources to help alcoholics learn about their disease and begin a journey of recovery.