It’s usually not difficult to spot someone who has had too much to drink. He or she is the person at the party whose speech is slurred, whose gait is so unsteady the person needs help to find the way to the bathroom, and/or whose keys are taken away by friends because the person is noticeably unsafe to drive. It’s also the person who says or does things that he or she will regret the next day – if the person can even remember what happened. Sometimes, one glance at an intoxicated individual is enough to confirm that he or she will be nursing one heck of a hangover the next day. And, for many of us, it’s easy to relate to this person, and to think back to the last time when we ourselves tied on one too many. While our reaction to witnessing a drinking binge might range from amusement to disgust to concerns about safety, most of us don’t have any problem clearly recognizing occasional alcohol abuse.
The important question, however, is not how to spot alcohol abuse, but how to recognize when alcohol abuse has become a serious problem.
What constitutes an alcohol problem? Perhaps the simplest answer is that the person frequently drinks more than most, and whose alcohol abuse is wreaking havoc in the person’s life by causing problems with his or her family, friends, employer and/or law enforcement. The person’s alcohol abuse may also be contributing to anxiety, depression, domestic violence, health and legal problems. And, because denial is a hallmark symptom of problem drinking, the person may minimize or deny the seriousness of the consequences of his or her alcohol abuse. Typically, the problem drinker will lie about how much he or she is drinking, blame others for “causing” him or her to drink too much, and complain that worried family and friends are “overreacting.” The alcohol abuser may also argue that legal drinking limits are too low as an excuse for receiving a DUI/DWI. Finally, the person’s alcohol abuse may periodically or steadily increase over time so that he or she is drinking much more, much more often. He or she may be hiding alcohol “stashes” to sneak drinks, having “eye opener” drinks in the morning to start the day, or seem unable to go a single day without using alcohol. The person’s social life is likely tied to people, places and things that are connected to drinking, so that he or she shows an unwillingness to participate in activities in which alcohol is not on the menu. The problem drinker may have also talked about cutting back or quitting drinking multiple times without success. And, while most alcoholics can stop drinking for brief periods of time, they eventually will go back to abusing alcohol. If left untreated, most problem drinkers will find that their problem gets worse over time, and that simple “willpower” is not enough to sustain long-term recovery.