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What is an Alcoholic? Am I an Alcoholic?

Reviewer Dr. Juan Harris MBA, MS, MCAP, CMHP, SAP, CIP, ICADC
Editor Dan Schimmel, LCSW, CAP
Created On
Updated On

If you want a dictionary definition, an alcoholic is a person who suffers from the disease of alcoholism. His or her brain has become dependent on alcohol to function, and without a drink, withdrawal symptoms occur. However, there is much more to the story. Alcoholism is a disease, and as with most diseases, there are levels of severity.

So how can you tell if you’ve crossed the line from drinker to alcoholic? What do you do if you think you are an alcoholic? How do you stop? Who can help? We want to answer all of these questions for you. First, it’s important to realize why alcoholism is such a dangerous disease.

are you an alcoholic

Why is Alcohol a Problem?

People who are affected with alcoholism are unable to control their obsession, including both how much they drink and when they drink. Subsequently, this can lead to health problems and/or issues at home or at work. Plenty of lifelong alcoholics find themselves alone and in poor health.

Many people don’t believe that alcoholism is a disease. Instead, they believe drinking to be a choice. Well, non-alcoholics can stop drinking whenever they want. Unfortunately for an alcoholic, this is not typically the case.

Not only can alcoholism lead to serious health concerns, but it can also cause issues with personal and business relationships. Furthermore, many alcoholics face extreme financial burdens as they spend too much money on alcohol, while also neglecting their career responsibilities.

If you have ever found your drinking to interfere with your career or your life at home, then chances are you’re either an alcoholic or on your way. Those who drink responsibly tend to use alcohol as a treat, something to be consumed once the day’s work is done, or at special social occasions. Those who are alcoholics tend to use alcohol for really no reason at all.

The line between ‘problem drinker’ and ‘alcoholic’ may be a little blurry, so to speak. However, the symptoms of alcoholism are clear as a bell. If you find yourself nodding in agreement as you read the following, you may want to question your drinking habits.

The Symptoms of Alcoholism

Most of the warning signs and symptoms of alcoholism are not difficult to pinpoint. However, there are some that are obvious. Often, an alcoholic will not admit that there is a problem. This could be due to denial, or a true belief no problem exists. Generally speaking, the last person to realize that there is a problem is the alcoholic. He or she will likely deny the existence of a problem until irreparable damage is done. This is why the symptoms of alcoholism are important to recognize.

Here are some of the more common symptoms associated with the disease:

  • Drinking alone and/or attempting to hide it from others
  • Not being able to place a limit on consumption
  • Missing family-based and/or business-related events
  • Feeling irritable when unable to have a drink
  • Relationship trouble stemming from alcohol use
  • Run-ins with the law, such as driving under the influence or public intoxication
  • Sweating and nausea, even when not drinking

What Causes Alcoholism?

Becoming an alcoholic is not something that happens overnight. There is no exact moment when you ‘contract’ alcoholism. Instead, it can take many years for even heavy drinking to grow into a disease. That being said, alcoholism can also begin to set in within weeks, especially if binge drinking.

Over time, the regular consumption of alcohol will alter brain chemicals, making the drinker crave alcohol not for a good time, but to avoid feeling poorly. Brain function becomes more and more impaired as your blood alcohol content increases. Each time you drink alcohol, several chemicals in the brain become imbalanced. Over time, the brain becomes used to this imbalance, and considers it the new balance, so to speak. This is a disease of the brain called alcoholism.

This ‘new balance’ is extremely unhealthy. A chemical imbalance in the brain can cause a multitude of issues, too many to list here. For more detailed information on how alcohol affects the brain, and the rest of the body, read our article on the topic.

So changes in the brain caused by alcohol actually cause alcoholism. However, alcohol itself also causes issues with the body. Short-term effects include drunkenness, difficulty walking, slurred speech, slowed reaction time, trouble with balance, poor judgment, unpredictable behavior, and temporarily memory loss… basically all the things associated with being drunk. Long-term effects are much nastier, and can include Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, delirium tremens, liver failure, up to ten types of cancer, and ultimately death.

Other Risk Factors

While everyone is at risk for becoming an alcoholic when drinking steadily, there are certain factors that place some at higher risk than others. Consider the following to be the ‘nature’ side of nature VS nurture. These are some other risk factors for alcoholism:

Your Genetic Makeup

This is the big one. Many scientific arguments for hereditary alcoholism have been made. In fact, we have an extensive article on the topic, worth the read. While less than 20% of alcohol users actually become alcoholics, there are over 930 genes associated with alcohol use, and there is absolutely a genetic factor in risk for alcoholism. Perhaps the one-fifth of drinkers that do develop a disorder is genetically predisposed somehow. More research must be done to say for sure.

How old you are when you begin drinking

Are you ready for some alarming information? A study published by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) in 2006 included the analysis of 43,000 people. The researchers determined that waiting until age 21 to drink places the average person at a 9% chance of developing alcoholism. However, start drinking at age 14 or sooner, (which plenty of kids do), and that shoots up to a 47% chance. “In general, each additional year earlier than 21 that a respondent began to drink, the greater the odds that he or she would develop alcohol dependence at some point in life,” says the study.

Your access to alcohol

This is sort of an obvious one, but helpful to recognize. The easier it is to acquire alcohol, the more likely you are to consume it. The same goes for anything desirable. Accessibility plays a very important role in underage drinking, though. If it’s kept out of the hands of minors, then they can’t drink it! This idea is applicable at all ages. Keep yourself out of situations that involve alcohol and you won’t become an alcoholic.

Peer pressure

Up to 30% of children are offered drugs before graduating high school, and for alcohol, it’s three out of every four kids who are offered. Peer pressure is a beast. Fitting-in is extremely important in high school, and unfortunately drinking alcohol is a common marker of ‘being cool.’ Peer pressure does not end after 12th grade, though. Oftentimes adults are pressured into drinking at social events when they don’t want to. Over time, this can be habit-forming.

Your stress level

Many people use alcohol as a de-stressor. While some beer may be a temporarily relief from the stress of the day, ultimately alcohol is stressing you out even more. Research shows that long-term drinking can increase perceived stress in the brain. For example, a stressful situation would be handled worse by an alcoholic than by a non-alcoholic. Many other factors play into how we handle such situations, but without a doubt drinking alcohol will not help.

Your depression level

Alcohol is a depressant – probably not a good substance for someone already experiencing depression in life. Worse yet, depression and alcohol share a two-way street. Because depression causes feelings of sadness, loneliness and disinterest, many depressed people self-medicate with alcohol. Also, the NIAAA in a 2002 study published proof that 30% to 50% of alcohol abusers also have clinical depression.

Levels of Alcoholism

Now that you better understand what alcoholism is and what causes it, let’s take a brief look at what the NIAAA considers the five types of alcoholic.

  1. Young Adult Subtype

This group makes up approximately 32% of all alcoholics in the United States. These people are young adults who do not see the need to seek professional assistance for their problem. Even though those in this group tend to drink less than others, binge drinking is a problem.

  1. Young Antisocial Subtype

Making up 21% of American alcoholics, people in this group are an average of 26 years old. More than half of these people also have an antisocial personality disorder. One of the differentiating factors of this subtype is the average starting drinking age of 15.

  1. Functional Subtype

This group accounts for 19% of alcoholics in the US. For the most part, these people are middle age adults with an education, job, and stable relationships. They consume alcohol every other day, most of the time reaching five or more drinks.

  1. Intermediate Familial Subtype

Also accounting for 19% of alcoholics in the United States, this subtype typically starts drinking by age 17 and many have others in their family who went down the same path.

  1. Chronic Severe Subtype

This is the rarest group, accounting for 9% of American alcoholics, and the most severe. Most people in this subtype are usually men, and are associated with a high rate of divorce, financial problems, clinical depression, and the use of other drugs. These are people whose lives have been all but completely taken over by booze. Alcoholism truly is a sad disease.

Your stereotypical alcoholic is a middle-aged white male with a life similar to those in the chronic severe subtype. It is very important to note that alcoholism comes in all ages, shapes, sizes, colors, and genders.

Here’s the good news. Regardless of the subtype, a person with an alcohol dependency can seek professional treatment to overcome their problem.

How to Stop Drinking

Do you believe that you are an alcoholic? Perhaps you know somebody who is suffering from alcoholism? As bad as things may appear, there are solutions to this problem. Many believe that once you are an alcoholic, you are always an alcoholic. That is not true. Alcoholism is a disease that can be cured. The temptation is the lifelong part.

Anyway, help does exist!

Doing nothing is the absolute worst thing you can do. Nearly 90,000 people die every year from causes related to what’s in the bottle. If you think you need to stop drinking, you need to have a serious conversation with your doctor, your therapist, or a professional at a treatment facility.

Start there. Afterward, check into a facility regardless. If you are on the fence about doing so, then outpatient is for you. If you know you have a problem that needs curing, check into an inpatient facility. Both are facilities that focus on helping people who are currently abusing alcohol and/or drugs. Also, more intensive options exist, such as partial hospitalization.

The majority of people who are suffering from alcoholism are unable to stop “cold turkey.” Plus, this is extremely dangerous, and can even be fatal. Alcohol withdrawal can lead to deadly seizures, among many other unpleasant symptoms. It always takes medical treatment to overcome a drug addiction, which alcoholism very much is.

If you or a loved one is suffering from the negative effects of alcoholism, please seek help immediately.


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