Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Alcoholism Q & A, Or Maybe Just Q

***Submitted by Ellie, and originally posted at One Crafty Mother

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.   And recovery?   Recovery is many, many things to me.   Even on the toughest days, though, one of the biggest gifts of recovery is the freedom from that obsession.

Please remember these thoughts are based on my experience, and my experience alone.    I don't mean to imply that I have any answers to a complicated issue like addiction.   Please share your thoughts on this, too.  


  1. Your insight and clarity are amazing to behold. Thank you for this post. I'm ljhsviking from the bfb. See you 'round!

  2. Does the obsession with alcohol become an obsession with sobriety? We all seem to have obsessive personalities, so I guess what I'm asking is, does that go away in sobriety?

  3. Anonymous 2:17pm -

    I can only answer from my own experience, but I have never had an obsession with sobriety like I had with drinking. When I was drinking, thoughts about when I was going to drink, what I was going to drink, how I was going to try to control it, etc. dominated everything else. In sobriety, I have to work, sometimes, to put my recovery first, but with time it is something that blends seamlessly with my life.

    In the early days, I thought about recovery a lot, in the sense that I would think: I hope I make it through the next minute/hour/day, etc. But each and every day under my belt made the next day slightly better, until I got to the point where sober was my new normal. I stay connected, go to meetings, and have a network of people who don't let me drift very far, so I have people helping me help myself.

    In other words, sobriety never, ever holds me captive the way that alcohol did. Never.


  4. Ellie, I think this is so well said because it captures the essence of addiction while removing it from all of the questions about how much, how often, what bad things you do (or don't do) drunk, etc. that I think we have all focused on or desperately clung to in the past. It's like it says in the Big Book - we experience the phenomenon of craving.

    To Anon 2:17, sobriety does not feel like an obsession to me at all. I might think of it every day, or every few days, but after the first few weeks, it really just dropped away, and I feel as if I am living my authentic life. I DID replace booze with sugar in the first couple of weeks, and sugar was kind of a crutch, but that has mostly gone away as well. I do go to AA once a week, so of course I am thinking of it then, but I see AA as analogous to working out, and I am not obsessive about working out (even though I am diligent about it).

  5. Hi Ellie,

    Excellent post. Not that I am still wondering if I have a problem with alcohol, but I think it is important to be reminded of the danger signs. I got a 6 out of 6 on the "quiz", so I know right where I stand.

    I agree that obsessively thinking about alcohol was the worst part about drinking and that leaving that behind has been the best part about sobriety.


  6. Hi - I really appreciate your post and agree that the amt of time I spent thinking about alcohol got out of hand towards the end of my drinking and THAT was the key to identifying myself as an alcoholic. The volume I drank was never a lot, it was how much I thought about that (small-ish) volume. Drinking less or having a high bottom story makes it hard at AA mtgs in the beginning because I never could identify with the low bottom stories. If anything they made me feel I didn't belong in AA. I never lost anything but my sense of self, I kept a great marriage going and full time job, two kids, the works. On the outside everything looked great so it was hard to admit I was thinking about that drinking all the time as a release from all the pressure. My husband and I used to share a bottle of wine a few times a week but when my two kids became teenagers life got so stressful that after work I'd just uncork a bottle every night. I never had a full bottle of wine on my own, and some AA people have two a night, so that made me think "Am I really one of them?" but you know, as Ellie so well articulated, I knew inside that I was thinking about alcohol way too much, it consumed me at times just imagining the relief of a cool salty margarita before helping the kids with their homework. As my life with two teenagers became more stressful, so did my interest in numbing myself out, and alcohol in the end became my adversary. But only I could know that, even my friends and children were surprised when I got sober. Who knew? I knew. My mother had a hard time accepting it, but finally she understands. It took me 4 years to arrive at this point of commitment and I find myself so much happier now, so willing and interested in living in the present. I don't obsess about sobriety, but i do think a lot about living in the present and being of service to others. Anna in LA

  7. I understand what someone said about being obsessed with alcohol/drinking and sobriety. For ME, that is a big part of my problems with alcohol. I'm not happy with it and I'm not happy without it. When I am drinking, I'm struggling because I know I shouldn't be. When I'm not drinking, I'm obsessing over it because it's a challenge for me to NOT drink. This is certainly not a normal relationship with alcohol.