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.
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.