This isn’t an uncommon question. Alcoholism, or alcohol dependence, is different from alcohol abuse. Often, they look the same from the outside but are in reality very different struggles.
Alcohol abuse is when a person uses alcohol to the point that it causes problems but does not lead to physical dependence. Symptoms of alcohol abuse can include:
- Heavy drinking (more than one drink per day for women and two per day for men).
- Binge drinking (having episodes of heavy drinking with the intent to get drunk and usually resulting in negative consequences).
- Intentional, repeated use of alcohol in response to or in anticipation of stress.
Alcoholism is an issue of alcohol dependence. This is when a person drinks in order to function, and will continue to drink despite the consequences. Alcohol dependence is physically and psychologically intertwined and requires treatment and intervention. An alcoholic is chemically dependent on drinking and more often than not, cannot stop without help.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists alcoholism or alcohol dependence as a chronic disease that includes the following symptoms:
- A strong craving for alcohol.
- Continued use despite repeated physical, psychological or interpersonal problems and
- The inability to quit drinking once started.
- A physical reliance on alcohol for normal daily function.
- The experience of severe withdrawal symptoms if drinking is stopped for any period of time.
According to the US National Library of Medicine, one out of every six people in the United States has a “drinking problem”. A drinking problem is defined as “any harmful use of alcohol”. When drinking has an impact on finances, relationships, health, work, or any other area of life, it has become a problem. But when the body is physically dependent on alcohol, when a person cannot stop drinking despite these negative consequences, they are at the point of alcoholism.
How can you know if your alcohol use is becoming a potentially dangerous problem?
Ask yourself these questions:
- Has my drinking negatively impacted important areas of my life (money, health, relationships)?
- Do I feel like I “need” a drink before or after certain occasions?
- Can I stop at just one or two drinks?
- Have I had periods of blackout (unable to remember long periods of time while using alcohol)?
- Do I have a family history of alcoholism or alcohol abuse?
- Do I tend to get violent, emotional, or defensive about my drinking if confronted?
- Do I plan for and protect my drinking habits?
If you answered “yes” to any of these, you may have alcoholism or be at risk for becoming an alcoholic.
Alcohol abuse and dependence are both issues that should be faced with the help of professionals. Organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon and Alateen can help to support a person who has questions about their drinking problem or the drinking problem of a loved one. More information about these organizations and a list of resources and meeting times can be found at www.aa.org.
Alcohol abuse and addiction impact not only the person with the drinking problem but also those around them. Because of the complex nature of the consequences of heavy drinking, often a person in recovery is best supported when their loved ones are also involved in their treatment. Education and peer support are critical to the success of a treatment plan.
The good news is, treatment is readily available and with the right level of commitment, can be very successful. Finding the right treatment center or program for you is important. Some people require a lower level of therapy than others, depending on the severity of the drinking problem. Acknowledging that there is a problem is the first step to solving it.
If you are reading this article, you may have concerns about your drinking that have led you to question the impact it is having on your life. It is advisable that you seek a professional to help determine a proper diagnosis and continue to seek answers and treatment if necessary.