When I used to work for Women’s Aid and would tell people what I did for a living, it would often open the door to all kinds of unexpected disclosures. Near strangers would suddenly feel free to share their own experiences of domestic abuse, perhaps relating to themselves, or possibly a friend or family member. I was a safe bet, I guess. Someone who would understand; who wouldn’t judge.
Now that I am starting to become more open about being an alcoholic in recovery, I experience something similar. This is an illness that touches a great many people after all, and not just the sufferer either. Our friends and families are made to suffer right along with us. The ripple effect is huge.
By far the most common disclosures though, come from those who secretly worry that they may have a problem themselves. They feel they are drinking too much, too often. Is it possible that they could be an alcoholic?
Now I am not in the business of labelling others – it is down to the individual to decide whether or not they have a problem with alcohol – but the good news here is that self diagnosis is actually pretty easy. What it boils down to is a simple, honest yes or no answer to these two questions:
1. Are you able to consistently predict, once you take the first drink, how much you will go on to drink and when you will stop?
So. You go to the pub with friends with the strict intention only to have three drinks at the most. You have an early start in the morning and cannot afford a hangover. Can you stick to that? Always? Or do you ever find that once you start drinking, a desire for more alcohol takes over and you drink far more than you ever intended?
Notice the word consistently. Most alcoholics I know (me included) have, on the odd occasion, been able to stop at one or two drinks. But we cannot do this consistently, nor are we able to predict when we will or won’t lose control.
This reaction to alcohol does not occur in normal drinkers. A normal drinker might fancy a glass of wine. They might even fancy a whole bottle occasionally. But once they have drunk that glass, or that bottle, their desire for wine is satisfied. Alcoholics, by their very definition, have an abnormal reaction to alcohol – an allergy if you like. When we put alcohol into our systems it triggers a craving for more. Whether this happens always/sometimes/only 25% of the time – doesn’t matter. The point is that when we take an alcoholic drink we have no ability to determine how many more we might take and what might happen as a result.
2. Once having made a serious decision to moderate or quit, are you able to stick to it?
Here we can illustrate the difference between the heavy and/or problem drinker and the alcoholic. Given sufficient reason, the heavy or problem drinker can make a decision to moderate or stop drinking – for good – and do it.
I’ll give you an example: Two people are stopped for drink driving and have their licences confiscated by the court. In the aftermath of shock and horror at what has happened, both make an equally genuine commitment to stopping drinking once and for all. One does just that. The other drinks again. Perhaps he drinks the next day, perhaps not for six months, but ultimately he is unable to follow through on his decision to stop drinking for good. The former may be a heavy or problem drinker. The latter is the alcoholic.
So alcoholics have an abnormal reaction – or an allergy – to alcohol which dictates that once they start drinking, they develop an uncontrollable craving for more alcohol. But clearly that is only one side of the coin. Because most people with an allergy quickly learn to avoid whatever it is they’re allergic to. If every time you eat prawns you have an encephalitic fit, for example, you’re going to be cutting prawns out of your diet pretty damn quickly, no matter how much you may once have enjoyed them.
So the flip side of alcoholism is that coupled with the physical allergy, we also have a mental obsession that will drive us to drink again, no matter how dreadful the consequences of our drinking may have become.
Perhaps the drink driving example seems a little extreme and is difficult to relate to. Ok. But have a think back. Have there been times when you have woken up the morning after, deathly ill with a hangover and mortified at something you may have said or done the night before? Perhaps you can’t remember what you did but you know it was something awful. Did you ever say to yourself, ‘That’s it, never again,’ only to find yourself soon drunk once more and baffled as to how your willpower could have failed you so easily? That sense of bafflement is something all alcoholics can relate to.
It isn’t about how much or how often.
There is so much misunderstanding, ignorance, and confusion surrounding the disease of alcoholism. And in fact, thinking of it as a disease is useful as it helps us to understand that, like other diseases, it progresses through different stages. Nobody ever just woke up one morning with shaking hands, suddenly needing a drink to face the day!
So if we think of alcoholism as having early, crucial, and chronic stages, with only the late, chronic stage being characterised by such things as 24/7 daily drinking, extreme withdrawal symptoms such as seizures, and a complete inability to function as a useful member of society – in other words all the symptoms generally associated with alcoholism by the general public (and plenty of medical proffessionals too) – we can see there is a problem.
The problem lies in the fact that those in the late chronic stages of alcoholism represent only a very small minority of the alcoholic population. The vast majority of us are somewhere in the crucial phase – unable to always control how much we drink when we start, unable to moderate or quit when we decide to – but still able to function to some degree. We may still have our jobs and families, we might not drink every day, we may not yet be suffering from any health problems, we might not even drink as much as some other people we know! And because we do not conform to these accepted societal ideas of what an alcoholic looks (and drinks) like, we are therefore unlikely to accept that we have a problem and to seek help.
But alcoholism is progressive. It only ever gets worse over time. The progression can be fast and it can sometimes be slow, but every alcoholic who continues to drink ends up at the same place eventually.
This is why it is so essential to raise better awareness around what alcoholism actually is. Because this disease, if the sufferer is willing, can be arrested at any stage, which means that they and their families might be spared some of the hell they may otherwise have gone through.
A real alcoholic cannot recover on their own willpower and they cannot recover alone. But they can recover. There is a way out.
So. Go back to the beginning. Answer those two questions honestly. If the answer to both is no, here are some links you may find helpful.