Because drinking alcohol is considered a socially acceptable activity, it can be very difficult to determine when you or your loved one has crossed the line from being a social drinker to developing a problem with alcohol dependence or addiction. There are no hard and fast rules: Alcoholism can be a problem even if an individual is drinking only on the weekends, but many people who drink on the weekends are social drinkers. Whether the question is about yourself or someone else, here are some things to consider as you try to determine whether your (or their) socially acceptable drinking has crossed a line.
Frequency of Drinking
There are alcoholics who drink only on Friday nights, and there are social drinkers who drink on a daily basis. How can you tell the difference?
Those with an alcohol addiction won’t be able to stop at just one or two beers while watching a game or while out to dinner with their friends. Instead, they might drink past the point of light inebriation. They might drink six or ten drinks in one night (which is called binge drinking) and do it regularly enough that it’s a habit, not something that happened once or twice.
Social drinkers, on the other hand, seem to have a built-in boundary that they usually won’t pass. For example, you might have one or two glasses of wine with dinner every night but you never (or rarely) drink more than that. This would indicate that you are more likely a social drinker.
How You Feel When Alcohol Is Unexpectedly Not Available
For most social drinkers, showing up at a wedding or a barbecue and finding out that it is a non-alcoholic event might cause surprise or even mild annoyance, but overall, it isn’t a problem. They will still have fun at the event and will simply change their plan to drink into a plan not to drink.
For someone who has crossed the line into alcohol dependence or addiction, however, this realization might come as a shock. They might feel angry or very disappointed. They might even decide to leave the event because they aren’t having any fun without alcohol. Rather than simply changing their plan or expectation, they will often want to continue with their plan to drink and will go to a bar or some other location to get the alcohol that they are craving.
While a social drinker might say or do something a bit out of character after having a couple of drinks, they do not generally engage in behaviors that will endanger their relationships or their lives. They might find, for example, that they are able to converse more easily or that they are more likely to dance with a stranger than they would after they have a drink or two.
Those with an alcohol addiction might find themselves taking actual risks that could endanger themselves, someone else, or their relationships. For example, they might drive while under the influence or cheat on their spouse.
Inability to Control Drinking Once You Start
A social drinker would be able to have a drink or two while out with friends or home and would then be able to stop. If they had planned ahead of time not to drink, they would not have a hard time sticking to that plan.
An alcoholic, on the other hand, might plan to have just one or two drinks but then find themselves unable to stop drinking. Or they might plan not to drink but when confronted with alcohol, decide on a whim to have a couple, which then could turn into many more.
Concerns of Friends and Family
When someone’s friends or family members are concerned about the individual’s drinking habits, this is a clear sign that there is likely a problem in most cases. An exception would be if the family completely avoids alcohol and they find a drink or two at a time a few days per week to be problematic drinking. In that case, it might be safe to disregard their concerns.
For the most part, however, if other social drinkers find your drinking to be excessive, then it is worth examining why that is. Most of the time, you might find that the drinking really is excessive and outside of the limits that most people your age and in your circumstances place on themselves when it comes to drinking.
Concerns of Your Doctor
If your physician says that you might have a drinking problem, it is time to listen up. Excessive drinking can cause problems with the heart and the liver; if tests indicate that you are negatively affecting your own health by drinking, then it is in your best interest to stop. If you cannot stop, that is an indication that you are struggling with a dependency or addiction to alcohol.
Conducting a Simple Test
One way that you might consider looking into whether or not you have a problem with alcohol is to promise yourself that you won’t drink for a month. If this sounds unachievable or ludicrous from the get-go, then it is likely that you have crossed the line from socially acceptable drinking into alcoholism. If you think it would be a reasonable test but you find that you cannot abstain, this is another indication that you are past the point of social drinking.
Getting Help for Alcoholism
Once you have determined that you are dealing with a drinking problem, it is time to seek help. You can be screened for alcoholism by your primary care physician, who can refer you to an addiction specialist. You could also try attending a 12-step meeting to see if it works for you; these are conducted for free at many churches, community centers, counseling centers, and hospitals. Help is also available in the form of more robust recovery programs, and the people who run recovery programs will work with your insurance company to get you the support that you need to stop drinking.