What Alcoholism Looks Like
When people hear the word “alcoholism” or “alcoholic” there’s usually a specific image that pops into their brains. What this person looks like. How this person behaves.
Usually this picture is of a person who is in obvious distress. They might be homeless, or dirty, or visibly wasted during the day. You see this person coming and know you want to steer clear.
For the vast majority of people suffering from alcoholism, nothing could be further from the truth.
We’re your neighbor, your work bestie, or your own daughter.
Me As An Alcoholic
Here’s a selfie of myself I took in December of 2015, one year before I quit drinking for good.
I was sitting outside a cafe beside the Colosseum in Rome while my mother, her partner, and my husband went to do a tour.
We’d just been through an incredibly busy tour of the Vatican and I was crowd weary. So I declined to join them.
But mostly, I wanted to drink. So I sat outside this cafe ordering rounds of wine and chain-smoking, by myself.
I would binge drink and chain smoke my way around the entire city, side-stepping any number of activities in favor of finding another spot to sit down and drink.
So I took a selfie to memorialize what a great time I was having getting shit faced around one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
In this next picture, I’m forcing a smile on a desert safari. I took a good friend of mine who traveled from the States to visit me on this tour despite secretly wishing I could get out of it.
I was happy because this particular safari had alcohol, a rarity. So I drank and smoked shisha and cigarettes. And when I got home, I drank some more.
There were a dozen different places I could’ve taken my friend on this trip, but we didn’t do the majority of them.
I just wanted to sit on my balcony, chain smoke and drink with her, just like the good ole days back in Brooklyn.
Her needs came second to my need to drink. Everyone’s did.
The girl in this picture had all but eliminated everything from her life besides work and coming home to drink and smoke cigarettes with her husband.
I hadn’t had a hair cut in over a year and I never committed to going any place that started after 8 PM because I knew I’d be too drunk to make it. At this point in my life, I had few social invitations to turn down anyways.
What is Alcoholism?
Alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder, is an an inability to manage one’s drinking. The severity of alcoholism ranges from mild to moderate to severe.
We often think about alcoholism in its most severe terms and that leads a lot of people to deny their problem or delay getting help. It was certainly the case for me.
I had an idea in my mind about what an alcoholic was and what rock bottom looked like. Since I didn’t fit that image, it gave the little addict voice in my head room for negotiation.
We need to understand what alcoholism is more clearly so that more people are able to get help before their life spirals completely out of control.
The truth is all kinds of people suffer from various degrees of alcoholism. They could be your coworker, your favorite celebrity, or the local librarian. And we often can’t tell just by looking at someone.
What does it mean to to be addicted to alcohol?
Because words like “alcoholic” and “addiction” carry such a heavy weight and stigma, a lot of people rationalize their behavior and decline getting help until they’ve gone from mild or moderate alcoholism to more severe forms.
Let’s be clear. If there is any aspect of your drinking that feels out of control or shameful, you need to start addressing the problem now.
Here’s a good definition of alcohol addiction from alcohol.org:
People who can no longer control their use of alcohol, compulsively abuse it despite negative ramifications, and/or experience emotional distress when they are not drinking may be suffering from an alcohol use disorder (AUD).1 AUD is a chronic, relapsing disease that is diagnosed based on an individual meeting certain criteria outlined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
If you’re reading this and cherry picking the parts that don’t sound like you to say, “Okay, I’m fine,” I want to challenge you to unpack what you just read a little further.
What does it mean to no longer control use of alcohol?
Again, the easy trap to fall into is the idea that if you’re not waking up and grabbing a bottle of vodka with shaky hands in the morning, you’re good.
Well, you’re certainly BETTER off than the person doing that but it doesn’t mean you have full control either.
If you frequently tell yourself, “Oh I’m just going to have one drink and then go home,” but end up having 5 or 6 and completely blow off what you originally intended to do with your evening, you’re not controlling your use of alcohol.
I remember on Valentine’s Day several years back registering to attend this free love fest talk featuring a bunch of authors and “self-help” personalities I was into at the time. I asked my friend, Qianna, to go with me.
Let’s meet for drinks before!
After two drinks, I managed to talk her into ditching the event and getting drunk with me. I did shit like this constantly.
A lot of plans were canceled because I was getting into my drinking groove and wanted to stay put.
That signals a lack of control, my friends.
What does it mean to abuse alcohol?
This is another one that gets downplayed. Abuse sounds so intense and horrifying, but it’s actually much more common than you think.
According to Healthline, abusing alcohol means you drink too much on occasion and that drinking leads to risky behavior and poor judgment.
Hello almost every weekend in my twenties!
Every wild night you’ve had where you lost count of how much you’ve drank, ended up going home with someone you would not normally hook up with, or said a bunch of regrettable things is an example of abusing alcohol.
Because that behavior is so common in certain circles, it becomes easy to brush off. Just because everyone you know is abusing alcohol, doesn’t make it less true that you, too, abuse alcohol.
Abusing alcohol does not automatically mean you suffer from alcoholism. It does mean, you’re on the path.
What Defines Alcoholism?
Clinically, you fall on the spectrum of alcohol use disorder (AUD) if you meet any TWO of the following criteria within a 12-month period:
- Using alcohol in higher amounts or for a longer time than originally intended.
- Being unable to cut down on alcohol use despite a desire to do so.
- Spending a lot of time obtaining, using, and recovering from the effects of alcohol.
- Cravings, or a strong desire to use alcohol.
- Being unable to fulfill major obligations at home, work, or school because of alcohol use.
- Continuing to abuse alcohol despite negative interpersonal or social problems that are likely due to alcohol use.
- Giving up previously enjoyed social, occupational, or recreational activities because of alcohol use.
- Using alcohol in physically dangerous situations (such as driving or operating machinery).
- Continuing to abuse alcohol despite the presence of a psychological or physical problem that is probably due to alcohol use.
- Having a tolerance (i.e. needing to drink increasingly large or more frequent amounts of alcohol to achieve desired effect).
- Developing symptoms of withdrawal when efforts are made to stop using alcohol.
Towards the end of my drinking, I could tick “yes” to every single one of these bullet points. I waited FAR too long to quit and get help.
If you’re able to tick two, now would be a perfect time to take an extended break from drinking. If you can’t, all the more reason to get help.
Memoirs on Alcoholism
If you find yourself reading this and doing a lot of nodding, but aren’t quite convinced you need to do anything about it, I HIGHLY recommend checking out sobriety memoirs.
Things really started to turn around for me when I read memoirs of successful, brilliant people with alcoholism. For the first time ever, I felt like another person was walking around in my head. It gave me a weird sense of validation.
There was a war raging in my brain. Am I an alcoholic? Am I not?
Reading the stories of other alcoholics and saying, “yes, me too” to almost everything gave me the final push I needed. It helped me accept that I had a major problem.
Top Recovery Memoirs About Alcohol Addiction You Should Read
I’ve written about recovery memoirs in other posts, which I will link to if you want to get more details about some of these books. For this section, I’ll provide a snippet of the summary.
I had never read the thoughts of someone who seemed to know exactly what I’d been going through.
Until I read this book, I felt a combination of broken (or at the very least, defective) and hopeless. This memoir chipped away at both feelings.
For my fellow high-functioning-alcoholics out there, if you keep bouncing back and forth between whether or not you REALLY have a problem, read this book.
David Carr was a beloved journalist for The New York Times who passed away from lung cancer in 2015 after he collapsed on the floor of the newsroom.
What’s so fascinating about this book is that he approached it from the standpoint of a journalist.
Because alcoholics and drug users have notoriously terrible memories, he went back and interviewed the people in his life who had been there to try to piece together what really happened.
The insights you pick up along the way are so powerful.
Carr understands addiction. He made me think about what I was doing in ways nobody else had done before.
I was enthralled by this book. Maybe it’s because I am a huge literary nerd. Something about her writing spoke to me.
I especially connected to the way she drank and her constant tug-of-war over being an alcoholic. I fought a similar battle with my own alcoholism.
She takes the reader on a very humbling journey through her recovery and experience with AA where she (rightfully so) gets knocked off her high horse and into a reality that I believe saves her from herself.
In between her personal narrative is a ton of research and eye-opening facts about alcoholism and many of the writers who suffered from it.
This book is beautiful, informative, and inspiring.
This gem of a book by Clare Pooley is a nice departure from the intensely introspective books I just mentioned. And that’s not to say that it isn’t introspective (of course it is!) but it’s also funny and more lighthearted.
I cracked up laughing as many times as I nodded my head in knowing, alcoholic agreement. The basic premise of this book is that she is letting us peek into her diary during her first year of sobriety.
Pooley went from a high-power advertising executive to a stay-at-home mum with an enormous wine belly and a whole host of regrets she attempted to drink away.
Her story has so many highs and lows.
I was so grateful for her willingness to share it so openly. Did I mention she’s hilarious?
5. The Unexpected Joy Of Being Sober by Catherine Gray
Catherine Gray was a young thirty-something working a glamorous job in the fashion editorial world in London while simultaneously making a proper mess of her life.
She actually got incredibly physically addicted to alcohol and went on quite a journey to get sober.
I appreciated how she transformed into a more introverted version of the drunk, party-girl, hook up queen she’d embodied before. That was something I did as well (though I was never wild like she was).
Definitely worth a read! (It’s a quick one at that).
I found myself in disbelief that his life took some of the turns it did while at the same time rooting for him. His dysfunction has the weird quality of being both uniquely his own and universal.
There’s also the dark comic relief offered throughout. Burroughs’ story will break your heart, but if you’re familiar with his other work, that won’t surprise you.
It’s gritty, honest, and not the perfect, happy-ending we’re all looking for, but it’s real.
Visit the full article on recovery memoirs and personal growth books for more recommendations.
Brief Insights Into My Own Alcoholism
There are two quotes, one from Knapp’s book and one from Carr’s that sparked an a-ha moment in my brain.
David Carr writes:
“But being an addict means that you never stipulate to being an adult. You may, as the occasion requires, adopt the trade dress of a grown-up, showing responsibility and gravitas in spurts to get by, but the rest of the time, you do what you want when you want.”
The childish aspect of alcoholism is what really got to me when I read this.
I knew I could be immature and possessed the emotional fortitude of a toddler. My ability to hold onto a steady, high stress job and pay rent was a wonder in of itself. But I’d never heard anyone else articulate the problem in a way I could connect with.
It reminded me of an earlier highlight from Caroline Knapp’s book:
“…in some deep and important personal respects you stop growing when you start drinking alcoholically. The drink stunts you, prevents you from walking through the kinds of fearful life experiences that bring you from point A to point B on the maturity scale…After a while, you don’t even know the most basic things about yourself…because you’ve never given yourself a chance, a clear, sober chance, to grow.”
How Alcoholism Held Me Back Personally And Professionally.
Throughout my twenties and very early thirties, I didn’t approach life’s challenges as an adult. I didn’t deal with my emotions in a mature manner. Nor did I make healthy decisions.
When I think back to my professional life during my twenties, I can’t help but cringe.
I was the colleague talking during meetings, distracting my neighbor, cracking the off-color joke – a clown. I didn’t take feedback well and abhorred confrontation.
If I had a problem with a coworker, I didn’t address them directly. I mostly resorted to gossip and venting.
When the job was difficult (which was all the time), I didn’t ask for help and I didn’t listen well when somebody offered it. I was a particular kind of stubborn. I didn’t take responsibility as I should have.
Mostly (in my mind) things were happening TO me, beyond my control. Learned helplessness.
Alcoholism and Staying Stuck Where You Are
Meanwhile, my inner world was a bundled mess.
Had I possessed the maturity to handle things better, I may have succeeded where I failed in my work. At the very least, I would have had the wherewithal to get a different job doing something I was better suited for.
Knapp’s quote speaks volumes on that last point. What WAS I better suited for?
I had no idea because rather than navigate this adult landscape in a constructive manner, I would go to happy hour with colleagues who seemed equally maladjusted and vent over $5 drafts.
When those coworkers moved on or stopped going to happy hour, I stayed exactly who I was the year before and continued to drink.
I was the first person at the bar on Friday after work and the last to leave.
On my way home, you bet your ass I picked up a bottle or two to settle down for the rest of the night. I was forever the girl begging anybody who would be persuaded to stay for one more round.
I was never finished.
How Alcoholism Steals Your Motivation And Drive
Knapp was right. There is something profoundly stunting about drinking alcoholically.
I have wrestled for years with the idea of what it is I should be doing five, ten, and fifteen years from now. Watching people my age and younger be so ahead of the game added more pressure. I felt like a failure without ever having tried to do anything.
The story in my head was that I should have been more or done more “by now” but I’d never made any actual sacrifice or effort towards those ends.
I was too busy drowning myself in booze, mourning the loss of some personal or professional venture that didn’t even exist, and replaying regrets over missed opportunities from my past.
I chose the easy thing of staying in a job that I knew, even if it was making me miserable.
In the evening time, I’d get weepy eyed over what could have been and feel jealous of others who had made something of themselves. I was all ideas, no action, no backbone.
The Underlying Damage of Alcoholism
In the early days, this was a very irritating debate in my head. I’d reached the unfortunate place of hating what I was doing with my life, but having zero idea what I could be doing instead.
I’d slipped into a weird autopilot mode where I JUST managed to get by during the day. Often times, I was pretending to work and looking for somewhere to sleep off my hangover.
The only thing I looked forward to was the “me time” I’d spend once I got home to my precious bottles of cider and cigarettes. My safe space.
Every day was the same.
I’d been drowning years of depression and anxiety in alcohol. Incidentally, alcohol made both of these conditions worse. That made me unable to function in a high-stress job that I was too scared to walk away from.
So I scraped by and made myself, my students, and coworkers very, very miserable. Same goes for anyone who tried to date me or be my friend.
Personal responsibility for any of this stuff?
I was stuck in a cycle of hating my life, doing nothing to change it, and feeling utterly trapped by my drinking. And the longer I let it go on, the harder it was to escape.
Which is why I want to bring you back to my earlier point.
Don’t wait for your alcoholism to become severe before taking action.
There is a point where your alcoholism is problematic but more easily solvable. Most people who abuse alcohol find themselves at this place.
The problem is we tempt fate.
We allow ourselves to slide a little further. It’s like gaining a few pounds every year. At the time, not a huge deal. But before you know it, ten years have gone by and you’re 20-30 pounds overweight with a decade of horrible habits imprinted on your brain.
Alcoholism is slow and insidious in much the same way.
What you should do if you think you have a drinking problem?
If you think you might be one of those folks who are on the cusp of having a bigger problem with alcohol, the first thing I would suggest is to stop drinking temporarily.
Take thirty days with no alcohol and see how you feel.
If you’re unable to stop drinking, then that signals a potential dependency. At which point, you’ll want to take a more hardline approach.
Consider reading about alcoholism and some of the recovery memoirs listed above.
Start participating in sober activities like running clubs, fitness camps or going to sober bars (if you live in a city that has them). Actively seek new ways to spend your free time that don’t involve drinking.
What makes you feel like drinking? Are you using it to self-medicate stress? Is it more of a habit that you just need to change?
This is a good time to explore what your relationship with alcohol is like. The more honest you are with yourself, the better able you are to fix the problem (if there is one).
Don’t be afraid of sobriety.
People have a lot of fears about sobriety and what it means for their life. We’ve been programmed to believe that alcohol is required to have fun. It’s a staple in most social scenes.
But it doesn’t have to be.
Sobriety is becoming more popular, which is good news for people who either need to stop drinking or feel that alcohol serves no real benefit for their life.
If you think you may need or want to get sober, there are so many incredible tools available. Follow sober blogs like this one and join sober Facebook groups.
Depending on your situation, you may find traditional recovery programs like AA, SMART Recovery, or Refuge Recovery more useful. For anyone who knows they have a drinking problem, I recommend giving at least one of these an honest go.
If it’s not for you, it’s not for you, but don’t discount it before you’ve given it a chance.
Start where you are and don’t be afraid to make some changes. I’ve yet to hear anyone who has gotten sober long-term regret their decision.
What have you got to lose?