Person with a "Question mark sign" covering their face

Am I an alcoholic? The question predates introducing the term “alcoholic” into the English language. Human beings have been drinking alcohol for thousands of years. And almost assuredly, alcohol addiction is nearly just as old. Alcohol use disorder, or alcoholism, as it’s commonly known, has been with humans nearly as long as anything else.

However, the line between alcoholism and non-threatening drinking can be confusing. You’re probably fine if you only have a glass of champagne on New Year’s Eve. But by the time jaundice sets in, you’ve probably gone too far in the other direction. The dopamine release that alcohol sparks in our brains and bloodstreams is what drives human beings to drink. Still, the negative consequence of long-term alcohol consumption terrifies so many into asking themselves this question.

According to the CDC, “Excessive alcohol use led to more than 140,000 deaths and 3.6 million years of potential life lost…each year in the United States from 2015 – 2019, shortening the lives of those who died by an average of 26 years…Further, excessive drinking was responsible for 1 in 5 deaths among adults aged 20-49 years…The economic costs of excessive alcohol consumption in 2010 were estimated at $249 billion, or $2.05 a drink.” In a National Institute of Health report, “from 1999 to 2017, the number of alcohol-related deaths in the U.S. doubled, to more than 70,000 a year” “making alcohol one of the leading drivers of the decline in American life expectancy.”

Given the choice, it’s hard to imagine anyone choosing to shave around 26 years off of their life expectancy. Yet, most people are unwilling to stop drinking entirely, even if they are aware of the global negative effects of repeated alcohol consumption. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that the average American (aged 21 or over) should have “2 drinks or less in a day for men or one drink or less in a day for women, on days when alcohol is consumed”. Guidelines vary, and current research is both fuzzy and evolving, but the science is apparent on the disastrous health effects of overindulgence in alcohol.

The negative health effects of alcohol are great reasons to either reduce or abstain entirely from alcohol consumption, but avoiding cancer and alcohol-related organ failure does mean that you’re not an alcoholic. Alcoholism is a product of one’s behavior, not a list of physical symptoms. Alcoholism is a chronic disease characterized by an individual’s inability to control their drinking despite negative consequences.

People with alcoholism may experience intense cravings for alcohol, have developed a higher tolerance for alcohol (needing more alcohol to achieve the desired effect), and go through withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop drinking. Tolerance is perhaps the hardest thing to grade alcoholism by as it can fluctuate with age, physical fitness, gender, and diet.

The negative consequences are relatively easy to understand. They can vary in manifestations and extend beyond the physical ailments described earlier. People who consume alcohol are likelier to engage in anti-social and unproductive or abusive behavior. Alcohol consumption devastates concentration and impulse control; even small amounts can significantly diminish productivity and judgment. Repeated alcohol consumption can have serious physical, mental, and social consequences and can be a destructive force in a person’s life. Alcoholism can lead to health problems, strained relationships, legal issues, and impaired functioning in various aspects of life. While alcohol does provide an immediate endorphin burst, it can leave the body in a kind of dopamine debt: borrowing tomorrow’s happiness to burn it today. Regular alcohol use can strain relationships with family, friends, and colleagues due to unpredictable behavior, mood swings, and neglect of responsibilities. Some individuals may withdraw from social activities and isolate themselves as repeated alcohol use replaces previous ways of being in the world.

However, once these negative consequences arise, some people are able to modify or completely eliminate their regular consumption of alcohol. This may be the single best answer to the question, “Am I an alcoholic?”  Once it’s apparent that alcohol consumption has had a negative effect on your life, can you modify your drinking to eliminate the harmful effects alcohol has in your life? If you are, you’re probably not an alcoholic. If you can’t change your behavior or have real problems making long-term changes, you should question whether you have a problem with alcohol. But you probably already have your answer.

Perhaps the best way to understand whether or not you’re an alcoholic is to strip away the label and all of the images, ideas, and stereotypes that swirl around it and ask this simple question: is my drinking harming my life or the lives of the people around me? If the answer is yes, it may be time to seek help.

If you or a loved one is struggling with a behavioral health disorder and finds it difficult to take time for self-care, Harmony Health Group is here to help. Take the first step by contacting us at (828) 347-9322.