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How I Knew I Had a Drinking Problem
It took more than online quizzes for me to accept that I was an alcoholic.
How does someone know that they’re an alcoholic?
After half a decade of sobriety, it’s trivially easy for me to look back at my life as a drinker and recognize the signs of addiction. I wasn’t even a borderline case. I got drunk every day, couldn’t control how much I drank, and prioritized alcohol over everything else in my life. I know I’m an alcoholic (now recovered), and there shouldn’t have been a single shred of doubt over this fact.
However, that’s not how it felt at the time. Back when I was a drinker, I was extremely reluctant to admit to myself that I had a problem with alcohol.
I knew that I was drinking more than I should, but I was great at coming up with justifications to downplay the extent of my habit.
It was so easy to tell myself that I was just drinking a lot because I was young and that I’d naturally grow out of it. Or that I just loved the taste of IPAs and was becoming a beer connoisseur. Or that my real problem was simply drinking too much and all I had to do was learn to cut back a little.
It was exactly because my addiction was so bad that I was so quick to latch on to these excuses. My compulsion to drink was so strong that I’d find a way to justify it no matter what.
My First Wake-Up Call
My first wake-up call came from a visit to a psychologist when I was twenty-three. This is an experience that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago (“I Tried to Quit Drinking for 7 Years”), but this time I’d like to share a few more details about my life before and after.
At the time, I was at a very low point. I had graduated college about a year earlier and was trying to make a living as a freelance writer. It wasn’t going well. I could make decent money when I sat down and worked at it, but I was constantly distracted by my addictions.
I was smoking a pack or more of cigarettes a day, drinking from the moment I woke up until the moment I went to bed, and even waking up in the middle of the night to get another beer or two in.
I spent almost all my time alone in my tiny one-bedroom apartment. Most days, I only left the apartment when I needed more cigarettes or booze. I had a couple of friends in town but rarely saw them.
My whole life was falling apart, but I only went to the psychologist because I was concerned about my pack-a-day smoking habit. After finding out how much I drank, he told me that I had to tackle my alcoholism first.
This was the first time someone ever suggested to me that I was an alcoholic, but surprisingly, I accepted the fact almost as soon as he said it. Although I rejected his suggestion to go to rehab, by the end of our first session together I had agreed to weekly therapy and daily AA meetings.
This combination of therapy and AA was incredibly powerful. I stopped drinking, met a lot of other recovering alcoholics, and immediately started feeling happier about my life. I moved back in with my parents so I wouldn’t be so isolated, and I took a normal job working retail to get me out of the house. Life was going well.
However, it all felt too easy. If I was an alcoholic, how had I turned things around so quickly? How was I able to quit drinking on my very first attempt? Could I really be an addict?
Now, I understand that I was asking myself these questions precisely because I was an addict. I was desperately seeking a way to justify returning to drinking. Sadly, I fell for it. I moved to a new city, started drinking again, and kept drinking for another seven years.
Because of my early experience with AA and sobriety, I always had in the back of my mind the question of whether I was an alcoholic. I spent the rest of my twenties getting drunk every day, but I still told myself that I just wasn’t sure whether I had a problem. I went back and forth on it a lot, often within just a single day.
Ironically, it’s when I was at my most drunk that I typically was ready to admit that I was an addict. I spent many nights drunkenly crying over my alcoholism and promising myself that I’d quit the next day. Then, I’d wake up the next morning and forget all about it.
I tried turning to the internet to help make up my mind. I took a slew of those quizzes that are meant to help you determine whether you’re an alcoholic. They would ask a series of questions like:
“Do you often have trouble stopping after you start drinking?”
“Have you tried to cut back on your drinking and failed?”
“Has your drinking ever interfered with your professional life?”
Then you’d add up how many questions you answered “yes” to and the quiz would tell you whether you had a low, moderate, or high likelihood of addiction. I always scored “high likelihood.”
I also became extremely familiar with the various guidelines for safe drinking, like the CDC’s Excessive Alcohol Use definitions. According to the CDC, excessive drinking includes:
“Binge drinking, defined as consuming 4 or more drinks on an occasion for a woman or 5 or more drinks on an occasion for a man.”
“Heavy drinking, defined as 8 or more drinks per week for a woman or 15 or more drinks per week for a man.”
I qualified as an excessive drinker under both standards. In fact, according to these guidelines, I was binge drinking every single night.
So, if every quiz I took said that I was an alcoholic, and the CDC guidelines said that I was way past the line into excessive drinking, did I finally just accept that I had a problem?
Instead, I continued to spend years debating with myself, making failed attempts at moderating my alcohol intake, and postponing sobriety day by day.
Even when I finally got sober, I still wasn’t entirely convinced that I was an alcoholic. I had moments when I could admit to myself that I was an addict, but these moments were often fleeting.
Instead, I went with the idea that I owed it to myself to give sobriety a try. My thinking was essentially this: Whether I am an alcoholic or not, I can’t keep putting myself through all the anguish of trying (and failing) to cut back again and again, or swearing to myself that I’ll quit and then changing my mind. I decided that this time I had to stick with it, no matter whether I truly had an addiction or not.
I remember thinking early on that I’d commit to at least making it through the first year. Soon, I had to refocus on an even shorter timeframe: Getting through each day.
I had so many doubts during those early days of sobriety. I was constantly telling myself that I wasn’t a real alcoholic and that I should just go back to drinking. The only way I could get past it was to keep telling myself to worry about it later. I could debate my addiction tomorrow, but for today, I would just stay sober.
It wasn’t until months, maybe even years, that the last of my lingering doubts went away. It was only by getting sober, and putting some distance between myself and my daily drinking habit, that I was finally able to examine my addiction with an objective lens.
I needed to experience the alternative to active addiction to understand just how bad my drinking had gotten. It was only by seeing the contrast with my sober life that I realized I had been letting alcohol completely control me. I had spent about a decade structuring all of my free time and energy around drinking, but I just couldn’t see it while I was still in the moment.
Now that I’m sober, it’s easy for me to say without hesitation that I am a (recovered) alcoholic.
If anyone is out there wondering whether they’re an alcoholic or not and debating whether to quit, my advice is to just give sobriety a try. Whether you’re an addict or not, you owe it to yourself to at least find out what your life could be like without alcohol.
What’s the worst case? You miss out on a few parties but save a bit of money and avoid a few hangovers?
In the best case, you just might discover that life can be truly wonderful once alcohol is out of the picture. That’s how it turned out for me.
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