The A Word

Am I or am I not an alcoholic?

This is something we drinkers seem to spend a lot of time asking themselves, and I wonder if it is helpful.

On the pro side, I think the fact that the label exists gives us an opportunity to put a label on a problem. It is undoubtedly a problem which has existed since the first alcoholic brew was brewed. But older terms like “drunkard” and “sot” are entirely pejorative, while “alcoholic,” at least in theory, is more neutral and clinical.

Also, embracing the term gives one a blueprint for what to do about that problem. If you say “My name is XXX, and I’m an alcoholic,” everyone knows what that means. You give up alcohol “one day at a time”, you attend meetings, you follow the twelve steps, which no one knows except the “admitting you’re powerless over alcohol” one, and the one where you have to apologize to everyone.*

At any rate, there is a kind of peace, I think, in embracing a label. In addition to giving you a blueprint, it gives you instant membership into a group.  This can be your group that you meet face to face, in your AA meetings, and also just a badge of “this is who I am.” An army of people who share a certain characteristic, which gives them a certain bond.

On the other hand, I think that many people who may be concerned about their drinking strenuously resist the “alcoholic” label. Or they spend time trying to figure out if the label fits their behavior — time that would be better spent thinking about what to DO about their behavior. Thus the old saying “People who aren’t alcoholics don’t lay awake at night trying to figure out if they’re alcoholics.”

As for myself, I do not call myself an alcoholic. But is there a good reason for that, or am I just in denial? In honor of this post, I decided to answer the 26 question quiz that was designed by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. I am answering these as I would have in the months before I quit drinking.

(I first found this quiz in Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story)

1. Do you drink heavily when you are disappointed, under pressure or have had a quarrel with someone? YES

2. Can you handle more alcohol now than when you first started to drink? YES

3. Have you ever been unable to remember part of the previous evening, even though your friends say you didn’t pass out? YES

4. When drinking with other people, do you try to have a few extra drinks when others won’t know about it? YES

5. Do you sometimes feel uncomfortable if alcohol is not available? YES

6. Are you more in a hurry to get your first drink of the day than you used to be? YES

7.  Do you sometimes feel a little guilty about your drinking? YES

8. Has a family member or close friend express concern or complained about your drinking? YES

9. Have you been having more memory “blackouts” recently? YES

10. Do you often want to continue drinking after your friends say they’ve had enough? NO

11.  Do you usually have a reason for the occasions when you drink heavily? YES

12. When you’re sober, do you sometimes regret things you did or said while drinking? YES

13. Have you tried switching brands or drinks, or following different plans to control your drinking?  YES

14.  Have you sometimes failed to keep promises you made to yourself about controlling or cutting down on your drinking?  YES

15.  Have you ever had a DWI (driving while intoxicated) or DUI (driving under the influence of alcohol) violation, or any other legal problem related to your drinking?  NO

16.  Do you try to avoid family or close friends while you are drinking?  NO

17.  Are you having more financial, work, school, and/or family problems as a result of your drinking? NO

18.  Has your physician ever advised you to cut down on your drinking? YES

19.  Do you eat very little or irregularly during the periods when you are drinking? NO

20.  Do you sometimes have the “shakes” in the morning and find that it helps to have a “little” drink, tranquilizer or medication of some kind? NO – but I did find a “hair of the dog” helped a hangover

21.  Have you recently noticed that you can’t drink as much as you used to?  NO

22.  Do you sometimes stay drunk for several days at a time? NO

23.  After periods of drinking do you sometimes see or hear things that aren’t there? NO

24.  Have you ever gone to anyone for help about your drinking? NO

25.  Do you ever feel depressed or anxious before, during or after periods of heavy drinking? YES

26.  Have any of your blood relatives ever had a problem with alcohol? NO (that I know of)

Holy that’s a lot of “yes”s! According the site, answering yes to even two questions means you might have a problem and answering yes to more than 8 questions means you should seek help immediately. I have 15 yeses. Yipes.

I like these questions because the thread running through them is “Are you using alcohol to self-medicate?” and “Is your drinking slipping out of your control?” – rather than things like “do you drink alone”/”do you drink in the morning?” etc.

So after that, does it still make sense for me to reject the “alcoholic” label? Maybe not. But I still maintain my belief that normal drinking to problem drinking to alcoholic drinking is a continuum. And while one can pick an arbitrary point along that line to say this is an alcoholic and this isn’t an alcoholic, I don’t know how helpful it is to do so. I think I prefer the Allen Carr “pitcher plant” approach, which emphasizes the addictive properties of the drink, instead of the addictive nature of the drinker.

If you would like to take the test at the NCADD site, here it is.

*I do know more about the 12 steps now.