What IS an Alcoholic?


Just What Is an Alcoholic?


I am often asked, “What is an alcoholic?”  There are more myths, lies, and half-truths when it comes to chemical dependency than anything else I can think of.  The simple answer is: “An alcoholic is someone whose drinking is causing problems but they continue to drink anyway.”  Then the next obvious question would be, “What kind of problems?”


All alcohol addicted individuals abuse alcohol but not all abusers are addicted.  The difference being that the addicted person’s abusive behaviors are a pattern of behaviors and not just occasional events.  The following symptoms start out as moderately abusive and increase in severity as the list grows.


Abuse: These behaviors include (but are not limited to all of) the following behaviors.


Relying on occasions that always involve drinking alcohol in order to “have fun.”

Loss of control – drinking more than intended – getting intoxicated when not meaning to.

Frequent intoxication.

Consuming four or more drinks in an hour or less.

Blackouts – the inability to recall something that recently happened.

Mood swings and personality changes.

Driving while intoxicated.

Passing out once or twice in a lifetime.


Severe abuse and addictive behaviors.


Drinking to get to sleep at night.

Drinking the first one or two drinks rather quickly.

Drinking to avoid unwanted emotions or situations.

Preferring to hang with those who drink as opposed to those who don’t.

Hiding one’s use because others would be upset if they knew he was drinking.

Drinking to purposely get intoxicated.

Drinking while on prescription drugs that are affected by alcohol use.

Arrests for several DUIs, public intoxication, or domestic violence w/alcohol involved.

Lying about drinking.

Frequently Passing out.  (falling asleep while drinking and being fully dressed)

Drinking alone on a regular basis.

Drinking within a few hours of getting up in the morning.

Experiencing shaking or trembling of the hands that dissipates when one drinks.

Frequent arguments with family or friends about drinking.

Drinking on the job.  Losing one’s job due to drinking.

Loss of friends and family due to drugged emotional behaviors.

Relying on drinking to get through the day either emotionally, physically, or both.

Drinking when a medical practitioner advises against it due to a medical condition.

Acquiring health problems as a result of drinking alcohol.


Any one of the above behaviors is cause for one to take a serious look at their alcohol use.


Just because a person comes home from work and has a martini each day does not necessarily make him an alcoholic.  Because a person may have one or two drinks a day does not mean they are an alcoholic.  But if they drink several drinks a day then that would be cause for scrutiny. 


Conversely, there are some alcoholics who only drink once or twice a month, a year, or even several years.  But when they drink, they may binge and can’t stop once they start until they pass out or get arrested.


Alcohol is an addictive drug and anyone who drinks long enough or hard enough will become addicted.  There are three basic stages of addiction all of which are individually addictive:


Sociological:  No one starts out drinking alone.  It is commonly done by those who get together under the guise of “having fun.”  It is seen as fun because alcohol lowers one’s inhibitions and the consumers don’t particularly care what others may think or say about them after a few drinks.  Alcohol also impairs one’s judgment and intellect. People often say and do things while drinking that they normally wouldn’t say or do if not drinking.  They feel free from, the things they would normally feel more reserved about thinking or doing.


Then when they get home and get sick, or get a DUI on the way home, or have an accident or pass out, they no longer are having fun.  But alcohol causes not only chemical amnesia in the form of blackouts, it also causes amnesia about getting sick, passing out, and getting a DUI charge.  A blunt way of putting it would be, alcohol makes you stupid.  And if you have ever been in the presence of someone drinking when you were not, you can see the change in the person’s behavior as it occurs.

Task:  Learn how to have fun and acquire happiness and pleasure without drugs or alcohol.  If you have to put something into your body in order to have fun, you might want to take a look at what’s going on in your life.


 Psychological:  Drinking alcohol can cause one to temporarily not be concerned about any pressing uncomfortable situations one is currently experiencing.  In fact, alcohol and drugs are the only things that have a direct effect on one’s emotions and physiology.  Once discovered that drinking causes one to not care or be concerned about something that is causing frustration, the drinker begins to rely on it for psychological purposes to feel better about unwanted situations.  Some people rely on alcohol to give them courage or self-confidence to deal with certain situations.


How many times do we see or hear ourselves, or others, who say something like, “I could sure use a drink,” after experiencing a frustrating or stressful event?  Alcohol has a sedative effect.  It is not only psychological but it also has a physical effect on the brain by interfering with the oxygen supply that causes the brain to function normally.  To seek pleasure to supercede displeasure is a natural part of human behavior.  All we do from birth until death is behave and all behavior serves to create happiness or pleasure.  We take aspirin for headaches and other pain.  We put on a jacket or sweater or turn up the thermostat when cold.  We rely on an umbrella, rain hat, raincoat, or seek dry shelter when it rains.  There are those who rely on alcohol to overcome much of their unhappiness and displeasure. . . because it works  . . . and does so quickly albeit temporarily.


Alcohol and drugs often fool a person into thinking they can perform certain tasks better when drinking (or drugging).  Many a person in the arts will swear that they function much better creatively if they are drinking or using.  And to this, I will agree up to a point, only because of their loss of inhibitions.  But it soon goes past that purpose and does just the opposite.  Either way, it is a psychological crutch.  If they can do anything well while under the influence that means they could do it while not under the influence because it is coming from the same person.  Their own self-imposed limitations are what keeps them from doing it well if sober.

TASK:  Cease all artistic endeavors for a period of time (6 months or more) as well as any use of drugs or alcohol.  Then return to the endeavors with a fresh approach while maintaining abstinence.  Learn how to deal with life’s adversities in healthy and more effective ways rather than avoiding them with drugs or alcohol.  Learn effective life skills.


 The first two stages of addiction, sociological and psychological, are difficult stages to overcome.  But as difficult as they may be, the next stage appears to be the point of no return. 



Once a person has continually introduced an addictive substance into the body, the cells of the body have had to learn how to exist and function with this substance in one’s system on a regular basis.  In fact, they have become reliant on the chemical to function the way they have adjusted to it.  Whenever the biochemical individual goes for any period of time without drinking, the cells of the body react violently and the person experiences withdrawal symptoms.  These symptoms can be so severe that they can even lead to death. 


There is also that part of the brain in the frontal cortex called the nucleus acumbens that is the pleasure center of the brain.  Please note:  It is not a “Happiness Center.”  The pleasures we receive from drinking, gambling, sex, smoking, eating certain foods such as chocolate, ice cream, etc become active and increase the pleasure receptors with the use of these pleasures.  When one stops the behavior, some of these receptors eventually go to sleep but not all of them.  Some of them stay awake so that you continue to enjoy some of the other pleasures in life that may not be causing you any major difficulties.  But as soon as one returns to drinking or using, the cells in the body recall their previous forms, and the pleasure receptors of the brain wake up and it’s party time all over again. This is why it is said that once one becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol, they can not return to drinking our using.


Everyone is different.  Some drink for a relatively short period of time and become addicted while others drink for years before it occurs.  And the greatest myth of all is that the person who abuses alcohol will be able to recognize if and when his drinking starts to cause problems and that he can then stop.  The alcoholic is the last to recognize the problem even when everyone else around him can plainly see it.


TASK:  Enter an inpatient detox center that has medications to help get through the physical and emotional withdrawal symptoms for 3 to 5 days.  Subsequently, enter either an inpatient  (preferred) or intensive outpatient program on leaning how to live life without relying on chemicals; developing effective life skills; renewing and/or creating new relationships with the important people in one’s life; acquire a support group; learning how to recognize and deal with emotions that have been blocked out over the years by avoiding them with chemicals; developing a positive self-image free from shame and guilt from all of the things they did when drinking/using; learning how to take responsibility for their own behavior and realizing that the choices they make will dictate what life hands them; and remaining alcohol and drug free for the rest of their lives.

Once one becomes biochemically addicted, their recovery will involve dealing with all three stages of addiction, not just one. 


 “I’m just a social drinker.”

One of the most misused terms people use to define their alcohol use is, “I’m a social drinker.”  What they are saying is, “I never drink alone and only drink in the company of others.”  Guess what?  So do many alcoholics.


A social drinker is one who doesn’t necessarily care for alcohol.  They can take it or leave it and generally leave it.  They mostly drink on occasions when they are in the company of several other people who are drinking and just to be sociable, they join them.  If drinking beer, it generally gets warm before they finish it.  If drinking a mixed drink, the ice cubes melt in the glass before the drink is completely consumed (if at all).  They have one or two drinks and that’s usually where they stop.  Sometimes they may have more than two but not very often.  They may get intoxicated rarely in their entire life.  Is that the type of drinker you are? 


There are responsible drinkers in the world.  They know their limits and know when it’s time to stop.  They also know if they are safe enough to drive and may even have gone a few hours without drinking before getting behind the wheel.  Their drinking does not cause problems for themselves or others and they are aware of the dangers of alcohol.


I’m reminded of the TV commercial a couple of years ago of the young man who shows up at a party in his expensive convertible.  He gets out of the vehicle and with a knife, he punctures all four of his tires and then grabs his alcohol to join the party.


While the purpose of the message was to not drink and drive, it seemed, to me, to show just how desperate a person can be to drink that he would destroy four very expensive tires and have to pay several hundred dollars to replace them as well as the expense to have his car hauled from the party.  I told you . . . . Alcohol can and does make you stupid. : )

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: