Am I an Alcoholic?

This post is my response to a letter from a reader. You can submit a question and read all my letters and responses here.


Laura,

I have been wondering if I have a problem. Drinking for me took the form of 1-2 glasses of wine every day with dinner. I recently, without much thought, decided to give up drinking for Lent. The first week was somewhat difficult. I was a bit anxious and had cravings for my dinner time glasses of wine but as the second week began, I started feeling a surge of positivity and felt more open to everything, also more motivated to do things. I am now a month into it and wondered if I could be an alcoholic if I could quit so easily. 

Thanks,
Wondering


Dear Wondering,

Forgive me, but I’m going to be blunt.

Who cares if you’re an alcoholic?

Honestly, who cares? What would it mean if I told you that you were? What would it mean if I told you you're not?

Let’s play out each scenario:

Scenario #1: I say, Yes, you're an alcoholic. 

A page from an educational pamphlet describing alcoholism, alternately titled, "If You Don't Look Like Ichabod Crane's Shadow Hunched Over a Flask, You're Good."

A page from an educational pamphlet describing alcoholism, alternately titled, "If You Don't Look Like Ichabod Crane's Shadow Hunched Over a Flask, You're Good."

So now you have a label that presumably you don't want, and instead of continuing to explore this unexpected surge of positivity, openness, and motivation, it becomes A Thing. It means you possibly have to…what? Seek support? Go to a 12-step meeting? Confess that you have A Condition to your friends and family? Instead of it being a really positive, badass choice you’re making for yourself, it becomes a thing you have to judge yourself by and use to compare yourself to others who are not “alcoholic” and thus can drink “normally.” 

Maybe (maybe) you don’t mind taking on the label alcoholic because it gives you a real reason to abstain from drinking. It’s cold, hard proof you can show your friends and family and co-workers when they ask why you’re not having wine with dinner. “Oh, I can’t do that anymore,” you say, as you pull your Alcoholic ID card from your wallet and lay it on the table with a satisfied smile, “I am an alcoholic.” Kind of like turning down dessert because you’re diabetic. Because what other reason is passable? You couldn’t possibly just…gasp…choose not to drink. (I’m making this scenario sound absurd because it is; 99.9% of people would rather be diagnosed mentally ill than an alcoholic.)

Scenario #2: I say No, you’re not an alcoholic.

"We looove you miss Haaaannigan."

You sigh with relief. Thank, God, you think. Now you can go back to drinking your 1-2 glasses of wine a night with dinner without worrying that you'll soon find yourself drinking vodka out of the bottle in your bathtub to keep from beating your kids. Maybe you skip the wine here and there because you remember how great you felt for that month in March when you gave it up for lent. Maybe you do a Dry July or a Sober October and and each time, you feel that same, surprising sense of optimism and openness to life.

But you go back to it because, well, you’re not an alcoholic. Your spark dims a bit. That pesky anxiety gnaws at you. You’re generally hazy and less motivated. But that’s just life, right? You’re not an alcoholic, so the side-effects are unrelated, and you can quit easily whenever you want. What’s two glasses of wine with dinner, anyway? Life is meant to be lived! C'este la vie and carpe diem! You’ve never suffered any consequences because of drinking, really. You’re not like the girl whose blog you found on the internet, who crashed her car and got a DUI and left her daughter unattended during a blackout, or the one who drank in the mornings, or the one who lost custody of her kids, or the one who lost her job because she called in too many days sick to work hungover. It’s not like that. It’s fine. You’re fine. It's not like you're an alcoholic.


See what I mean?

An informational pamphlet from the U.S. Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare, printed in 1976 describing how to host a successful party if some guests - gasp! - don't drink.

An informational pamphlet from the U.S. Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare, printed in 1976 describing how to host a successful party if some guests - gasp! - don't drink.

The label means too much. Addiction is so stigmatized in our society that we think there are only two types of people when it comes to drinking: Alcoholics and Everyone Else. And if you’re not in the first bucket, drinking is fun! In fact, who would quit unless they had to *shudder*?

You wrote me a letter describing how your mood and outlook have improved after a month without wine and, because you find this to be surprising, you wonder if you’re an alcoholic? As if only alcoholics feel better when they don’t drink? The anxiety and cravings you felt around dinner time for the first week didn’t happen because you’re an alcoholic or not, they happened because alcohol is an addictive substance and a social buffer and you weren’t using it anymore. You’d become used to it, and maybe were even addicted to it, because it’s…addictive.

This is the thing: everyone feels better in the long run when they don’t drink. Not just alcoholics, everyone. You felt better and are thinking more clearly because putting ethanol into your body isn’t life-giving, it’s life-sucking. Nobody’s life actually improves because of alcohol, even though most people I know would scoff at that, That’s what YOU think, *wink, wink* *clink, clink* and society tells us otherwise ten ways to Sunday. Most people will simply never know how they feel without it. It’s so normalized, so everywhere, so much a part of the fabric of mainstream society, most people won’t experience their life without it unless they’re forced to. Weird, right? Isn’t it completely fucking bizarre that we don’t question (and actually highly encourage) regular consumption of a drug that’s more harmful than crack cocaine, heroin, and meth? If you stopped doing coke for a month and felt better, you wouldn’t sit there and wonder if you were an addict, and whether or not you could go back to recreational line snorting. Or look at smoking, which society was duped into thinking for years was actually fine, and even healthy! Now that we know better, nobody questions the decision to stop smoking. It’s just so obviously stupid and dangerous. And yet, alcohol is still cool. Unless you’re an alcoholic. In which case you better deal with it...

quietly...

over there...

without ruining the party for everyone else.


A couple more anecdotes for you, which I thought of as I was considering your letter:

I have a friend who loves to drink. He’s the one I wrote about here. I’m really the only one he’s confided in about his periodic concerns about his drinking, and in his words, most people in his life would be surprised and confused if he stopped. Last year he called to tell me about his friend from high school, who’s husband was “a really bad alcoholic” who’d recently disappeared again, leaving his wife and kids to worry and wonder until he turned up in Atlantic City at the end of a days-long bender. My friend went on to tell me how abhorrent this was, and how bad he felt for his friend and the kids. I listened, and I get it. It is awful. But what struck me as we were talking was how “over there” my friend talked about the guy’s behavior. As if somewhere along the line this guy had crossed a moral threshold and was now choosing to be a loser, derelict asshole who abused his family by choosing to drink again.

The truth is this guy probably lost his choice to drink a long time ago, just like I lost mine at a certain point. But up until then, and maybe for many, many years or decades, this guy probably drank just like my friend. I’m guessing they even drank together. My friend has admittedly said he has ‘no off switch’ after a few beers. Sometimes he’ll go out to dinner and only have a beer, but more often, he drinks a lot more. He’s suffered a lot of obvious and not so obvious consequences because of his drinking and, suffice to say, his life isn’t looking so great right now. Is it because of alcohol? Maybe. Is alcohol helping him out? Definitely not. Does he see any of it this way? No. He’s still over there comparing himself to the guy that’s so much worse. Which is what we all do. I did it. And we compare ourselves right into a corner that’s more and more difficult to crawl out of as time goes on. Among other things, labels support this and keep people—like me, like you, like my friend—drinking.

From Holly.

From Holly.

I have another friend named Aidan, who we interviewed recently on HOME. You can hear her whole story by listening to the episode, but Aidan’s drinking looked a lot like yours. A glass or two here and there, consistently. As she says, she doesn’t have a “salacious drinking story.” But drinking nagged at her for years. She quit for periods of time and wrote about it, and went back for periods of time, and wrote about that. Ultimately, last year, she decided to give it up for good. Not because she labeled herself an alcoholic, but because she realized her life is simply far better without it. She has peace of mind, less anxiety, and generally feels more solid and calm. Aidan’s story is so important because we don't hear it. Quitting without a label is unheard of for the most part. We feel like we need a real reason to not drink, as if a clear mind, a clear heart, and a still, small voice urging us to stay present are not enough.

You asked me if you’re an alcoholic, and I’m telling you it's the wrong question. It's the question we've been socialized to ask, the question I asked myself for a long time, and the question that shows up in my inbox all the time, but it's the wrong damn question. If believing you're an alcoholic feels true, if it elevates your life by furthering you on the path to betterment and healing, believe it. If it doesn't, throw it away. 

I’ll close with something I wrote a while back, in response to a woman who, like you, was questioning her drinking. You can read the whole post here, but the punchline is this:

The normal question is, Is this bad enough for me to have to change?
The question we should be asking is, Is this good enough for me to stay the same?
And the real question underneath it all is, Am I free?

***

This post is my response to a letter from a reader. You can submit a question and read all my letters and responses here.

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Laura McKowen

Laura McKowen, PO Box 315 , Swampscott, MA, 01907