If you rely on alcohol to function or feel physically compelled to drink, you’re an alcoholic.
All about alcoholism
Alcoholism, also called alcohol dependence, is the most severe form of problem drinking. Alcoholism involves all the symptoms of alcohol abuse, but it also involves another element – physical dependence on alcohol. Because of this, alcoholics have severe withdrawal symptoms when they try to cut back or stop drinking. An alcoholic is pre-occupied with drinking, and can prioritise drinking over everything else, even when it is causing problems at work or with partners, family and friends. They are often in denial about their problem and try to hide it from family and friends.
Sometimes alcoholism develops suddenly in response to a stressful change, such as a breakup, retirement, or another loss. Other times, it gradually creeps up on you as your tolerance to alcohol increases.
Technically speaking, alcohol “abusers” still have some ability to set limits on their drinking. However, their alcohol use is still self-destructive and dangerous to themselves and others, so much of the information on this page is also relevant to them.
Common signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse include:
- Drinking in physically dangerous situations, eg. When you’re working with machinery or driving a car.
- Continuing drinking when its causing relationship problems, eg. Fighting with your family because they don’t like how you act when you’re drunk.
- Ignoring your responsibilities and drinking instead, eg. Forgetting to pick your kids up, failing exams, performing poorly at work.
- Drinking related legal problems, eg. DIC or disorderly conduct charges.
Common signs and symptoms of alcoholism include all the above plus these signs to do with physical dependency:
- Increased alcohol tolerance. If you need to drink more to get buzzed than you used to, then your tolerance to alcohol has increased. This is the first major warning sign you’re becoming an alcoholic.
- Withdrawal. If you have any of these withdrawal symptoms that only go away when you drink, this is the second major warning sign you’re becoming an alcoholic.
- Jumpiness or anxiety
- Shaking or trembling
- Nausea and vomiting
- Can’t sleep
- Not hungry
- Overly tired
- You’ve lost control of your drinking, eg. Drinking more than you wanted to, or despite telling yourself you weren’t going to.
- You’ve given up other things because of alcohol, eg. Your hobbies, your family, your possessions.
- Drinking is your main focus, eg. If you’re not drinking, you’re thinking about drinking, and you don’t get involved in any social activities unless it involves drinking.
- Denial, eg. Lying about how much you drink, downplaying the negative consequences of your drinking.
- You keep drinking when you know it’s ruining your life, eg. Losing your family, losing your job, losing your home.
- You want to quit but can’t.
- Not all alcohol abusers become full-blown alcoholics, but it is a big risk factor. If you’re a binge drinker or you drink every day, your risks of developing alcoholism are greater.
- It can affect us at any age.
- Alcoholism can be genetic. Some families are pre-disposed to having addictive personalities through their genes, and find it easy to become addicted to substances such as alcohol (or smoking, or gambling).
- Our friends, upbringing and social circles also play a part in determining how much and how often we drink. We’re likely to drink more and drink more often if it’s what our friends and family do.
- Men who drink alcohol to numb their feelings as a way of coping with childhood trauma, stressful situations or depression are at risk of developing alcoholism unless they seek treatment for the underlying reasons for their drinking.
Long story short, if your drinking is causing problems in your life, you have a drinking problem, and need to take steps to fix it.
Testing for alcoholism starts with a series of questions to identify the signs and symptoms outlined in the section above. It may be that you’re asking these questions about yourself, or your doctor is asking them, or the people around you have seen the signs.
A good self-assessment tool for alcoholism can be found at carenz.co.nz.
To determine how much damage your drinking has caused your physical health, there are lab tests for liver damage and lowered testosterone, both symptoms of alcoholism.
If you’re an alcoholic, the only way to break the addiction is to stop drinking altogether. The decision to stop needs to come from you. And you’ll almost certainly need to get help from professionals to help you see it through.
Once you’ve made the decision to stop drinking, talk to your doctor about it, and they can help you form a plan to give you the best chance of quitting and staying dry.
Treatment plan options might include:
- Medication to help your body wean off the physical dependency to alcohol.
- Counselling or a support person to help stop a relapse.
- Therapy or coaching to work through hard emotions or situations that were causing you to drink.
There are lots of networks and agencies in New Zealand to provide you with the support you’ll need to get through. And if you have a relapse, don’t beat yourself up about it. Go back to your doctor or health professional and try again. It might take a while, but it’s worth it.
If you’re not an alcoholic but are concerned about your drinking, it might be time to cut down. For practical tips on how to do this, see our I Want To Drink Less.