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Am I an Alcoholic?
by Sam Folk-Williams

The question comes up from time to time. I often wonder if I have a problem when I'm lying in bed at noon the morning after a night at the bars, feeling like I just died, or when I'm walking back to my dorm at 3:00 a.m., dizzy, stumbling, and gushing. In some respects, I think it's silly to ask myself if I'm an alcoholic every time I wake up with a hangover--I mean, if everybody who woke up on the weekend with a hangover was an alcoholic, then everybody I know would fit the bill. But sometimes I'm not sure if I'm completely in control of my drinking. So, how do I know if I'm addicted to alcohol?

First of all, there are a few distinctions to be drawn. According to the National Institutes of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (U.S.), there is a difference between being addicted to alcohol and abusing alcohol. Both can be more or less serious conditions, and both have their own symptoms.

As a first step to determine if you have either an abuse or addiction problem with alcohol, the NIAAA suggests asking yourself the following four questions. In some respects, these questions might seem like a joke--and you've certainly seen them before, probably in a health-education class in high school where you felt like you knew more than the teacher. Still, they can be useful.

  • Do you ever feel like you're drinking too much, or that you should maybe cut down?

  • Do people you know ever question or criticize your drinking? Does it annoy you when that happens?

  • Do you ever feel bad or guilty about your drinking habits?

  • Do you ever wake up feeling like you need a drink to start the day? If so, do you have one first thing?

It's important to note that the NIAAA says if you answer "yes" to a single one of those questions, you might have a problem, and if you answer "yes" to more than one question, you almost certainly have a problem. Well, at one point or another during the past two years, I could probably answer "yes" to all of those questions. Do I have a problem? I don't think so. However, the fact that I could answer yes to some of those questions definitely led me to look into the matter further.

In addition to the four questions, there are other common symptoms of alcoholism and alcohol abuse. If you are even slightly concerned about your drinking, and if you answered "yes" to any of the questions above, think about these other attributes common to alcoholism:

  • Do you ever feel a strong craving for alcohol? Some people crave alcohol the same way they crave food when they're hungry.

  • If you have one drink, do you find it hard to turn down a second? Many people with alcoholism can't stop drinking once they start.

  • If you go a few days without drinking, do you ever feel nauseous, sweaty, shaky, or anxious? If so, do those feelings go away when you resume drinking?

  • Do you have a high tolerance for alcohol? Many people who suffer from alcoholism have to drink a lot before they get drunk.

If you answer "yes" to one or more of these questions, then you're exhibiting some of the more telltale signs of alcoholism. However, it's still important to keep things in perspective. According to the NIAAA, having one drink every day for women, and two drinks every day for men is perfectly normal, healthy behavior. They also say that in the United States, about 14 million people have some kind of "problem" with their drinking (that's 1 in 13 adults).

The signs of having an alcohol abuse problem are different from the signs of alcoholism. The signs of abuse lack the high tolerance, physical dependence, lack of control, and craving that are typical of alcoholism. Instead, people who abuse alcohol are likely to, say, miss class or neglect schoolwork because of drinking. They may also do things like drive drunk or show up to work drunk, continue drinking despite repeated legal problems (like DUI tickets), or continue drinking despite relationship problems (like, your girlfriend or boyfriend gets mad at you for drinking but you keep doing it anyway).

One interesting fact is that people who have an alcohol-abuse problem probably won't show the symptoms of alcoholism, but people who are alcoholic may well show the symptoms of alcohol abuse in addition to the symptoms of alcoholism.

If you think -- even remotely -- that some of the symptoms above may apply to you, you might want to stop by the health center and speak with a doctor, nurse, or counselor. To health care providers, diagnosing and treating someone with alcoholism or alcohol-abuse problems is no different than treating someone for pneumonia or asthma. Alcoholism is a disease -- it's not your fault, and you can get help. No one will judge you, and you won't run into any legal repercussions for seeking help. At the very least, talking to a health care provider about alcoholism and alcohol abuse will help you determine that you don't, in fact, have a problem.

Am I addicted to alcohol? I'm still not sure. I think I probably abuse alcohol from time to time, but I don't think my symptoms are like the ones described for addiction. I'll try to moderate my drinking a little more, maybe stop drinking before I get drunk, maybe do more things that don't involve alcohol at all (like going to the movies instead of going to the party). If I can cut back without any difficulty, then I won't be too worried. If I have trouble, I may try to speak with someone about it.

If you drink on a regular basis, then questions about how healthy or unhealthy your behavior may be are certain to come up once in a while. The symptoms and questions in this article are a good place to start, but you'll probably need more information. If you don't feel like speaking with a counselor or health care provider right away, look to the NIAAA website for further reading.

The National Institutes on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (U.S.). "Alcoholism." Accessed July 11, 2000.

Article courtesy of
"Where Health and Reality Meet."

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