We all know the stereotypes: a middle-aged man sitting alone in the far corner of a bar with multiple empty bottles or glasses in front of him, staring off into space while nursing another drink. A woman or man in an alcoholic-induced rage destroying property, attacking people, and shouting insults and derogatory remarks at everyone around them before being hauled away by security or the police. Or perhaps, a relative or romantic partner who drinks to cope with job stress or a lack of economic opportunities, and often assaults their loved ones while in an alcohol haze. Many people assume these stereotypes are the only possible presentations of alcoholics.
However, alcoholism can present itself in a variety of ways and often affects people who seem to be “normal” functioning members of society. Many young adults, particularly those attending college, can be classified as alcoholics due to the wide acceptance of binge drinking as a social pastime. Other young adults who exhibit antisocial behaviors such as criminal activities, habitual aggressive behavior or physical confrontations, irresponsibility, impulsiveness, a lack of remorse, and a general disregard for the safety of others often exhibit signs of alcoholism. Some of these young adults come from families where multigenerational alcoholism is present. Within these multigenerational alcoholics, almost all have some form of clinical depression. Some who suffer from chronic alcoholism, the rarest subgroup in the U.S., also have other substance abuse issues and a high rate of psychiatric disorders.
Within all of these categories, the most prevalent is the high-functioning alcoholic. These people are the furthest from many people’s stereotype of an alcoholic. They often have a family, work full time, and have a college degree or higher. High-functioning alcoholics often are active members in their communities, who are able to hide the depth of their alcohol dependency. This group makes up over 20% of alcoholics in the U.S.
To aid with the process of deciding whether or not you or a loved one might be an alcoholic, it is helpful to define what an alcoholic is. Simply put, an alcoholic is someone who drinks alcohol beyond their ability to control it. They are unable to stop consuming it voluntarily, whether in the moment or as a more general lifestyle change. Alcoholics are often habitually intoxicated in both private and public settings. They tend to drink daily and in larger quantities than their peers. For men under the age of 65, heavy drinking is defined as 2 drinks a day or more than 14 drinks a week. For women and men over the age of 65, it is 1 drink a day or more than 7 drinks a week. Binge drinking, which is also common among alcoholics, is defined as 5 or more drinks in 2 hours for men, and 4 or more drinks in 2 hours for women.
The cause of alcoholism remains unknown, but there are a number of factors which contribute to the development of alcoholism. One factor is a person’s genes: if there are alcoholics in the family, it is more likely that a person will develop alcoholism in their lifetime. These genetic factors are aggravated by environmental factors such as a lack of educational and employment opportunities, confrontational relationships with family, abusive relationships, and the availability of alcohol in a community. High stress levels and social pressure to join others to drink after work or at parties can also lead to someone developing alcoholism.
If you are worried that you or a loved one might be an alcoholic, there are warning signs you can look for.
- Drinking alone or in secrecy
- A loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyable
- Alcohol cravings
- Making drinking a priority over other familial, work, or social responsibilities
- Extreme mood swings and irritability
- Feeling guilty for drinking
- Having a drink first thing in the morning
- Continuing to drink despite health, financial, or family problems
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms
- Being unable to stop or control the amount of alcohol consumed
If you or a loved one are experiencing these symptoms, there are steps you can take to get help. There are numerous AUDITs (Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test) online that can help you determine if you are suffering from alcoholism or an alcohol use disorder. Similarly, you can reach out to treatment experts like Inspiration Health for a consultation about your experiences and the treatment options best suited to your needs.