While there are many substances that can lead to dependence, alcohol is unique due to its legal status, which is why alcohol is the most commonly abused of all mind-altering substances.
While only 3.2 percent of all alcohol users go on to become addicted,1 that still results in a huge total, with at least two in three Americans — or 66 percent — being social or occasional alcohol drinkers.2 According to recent estimates, approximately 30 percent of Americans have some type of alcohol use disorder or drinking problem.3
With alcohol use and abuse being so common, it’s important to know some of the warning signs of a drinking problem so that you can make the necessary lifestyle adjustments to protect yourself or your loved one from alcoholism.
Hiding or Lying About Alcohol Consumption
For the most part, people who become addicted to alcohol can’t pinpoint the exact moment when their substance use transitioned into addiction. Despite how common is it for substance users to be in denial about the severity of their problems, they still often keep their alcohol use a secret from others.
There are a number of specific reasons why this occurs, including fear of judgment and fear of interference.4 Whatever the case may be, hiding or lying about alcohol consumption is a very common sign that a drinking problem has developed.
Using Alcohol to Cope with Stress or Hardship
A person who uses alcohol responsibly is typically called a social drinker, which means that he or she exhibits low-risk drinking behavior.5 Typically, social drinkers have only one or two drinks at a time, and their drinking is often limited to social scenarios. When a person begins to use alcohol as a means of coping with stress or hardship, he or she begins to associate relaxation and relief with alcohol use. The risk is that the individual will slowly increase his or her use of alcohol as a coping mechanism over time, all the while becoming more and more physiologically dependent.
As such, consuming alcohol to alleviate stress and other negative emotions is a very common prelude to addiction.
Regular Lapses in Memory or Blackouts
Blackouts are essentially episodes of short-term amnesia that are induced by the consumption of large volumes of alcohol. In other words, blackouts occur when a person has reached such a level of intoxication that the individual has no memory of what occurred during a certain time period. In many cases, blackouts are the result of drinking a large quantity of alcohol in a short period of time.
According to studies, the presence of such large quantities of alcohol have an adverse effect on memory. In particular, alcohol inhibits the ability of the brain to commit new experiences to memories while leaving recall of existing memories intact, more or less.6 Therefore, blackouts and other types of memory loss that occur while under the influence can be a strong indicator of an alcohol problem.
Being Unable to Have Just One Drink
In many support groups for alcoholics, it’s often said that an alcoholic is someone who cannot predict what the outcome of his or her drinking will be. This expression essentially means that when a person with a drinking problem has a drink, the individual can’t be certain how many drinks will follow that first one or what types of behaviors he or she might exhibit while under the influence.
People with drinking problems tend to find that they’re unable to drink alcohol without imbibing to excess. For reasons that should be readily apparent, being unable to control your alcohol consumption is cause for concern.
Problems in Relationships Due to Drinking
Whether involving alcohol or some other substance, substance abuse problems are known to be extremely damaging to relationships. In fact, the effects of a substance abuse problem on a relationship can be seen even in the very earliest stages of the development of the substance abuse problem, making relationship problems — especially when they occur alongside other problems in this list — one of the most reliable indicators of a serious addiction issue.
However, as detrimental as alcohol can be to relationships, relationships can also be strong motivation to overcome a drinking problem. If you’re someone whose relationships are suffering due to your alcohol abuse, consider whether the alcohol use or the relationships are more important.
According to a personal story shared with Heroes in Recovery by a man named Paul whose wife suffered from severe addiction for much of their 21-year marriage, it was the prospect of losing her husband that finally gave Paul’s wife the push she needed to address her substance abuse problem.7
Attempts to Abstain from Drinking Are Unsuccessful
People who don’t have an alcohol addiction can forego alcohol consumption without hesitation or difficulty without physical discomfort, psychological distress or any other adverse effects. By comparison, someone with a drinking problem would find it extremely difficult to go any significant length of time without drinking. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that you have to drink alcohol every single day for it to be considered a drinking problem.
But when attempts to abstain are unsuccessful, there's clear indication of a more significant problem with alcohol.
Although there are many obvious signs of a drinking problem, it can often be more difficult to identify in oneself than in others. Many people who suffer from substance abuse problems are in denial. They either deny the reality of their substance use problem or convince themselves that the problem is actually under their control.
Unfortunately, this means alcoholism often develops while individuals miss many of the warning signs that occur along the way. It’s extremely important to be aware of how alcohol is affecting your physical and mental health, your career, your relationships and other aspects of your life because witnessing these effects can offer the best chance of catching a substance use problem before it develops into addiction.
Written by Dane O'Leary