Before I quit drinking, I had little idea about what so-called alcoholism was or how it was defined. All I knew was that booze was dominating my life, and I didn’t seem able to escape it.
Looking for a solution to my boyfriend problems, I started to do some research. On one late-night Google spiral, I discovered this post, all about the
Clinical psychologist, Dr. Joe Nowinski, and Dr. Robert Doyle, a nationally recognized expert on alcoholism, had written a book about a type of drinker that falls into the large grey area between normal drinkers and alcoholics.
The kind of drinker who is experiencing negative consequences in their life because of their drinking, but who would not yet meet the diagnostic threshold for what they call ‘true alcoholism’.
“Put simply, the “almost alcoholic” does not drink normally but also wouldn’t be labeled an “alcoholic.” Because this is a new concept to many people, they often don’t see the connection between their drinking and the various problems it is causing. Similarly, the doctors or other professionals they consult with may not connect the dots either.” — Doyle and Nowinski, Almost Alcoholic
So how can you tell whether you are almost alcoholic? And more importantly, what should you do about it, if you suspect that you are?
Here are some points to consider to see if you fit the ‘almost alcoholic’ label, and some suggestions about what to do next.
1. You can hold your liquor
This is a point of pride for you. To be able to match your friends drink for drink, and not lose too much dignity along the way? Victory!
Being able to drink heavily can feel like a super skill when you love the pub. Weaklings fall to the wayside, but you just keep on chugging. It’s admirable the way that you can keep drinking, and not get sloppy until much later than most people.
Except for the tiny little, unwelcome fact that increased tolerance is one of the earliest signs of a drinking problem. It doesn’t ensure a drinking problem, but it’s certainly one of the trademarks along the way.
Tolerance develops as a direct consequence of regular drinking. You get used to the buzz and need more to get the same effect. Over time, this means you can soak your brain in way more pickle juice before you even think about falling over.
2. You have a list of times you’ve behaved in ways you’re ashamed of, and in every one you were drunk.
Have you ever cheated or started a fight? Stolen something or said the unforgivable? Alcohol feels so good as it loosens our inhibitions, but sometimes we go too far, and we wish we’d never allowed ourselves to get so free in the first place.
If you are almost alcoholic, it might not be immediately obvious that alcohol is causing your problems. But on closer inspection, you might notice that it is always there, at the beginning of those troubling events
3. You occasionally worry about your drinking, but you can’t imagine life without alcohol.
The hallmark of the almost alcoholic is that they don’t necessarily worry about their drinking. They are too distracted by the issues their drinking is creating.
The people that Nowinski and Doyle describe all showed up in a clinical setting to get support around something else.
After a period of counseling and discussion, the role of alcohol became apparent in their situation.
Because of stereotypes around what ‘true alcoholics’ look like many almost alcoholics will not recognize that their drinking has become problematic.
“the line separating normal social drinking from being almost alcoholic is not bright and sharp, but is more of a gray area that a person can venture into before they know what’s happened.”
The almost alcoholic might not yet recognize the part that booze is playing in their problems. Drinking might seem incidental and unrelated.
4. Your hangovers are cause for concern.
Maybe the sickness, shakes and headaches feel as serious as an illness. Whatever your hangovers look like, they have become severe enough that you might have started to dream of a life without them.
The problem, of course, is that you can’t imagine a life without drinking at its center. It’s the great quandary of every serious drinker. How to have all the fun and high jinks of boozing, without the less glamorous consequences?
Maybe a more important question is, for how many years are you willing to chase this fantasy?
Okay, this sounds like me or someone I love. What should I do?
Firstly, congratulate yourself for acknowledging that you, or your loved one, might already have a problem.
If you are reading this, then you have begun an important journey into learning more about how addiction works. This is a wonderful thing.
As the Julie Silver, MD, states in the foreword to Almost Alcoholic:
“Diseases can develop slowly, producing milder symptoms for years before they become full-blown. If you recognize them early, before they become fully developed, and take relatively simple actions, you have a good chance of preventing them. In many instances there are steps you can try at home on your own; this is especially true with the mental and behavioral health disorders.”
If you begin to address the problem now, then you might happily avoid ever becoming a ‘true alcoholic’. Here’s Silver again:
“In short, recognizing the almost effect has two primary goals: (1) alleviate pain/ suffering now, and (2) prevent more serious problems later.”
Do some research and find out what’s available. Visit your GP and get some medical advice. Then start experimenting. Maybe mindful drinking would work or moderation management. If you find controlling your drinking too stressful, then try AA or Smart.
Almost Alcoholic offers solutions too. The book promises to help readers identify and assess patterns of alcohol use as well as to develop strategies and goals for changing the amount and frequency of their drinking.
Alcoholism or Alcohol Use Disorder exists on a spectrum. At one end is the normal drinker, and at the other end is what Nowinski and Doyle call the ‘true alcoholic’. There is a huge grey area between these two points, and this is where the almost alcoholic can be found. And while the almost alcoholic’s problems are generally not as severe as the true alcoholics:
“they are nonetheless real and can have devastating effects on the lives of almost alcoholics and the people around them.”
Speaking as someone who struggled along in that grey hinterland of drinking for years, I can attest to the value of leaving it behind. There are so many ways to move on, and build a better life for yourself, without problematic drinking at its center.
If you need help to stop drinking, you’re not alone.
And there’s no shame in getting addicted to something deeply addictive.
If you’re ready to try something different, try my
There is a whole community of people just waiting to help you. Reach out. Something better is waiting for you.
Chelsey Flood is the author of