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Anyone who drinks is aware of how easy it can be to overdo it from time to time. Many non-alcoholics sometimes drink too much, or even binge while going through the occasional rough patch. If you or someone you love appears to overdo it more than most people, you might assume that it’s simply a phase. In the back of your mind, however, you might worry that it could be something more. What seems like a mere penchant for drinking may in fact signal an ongoing alcohol addiction.
How do you tell the difference between heavy drinking and alcoholism? Paying careful attention to the following eight warning signs might help.
#1. Inability to Self-Regulate
Frequency of drinking seems like an obvious sign, but you should note a few caveats. Many people party hard and party often without developing an alcohol addiction. Meanwhile, some alcoholics may only drink a few times a week. If a person drinks every day, this may easily indicate an ongoing struggle with alcoholism. Far more important, however, is whether they are able to stop once they begin.
Alcohol lowers the drinker’s inhibitions. Over time, reduced impulse control becomes a part of the alcoholic’s brain chemistry. Someone might voice intentions to limit their drinking, whether because they must work the next day or because they need to drive home at the end of the night. Just a few hours later, that same person can barely speak or stand because they drank far more than they intended. Throughout the course of the night, you may rarely see them without a drink in hand. As soon as one empties, they replace it with another. This strongly indicates that the person in question is drinking out of compulsion, and that you may want to keep watching for other signs of alcoholism.
#2. Regular Blackouts
Overconsumption of alcohol often leads to blackouts. In some cases, the drinker may retain flashes of memory in what is commonly called a “brownout.” Often, they will retain no memory of the previous night whatsoever. The next morning becomes a long process of scrolling through text messages and trying to follow bread crumbs in an attempt to discover whether any apologies must be made for the previous night’s behavior.
Blackouts are not enjoyable. Those who drink to the point of memory loss may sometimes simply fail to understand their own limits, but they often drink to excess for other reasons. If you or someone you know appears to black out on a regular basis, the matter most certainly warrants further examination.
#3. Increased Level of Tolerance
Extended periods of heavy drinking often lead to a rise in tolerance. Alcoholics typically find that it progressively takes more alcohol to get them drunk that it once did. This means that the brain’s dopamine receptors no longer respond to alcohol in the same way. Since increased tolerance necessitates repeated instances of heavy substance abuse, non-alcoholics rarely experience this phenomenon. This makes tolerance one of the surest signs that you or your loved one is in the midst of an ongoing struggle with alcohol addiction.
#4. Withdrawal Symptoms
As with tolerance, withdrawal only occurs after an extended period of heavy drinking. When the alcoholic goes too long without alcohol, they may experience any number of symptoms. These include fatigue, loss of appetite, and trouble sleeping. An alcoholic suffering withdrawal may become irritable, anxious or depressed. In particularly bad cases, withdrawal may result in shaking, trembling or even seizures.
Mild cases of withdrawal are not always readily apparent. However, many alcoholics who suffer withdrawal the morning after a drinking spree will treat their symptoms with the “hair of the dog” method, drinking at least a small amount to regain a sense of relative normalcy. Many use this as a basic hangover cure, but those who regularly suffer withdrawal symptoms will engage in the practice far more frequently. Morning drinking therefore makes for an excellent sign that alcoholism may be at play.
#5. Extreme Shift in Priorities
Over time, alcoholics often set aside other interests and responsibilities to make more time for their drinking. It may begin with a sudden loss of interest in once-revered hobbies. Then, the alcoholic may start neglecting responsibilities such as work or school. They will miss obligations such as family events, or show up to them while intoxicated. Cleanliness and hygiene sometimes suffer as well.
Safety is another priority that sometimes falls by the wayside. Alcoholics sometimes drink under hazardous circumstances, such as before driving or even while behind the wheel. Others disregard physician guidelines, drinking while on medications that may react badly to the presence of alcohol. Mixing drinks, consuming alcohol in potentially lethal quantities, and mixing alcohol with other drugs are all examples of risky behaviors. Again, not all who engage in these behaviors are necessarily alcoholics; however, those who engage in these behaviors on a regular basis should be monitored for other warning signs.
#6. Drinking Despite Consequences
Not only do many alcoholics drink despite possible consequences, some will continue drinking after the consequences have already been suffered. For instance, a person may find themselves with a DUI charge. The court sentences them to a short probationary period, which necessitates that they remain alcohol-free for a certain length of time. A die-hard alcoholic, however, might easily find themselves getting pulled over when they once again get drunk and take the wheel.
Others may continue to drink despite an ultimatum from their loved one. Some lose jobs because they show up drunk to work, ignoring repeated warnings from their boss. In some cases, a person may wind up in the hospital for overconsumption, only to continue drinking shortly after their discharge. In all of these cases, the drinker knows precisely what they stand to lose by drinking. A few may even have personal experience with such consequences, having suffered them before. The alcoholic, however, will find themselves unable to stop no matter how clear the need may seem to their friends and family. If you or someone you know exhibits these behavior patterns, you can just about consider this a full confirmation that alcoholism is the cause.
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#7. Dishonesty and Defensiveness
Those who suffer from alcoholism often face denial. It’s one of the primary reasons that so many alcoholics take a long time to seek help. When loved ones confront them, they often become defensive. They may find themselves reacting with annoyance or even anger at the mere suggestion that their drinking has become out of control.
Reacting harshly to the concerns of loved ones often results in a great deal of guilt. The alcoholic will therefore begin drinking in secret, attempting to prevent further confrontations. Sometimes, the alcoholic becomes secretive prior to any accusations of problem drinking. They recognize on some level that alcohol has become an issue, one they must keep hidden. At the very least, the alcoholic recognizes that others do not approve of their drinking. To this end, you may actually identify a silver lining to the alcoholic’s secrecy. It indicates a certain level of self-awareness, which will eventually become necessary if they are to seek positive change.
#8. Multiple Attempts to Quit
Many alcoholics try to quit on their own. Even if they do not take the abstinence approach, they at least try to cut back. As noted above, however, a severe lack of self-regulation often makes this difficult. In fact, some may prove more successful at quitting entirely than at limiting their alcohol intake. An alcoholic might go for days, weeks or even months without drinking, powered by nothing but pure self-will. Unfortunately, willpower can only take a person so far. Without a program of recovery and a thorough relapse prevention plan, many turn once again to drinking. Some may even quit multiple times within a week, pouring their liquor down the drain only to replace it the next day.
Those who try to quit on their own are in better shape than one might realize. While they still require help in the form of treatment and peer support, they have at least begun admitting that they have a problem. They still have a difficult journey ahead of them; however, once you notice this particular sign of alcoholism, you can feel rest assured that your loved one is either ready or at least becoming ready to receive help. Talk to them about other steps they might take to quit, such as rehabilitation, cognitive behavioral therapy or even both.
It will still be difficult to confront the fact that your loved one struggles with alcohol addiction. Fortunately, once you have faced this difficult truth, you can begin helping them move past their addiction and into an enriching life of recovery.