Alcoholism is defined by dependence on and tolerance to alcohol. Although there are numerous hallmarks of alcoholism, because many people enjoy drinking recreationally, it can sometimes be difficult to discern between an occasional indiscretion and a genuine health problem. Although a person can drink heavily and regularly without necessarily suffering from alcoholism, you should never dismiss the potential signs that someone may be an alcoholic.
The longer an individual leaves a dependence on alcohol untreated, the greater the likelihood they will experience health, relationship, or occupational problems. Although society does not stigmatize alcohol consumption – even to excess – in the same way it does the abuse of other substances, attributing recurring habits to a personality quirk or a sign of immaturity can indirectly yet unnecessarily prolong the problem.
Hidden Signs Of Alcoholism
Those who drink moderately may be less likely to develop an alcohol use disorder. Drinking limits differ for men an women with the current guidelines being no more than 4 drinks in a single day and no more than 14 drinks per week for men, and no more than 3 drinks in a single day and no more than 7 drinks per week for women. Individuals who drink above these levels have and increased risk of alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence (alcoholism).
Many individuals suffering from alcohol dependence attempt to hide their drinking, making the problem difficult for their loved ones to detect. Some signs of alcoholism can include:
- Increased tolerance to alcohol (i.e., needing more drinks to "get buzzed")
- Becoming irritable or angry when alcohol is not available
- Missed work or school, or a decrease in performance
- Poor nutrition that may result in weight loss or poor attention to grooming
- Hiding extra alcohol in unusual places
Not "Just A Phase"
Parents and educators have a tendency to dismiss abuse of alcohol in adolescents and young adults as the result of immaturity or a type of natural experimentation during this period of their lives. This expectation is met with a degree of social acceptance stemming from a philosophy that "kids will be kids." But "youth" should never be used to justify and completely ignore destructive habits. Although it is certainly true that young people are faced with peer pressure to use substances, parents should still monitor their children's behaviors and relationships so as not to miss a larger problem.
Where's The Line?
Many people drink socially or enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, and it never becomes a serious health threat. To the outside observer, perhaps the best gauges of whether a person has a problem with alcohol are (a) whether they are having problems "in general" more often than not; and (b) unusual changes in behavior that cannot be explained. Alcoholics may have difficulty keeping a job (e.g., chronic tardiness because of hangovers, drunk at work), may always be short on money (alcoholism can get expensive), and may frequently complain of conflicts in their interpersonal relationships. If the person has also recently experienced a major trauma or stressful life event, there is a good chance that your suspicions may be correct.
Acknowledging the destructive potential of alcoholism early can be the first step toward helping an alcoholic get help. If you have observed these signs in a loved one, don't allow yourself to simply explain it away; have a conversation with them, and don't hesitate to seek outside help when necessary.