What distinguishes a genuine alcoholic from a “hard drinker”, a “moderate drinker”, or someone who just “parties a little too much”?
It’s not always easy to tell.
After all, drinking is common across many cultures and recreational drinking is almost a rite of passage in American youth culture. It doesn’t seem reasonable to label someone an alcoholic just because of a night or two of overdoing it…right? So, where do we draw the line? One night? Two nights? Three nights? At a certain point, it becomes clear that your drinking has become a habit and not a one-time thing. In that case, you may have chronic alcoholism.
Chronic Alcoholism: Where Do We Draw the Line?
Since alcohol is such a prevalent part of our society, and youth culture specifically, it’s important to know when a drink becomes a drinking problem.
Alcoholism (and addiction, for that matter) isn’t a medical term, in that it is professionally used by clinicians. The official medical term for what we might call alcoholism is “alcohol use disorder,“ and it’s diagnosed by a set of 11 criteria. Essentially, the criteria ask if in the past year you have: drank more than you intended, experienced negative consequences due to drinking, etc. If you meet two or more of the criteria, then you are diagnosed with alcohol use disorder.
In the addiction recovery and treatment world, addictions are generally identified when a substance or activity is negatively affecting your life. If you go out and have a drink and go a little overboard, this may be risky behavior and it can lead to some consequences. However, it doesn’t necessarily indicate alcoholism. If drinking or recovering from binge drinking put stress on relationships, your work life, your health, or your financial well-being, it may mean you have an addiction.
Blurring the Line
Some classify everyone who drinks too much at any point as an alcoholic. Diagnosing drinkers with one blanked criteria blurs the line between problem drinkers and chronic alcoholics. This has led to a debate within the treatment and recovery community. Using their own diagnostic criteria, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) states that about 3 out of 4 “alcoholics” are able to quit or moderate on their own. That means without any help such as treatment, addiction therapy, or 12-step programs. Some use this statistic to say that alcoholism isn’t actually a disease. Meanwhile, the remaining 1/4 aren’t able to quit. They experience five times as many episodes of alcohol addiction four times as often. In other words, they are chronic alcoholics.
Youth Culture and Young Alcoholics
That isn’t to say that the majority group that quits after a period of time is out of the woods. This temporary alcoholism is common among young people and college students. Through TV, movies, and their peers, college-aged teens and young adults are introduced to the idea that excessive drinking is not only acceptable but necessary to fit into college life. If you want to have the genuine “college experience” you have to drink at parties.
Unfortunately, even if that idea is only implemented practice for four years of college, it can still lead to a number of dangerous consequences including fatal car accidents, alcohol poisoning, health complications like heart disease, and violent crimes. Here are some negative effects of alcohol as reported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA):
- About 1,825 college students die from alcohol-related injuries like automobile accidents every year.
- Around 696,000 students are assaulted each year by other students who have been drinking.
- 97,000 students report alcohol-related sexual assaults each year.
Studies also show that alcohol can affect brains that are still in development. Since the human brain continues to develop until around age 25, college-age students are susceptible to negative effects. According to another report by NIAAA, heavy abuse of alcohol lasting a year or more during adolescence can affect cognitive function including memory and processing ability.
Drawing the Line Between Chronic Alcoholism and Drinkers
It doesn’t seem to make sense to lump one-time alcoholics in with chronic alcoholism in order to debunk the fact that alcoholism is, in fact, a disease. This point is made well by Dr. Adi Jaffe, “I don’t know that this is very different from the percentage of people that eat too much and gain weight—some stop and return to a normal BMI, the rest become obese.”
In other words, many people eat too much but only some become obese. Just the same, many people drink too much but only some end up with chronic alcoholism. Just like with other addictions, there are a number of factors that can lead to chronic alcoholism, including heredity, environment, family life, and more.
Determining Chronic Alcoholism
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is not a medical organization, but its members do have a wealth of firsthand experience with alcoholic addiction. So let’s look at the AA diagnostic criteria, which is less complicated and only asks two questions:
- Are you able to control or moderate how much you drink?
- Are you able to quit drinking on your own?
If the answer to both questions is no, then by this standard, you are a “chronic alcoholic”. This is another distinction between the reckless binge drinking youth and the chronic alcoholic. While binge drinking is alcohol abuse, since it’s done for recreation, peer pressure, or experimentation, it is not necessarily chronic alcoholism. AA points to a lack of control to identify alcoholism. This means chronic alcoholics don’t drink for recreation, they drink to satisfy chemical or psychological dependence.
Fortunately, chronic alcoholism doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be a slave to alcohol for the rest of your life. There are treatment solutions that can help you start the road to lasting recovery.
If you or a loved one is struggling with an alcohol use disorder and need to find treatment, call Drug Treatment Center Finder 24/7 at 855-619-8070 to have a specialist connect you with a rehabilitation program that is tailored to you. Don’t let alcohol go from an adolescent mistake to a lifelong crutch; get help from a recovery expert and speak to those who have walked the path of recovery before you. Ending your dependence on chronic alcoholism is the first step to finding a new life in sobriety.