How to tell the difference between appreciating a glass of wine—and needing it to function.
“If you ask me about drinking I’ll tell you I love it; it relaxes me and makes life fun,” writes Annie Grace, author of This Naked Mind, a new book for anyone who has ever wondered, Am I drinking too much?
The sentiment is a legitimate one. For many of us, drinking does make life fun. But the line between enjoying alcohol and depending on it can get fuzzy fast. Take it from Grace, who before writing This Naked Mind found herself imbibing five glasses of wine a night, often downing more while her husband and children slept.
Acknowledging her dependence was especially difficult because Grace functioned just fine most of the time. “During the day I [felt] in control,” she writes. “I [was] successful and busy. The outward signs of how much I [drank were] practically nonexistent.”
According to Robert Poznanovich, executive director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and author of It's Not Okay to Be a Cannibal: How to Keep Addiction from Eating Your Family Alive, the battle for control is at the core of alcohol abuse and dependence. But first you have to recognize that you've lost control. Here, Poznanovich spotlights four signs that you may be too attached to alcohol, plus what to do about it.
Once you start, you can’t stop
Most people have the ability to start and stop sipping whenever they please, meaning they’ll plan to have one drink with dinner...and actually have one drink with dinner. Those with an addiction, on the other hand, can’t control when they start or stop drinking. They wake up feeling like they need a drink, which can lead them to imbibe in risky situations, including at work or even when they're driving their kid to soccer practice.
Grace fell somewhere in between, which isn’t uncommon. “The middle stage is when you have control over when you start drinking but lose control of when you stop," says Poznanovich. So you're able to wait until dinner to have that first glass of wine, but once you do, you can’t help but have another (and then another, and then another).
You’re drinking alone—and sneaking it
Relaxing solo with a beer after a long day isn’t cause for concern, but take note if you find yourself drinking alone more often than not, or sneaking sips when you know others won’t see you. If you’re consciously hiding your drinking activity, you’re probably already aware on some level that you have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, says Poznanovich.
You drink to feel ‘normal’
If you can’t head to a social event without knocking back a shot first, you're probably relying on alcohol too heavily. Other red flags: if you feel excessively guilty or defensive about your drinking behavior.
“People with an alcohol dependence commonly find themselves having mood swings or being irritable, either because they feel guilty about their drinking habits or because they don’t like when people question those habits,” explains Poznanovich. Find yourself snapping at your BFF when she suggests you slow down at the bar? Pause to think about why you're so upset by her comment (and maybe rethink that third round while you're at it).
You're always making excuses
It helps me fall asleep. My job is really stressful. It loosens me up. Just because you find ways to justify that fourth margarita doesn’t mean you should have it. Ask yourself if you’re prone to making excuses about why you’re overdoing the booze, suggests Poznanovich. If you feel the need to explain yourself, chances are you’re sipping more than you should.
What to do about it
One common misconception is that alcoholics need to hit rock bottom before they can truly get better. Absolutely not, says Poznanovich: “People don’t realize that addiction is a chronic medical illness. It’s a disease of the brain, and the earlier you get help, the better.”
If you suspect you might be too attached to alcohol, start by getting assessed by your general practitioner or at a drug and alcohol treatment center in your area. Discussing your usage history and lifestyle habits will help you determine whether you’re actually abusing alcohol or just depending on it to an unhealthy extent, says Poznanovich.
There's no one-size-fits-all treatment plan for people with alcohol dependence. That said, if you’re someone who has had difficulty quitting in the past, you probably shouldn’t keep drinking, even if minimally, says Poznanovich: "The more extended the usage, the more it can mess with your brain chemistry."