If you’re thinking about quitting drinking, wondering where to start, or simply questioning your relationship with alcohol, this article is for you.
We want to start by acknowledging that quitting drinking is a complex process. In fact, it’s as multifaceted as alcohol use disorder itself. There is no one-size-fits-all approach and everyone experiences their relationship with alcohol differently. For some, alcohol rules their life, but for others, it may impact only their weekends and Monday mornings. What is critical, however, is that any approach to quitting drinking is personalized and accessible.
This article addresses, with the help of some addiction experts, several of the key signs that you might have a problem with alcohol. We also highlight the main signs that you’re ready to quit drinking.
How do I know if I have a problem with alcohol?
Everyone experiences their relationship with alcohol differently. Dr. Kristine De Jesus, PsyD, explains, “For some, the decision to stop drinking relates to negative consequences, for others, it is a simple realization that drinking is no longer serving their needs, and yet others it is a gradual change in behaviors.” The common thread, De Jesus says, is that “alcohol is no longer providing the same benefits it once did.”
Dr. Geri-Lynn Utter, PsyD, says there is a long list of real-world examples that indicate your drinking behaviors have transitioned from being social to using alcohol as a coping mechanism to manage whatever problems life throws your way. “One key problem,” she says, “is the inability to cut down or stop despite a concerted effort to do so.”
Utter says you might also want to consider why you are drinking in the first place. “Are you drinking to relieve stress or anxiety?” she suggests asking. Or “Are you drinking because you are unhappy with yourself or a specific situation or circumstance that is making you feel bad (i.e. the death of a loved one, divorce, loss of a job, issues related to Covid-19 such as feelings of isolation, anxiety and worry related to contracting the virus oneself or of a loved contracting the virus, inability to pay bills, feed family, etc.)?”
You may also be drinking because it is simply part of your routine, too, warns Utter. But you might want to consider any progression in your drinking, too. “Are noticing that one glass has turned into three or four and you are having a difficult time managing how much alcohol you are drinking?” she says.
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Am I ready to stop drinking?
Stopping drinking looks different for everyone. Whether you decide to stop drinking because of negative consequences or because drinking is no longer serving your needs or because you are looking for a gradual change, there is no wrong way to recognize that alcohol is no longer providing you with the benefits it once did. Moreover, you don’t need to hit the traditional Hollywood movie “rock bottom” to stop drinking.
Utter explains that “everyone’s rock bottom is different.” For some, rock bottom might not be the extreme stereotypes that we sometimes see with alcohol use disorder, like people losing their job and experiencing homelessness.
Both experts say that these signs exist on a spectrum from a lack of awareness to becoming increasingly aware of the cumulative consequences of their drinking.
That self-awareness might look like “a series of consequences correlated to drinking such as issues with interpersonal relationships, possible legal troubles (e.g. a DUI), reprimands or disciplinary issues at work due to drinking (e.g. showing up late for an important meeting, inconsistent work performance, public drunkenness at work or in attendance at work functions), and finally, feeling constantly ‘blah’, irritable, bloated, nauseated, unmotivated and downright miserable when you are not drinking, may be indication that it is time to put the bottle down and re-evaluate your drinking behaviors and patterns,” says Utter.
Those who haven’t yet gained the awareness of having a problem might need the intervention and support of a loved one. “Those closest to a person engaging in chaotic alcohol use are usually the first to notice there is a problem” explains De Jesus. “They often recognize the issue before their loved ones, who may not yet recognize the negative consequences of their use.”
Do I have to be an alcoholic to quit drinking?
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a pattern of problematic drinking that runs on a spectrum of mild, moderate, to severe levels of alcohol dependence. People who experience AUD are colloquially referred to as alcoholics, which is a term that originated over a hundred years ago and is no longer commonly accepted by clinicians.
There are many reasons to examine your relationship with alcohol, and you do not need to identify as an alcoholic in order to quit drinking. You may not be experiencing the full-blown effects of alcohol addiction to have a problem. As the experts explained, problematic use of alcohol looks different for everyone. For example, some individuals meet only a few of the clinical criteria (as set out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V, or DSM-V, used to diagnose alcohol use disorder). These criteria range from mild to moderate to severe.
Utter explains, “An individual can meet the criteria for mild AUD if they demonstrate a problematic pattern of alcohol use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress.” Typically, doctors look for at least 2 of the 11 DSM-V criteria set over a 12-month period. Utter says these signs might include:
- Alcohol often being used in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended
- The person experiences a craving or a strong desire or urge to use alcohol
Unfortunately, we often only notice a person’s problem once they reach the severe stage of alcohol use disorder. However, there are great benefits to intervening before that stage, says De Jesus. “Interventions to change another person’s behavior are far more effective when a person has a mild or moderate alcohol use disorder.”
There are various techniques, like motivational interviewing, which she says are highly successful at helping people reflect on how their relationship with alcohol may not be best serving them, and assist in changing behaviors before a chemical dependence is developed.
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You don’t have to accept the term “alcoholic” or qualify under every criterion for alcohol use disorder before you stop drinking. You also don’t have to hit some imagined notion of a “rock bottom” or lose your job or relationships before you decide that your relationship with alcohol no longer serves you. It’s okay to re-evaluate that relationship long before you suffer dire consequences.
As the experts explained, if you are experiencing any negative consequences from your drinking or alcohol is no longer serving your long-term needs, that’s reason enough to exploring going alcohol-free. And it’s okay if you need help to stop, most of us do. Recognizing that is part of the journey.