Can a daily heavy drinker NOT be an alcoholic?

This is a sort of follow-up to another thread: Alcoholism Treatments: success rates.

This guy who’s been drinking at least a six-pack a night for years suddenly stops drinking. (Let’s call him “Sam”, after the character on Cheers.) Had his last drink Saturday, 3 days ago. Sunday, Monday, today (Tuesday) nothing. And I see no withdrawal symptoms at all. No shakes, appetite’s fine, no complaints of headaches, nada.

He hasn’t yet said that he’s stopped drinking, but he hasn’t had any booze – and he’s only been at work or home or in between, or with family, the whole time.

He quit once before, about 10 years ago, for about a year and a half, and by all accounts it was the same then. He just decided, not gonna drink, and stopped drinking. Back then it was scotch, several drinks a night.

So here’s the question. Is it possible that this guy isn’t really an alcoholic? That he just decides to drink a lot? There’s no family history of alcoholism on either side.

He says he’s an alcoholic, but that’s because he drinks. His definition of “alcoholic” is “someone who likes to drink”. He’s never done any research on alcoholism that I know of.

It may be that there’s not enough hard data or agreement on what alcoholism really is. In that case, I hope the moderator will move the thread over to GD. But for now at least, I’m hoping there might be a straight answer out there somewhere.

PS: To those who helped out on the other thread, I’m starting a new one in MPSIMS if you care to follow Sam’s progress – being hopeful here that there will be such. Look to the original thread for a link.

I used to ask my uncle that question.

This man drinks so heavily, every time he starts to walk you can hear his body slosh.

Throughout his life, he’s spent so much money on Jim Beam that they were thinking about taking Beams picture off the bottle and putting his on it

Believe me , we are all very careful not to strike a match around him

While talking to him about his “issues with the fire water”, our conversation went somewhere along this line:

Me - Uncle, why do you drink so much?

My Uncle - Because I’m thirsty (Duh)

Me - No, I mean why do you drink alcohol so much? You know, you’re becoming a real Alcoholic.

My Uncle - I’m not an alcholic, I’m a Drunk. Those Alcholic types all have to go to those damn meetings. As a drunk I can drink whenever I want

Oh I almost for got to add, when we were little, my uncle used to play a game called “rocket man” with us. He would drink a whole lot of whiskey, swallow a lot of air, wait till he had to fart then would bend over with a match to his ass, and try to make flames come out with each fart. After my Aunt threw him out of the house, we could see him outside in the dark still trying. All we would hear was a loud fart and small flames jump out into the night, then hear my aunt yelling at him to stop. :eek:

I suppose it depends on how one defines “alcoholism”. Or if one even agrees that the condition exists.

But if you look at the DSM-IV criteria for alcohol dependence, physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are only one criteria in diagnosing alcohol dependency. (You’d have to decide for yourself if he meets enough of the other criteria to be labelled dependent.)

So, yes, a person who meets the criteria for alcohol dependence can stop drinking without exhibiting physical symptoms.

And yes, he can just decide to stop drinking. That’s how most people do it.

Actually, for me, that answers the question. Thanks, Zoltar.

There is a category of “Problem Drinker” that does not have Alcoholism. I was one, quit one day a little over two years ago and had no problems other than habit-changing (drank a lot of Sprite because I had a habit of cracking open something when I got home). An alcoholic is driven to drink and cannot stop or slow down when normal people can.

I think people can be heavy drinkers and not be alcoholics.

Everyone’s idea of what constitutes an alcoholic is different; even medical descriptions vary. I grew up in an area where people drink. I’ve also lived in areas where it’s not so common. In the first area, if someone comes home from work every day and has 3 or 4 beers, nobody bats an eye. In the second, you’d have people shuttling you to AA meetings for the same behavior.

I drink a fair bit. I like my wine, my cocktails, good microbrew beer. I won’t lie and say it’s only for pleasure, either. If I have a stressful day, the first thing that comes to mind is “let’s have a drink and unwind.” Mr. Athena does the same. Hell, during a particular stressful time in his life - a time where a lot of people would be in therapy or on anti-depressants - Mr. Athena engaged in what he called “Margarita Therapy.” On 2-4 nights a week, he’d make these wonderful high end margaritas that are strong enough to knock your socks off. He’d have 3 or 4 of them. Each had 2 shots of liquor. He did this for a few months as he worked through several major life changes. Towards the end, he woke up one day and said “OK, that’s enough of that.” He cut back on his margarita nights, and went back to a more normal level of drinking.

I’m sure a lot of people would say that drinking that heavily every week is a sign of alcoholism. However, he was able to quit when he wanted to. They didn’t impact his life other than allowing him to worry less about the very real issues he was dealing with. IMO, he’s not an alcoholic.

What does constitute an alcoholic? IMO it’s people whose drinking has a definite adverse affect to their life. The people who regularly get drunk and get abusive to their friends and family, or go on benders and then can’t get up the next morning to go to work. Lying about drinking is high on my list of “behaviors that make you an alcoholic.” And that’s about it. If you can drink 2 six packs every night, refrain from being an asshole, get up for work the next morning, and feel good about your drinking, you’re not an alcoholic in my book.

Although this is GQ there seems to be a lot of opinion here so I’ll add my own:
I believe alcoholism shows itself in many ways. I think that someone could drink everyday and not be an alcoholic I also think that someone only drinking once a month could be an alcoholic.
If the alcohol is causing serious physical or social problems and you don’t give up then alcoholism is probbaly a fair term for the condition.
If someone only goes out once a month but is incapable of controlling how much they drink then they are an alcoholic. If someone drinks everynight cause they just can’t relax otherwise then they are an alcoholic. If someone chooses to drink regularly because they like it, and show no side effects (physical, emotional or social) when they DECIDE to give up then I would say they are probably not an alcoholic.

I’m an alcoholic. I haven’t had a drink in 17 years. I came to the conclusion that the consumption of alcohol 1) Did not make me smarter, 2) Did not make me more attractive, 3) Did not make me more pleasant to be with. I know that I lost many things and wasted much of my life due to drinking and for me the benefits of quitting, outweighed the cost of continuing.

My father was a heavy drinker but, as he put it, he was not an alcoholic. He 1) Was a successful, independent busniess man, 2) Was a respected member of the community, 3) Did not drink every day, 4) Mostly drank beer, seldom whiskey, 5) Had raised a family that he was proud of. No, he was not an alcoholic, but on January 2, 1982, after returning me to college, my freshman year, he stopped to have a drink or two and later was killed in a head-on collision going south in a north bound lane.

Take my advice, define alcoholism however you like but do not set the bar so high that you have to die to find out if you are correct or not.

Im a college student, i usually drink 2-3x a month. During december and January i had alot of stress, so i went from drinking 2-3x a month to drinking 12+ times a month for a couple months to cope with the stress. As i adjusted to the stress i went back to drinking 2-3x a month, last time i drank was 3 weeks ago. I dont know if 2 months is long enough to become physically addicted to alcohol though.

Thank you for referencing the DSM-IV for definition. As a chemical dependency therapist, I must use the criteria listed for proper diagnosis. Some professionals don’t (and the great majority of the public don’t) and that leads to problems. But that’s how the medical and mental health community is expected to define alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence.

And yes, I agree, that some or many problem drinkers can stop drinking with no apparent withdrawal symptoms, some with no strong cravings.

It’s true that some daily drinkers do not meet the criteria for alcoholism. My aunt and uncle had martinis every night after he returned home from work, and perhaps one more after dinner. They never had any problems (family, social, legal, financial, physical, emotional, spiritual, etc.) related to this pattern. On the other hand, I met a gentleman years ago who refused to believe he was alcoholic because he only drank twice a year. However, every time he did, he went on a binge, missed work for a few days, blacked out, got into fights, got arrested, had marital problems, got DUIs and accrued more financial problems (SR-22 and legal fees). As I was leaving, his wife was coming in; she verified his story. She was serving him divorce papers that morning because she was tired of living like that. This guy had a serious alcohol problem and may never see it, despite his outcomes, because he didn’t fit the standard stereotype that people carry with them of what an alcoholic is. Many people don’t fit the stereotype, and it’s good to remember that stereotypes are not clinical definitions. Those people who are most notorious for looking to stereotypes for definition, in my experience, are alcoholics/addicts or families of alcoholics/addicts.

Concerning the studies you cited, I read the summary and was slightly concerned with the vagueness of their working definition of “alcohol problem” or “problem drinking.” They made reference to the criteria in the DSM-IV which was commendable. However, the summary didn’t define how they questioned the participants. For example, concerning “family problems,” did they all uniformly ask participants “Have you ever had family problems due to your drinking?” Or did they go into detail with their questions, asking instead “Have your family members ever objected to your drinking? If so, what was their objection? Have you ever missed important family functions due to drinking? Have you alienated any family members due to your drinking?” And so on. Asking the first question may elicit a “Yes” response, while more detailed questions may glean more important information such as “My wife hates it when I drink, even if I have one beer, because her father was an alcoholic and she’s afraid I might become one if I drink at all. We argue on those rare occasions that I have a drink because of this.” Big difference, IMH professional O. Even with a DUI, I make a strong effort to get details. Compare the guy who almost never drinks who then gets his first DUI after a bachelor party, with the guy who drinks heavily all the time and gets his first DUI because he felt a need to replenish his stash at home. They obviously both need to face the same legal consequences because they both used distorted judgment. But the one would need treatment while the other would perhaps need education, by my estimation.

And Sample_the_dog, generally if Sam believes that he has an alcohol problem, he probably does. Please don’t debate it with him. Many people early in recovery have to deal with their own denial and shaky resolve… they need your support. You did well to get some additional information from the SDMB. All my best to Sam and to you.

It was explained to me years ago that alcoholism is defined as pattern behavior. This person went so far as to say that a person who gets drunk once a year on Christmas Day is an alcoholic. That’s a little loose for me, but I buy the pattern behavior concept. If alcohol is causing or contributing to your problems, then you are probably an alcoholic. If you seek solice in a drink, you probably have a drinking problem. My father, brother, brother-in-law, and stepfather are/were all alcoholics. Two died as a result, one spent years recovering the damage he did, the BIL is an asshole whether he drinks or not.

Ok, now my stereotypic vision of a drunk (Otis, Barney) has been replaced by a crazy uncle lighting his farts into the night.


Both of my parents are non-alcoholic alcoholics: they drink every single day, and never get hangovers. But just to prove that they’re “not alcoholics,” every once in a while they stop drinking for a week or two. Neither exhibits any physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. So they’re behavioral alcoholics.

Thanks for the detailed response LadyLion. 'Tis good.

No worries. This is strictly for my own information, not to convince Sam. Besides, one doesn’t debate with Sam. One hangs out with Sam, or one argues with Sam, but there ain’t no debate. Light’s on, light’s off – no in between.

But fwiw, Sam believes he’s an alcoholic, but doesn’t believe he has an “alcohol problem”. He drinks heavily every night for years on end, and by his lights that’s “alcoholic”, but he sees it as completely his choice. The reasons he’s been talking about quitting are to help him lose weight, prevent possible health problems, and save him some cash.

When we talk about alcoholism and AA and such, he says the premise of AA is “bullshit” because he (and by extension everyone else on the planet) is not powerless over alcohol. “There’s no urge in the world that can make me get in my car, go to the store, take a bottle off the shelf, pay for it, open it, and drink it. That’s a choice.” Straight for the horse’s mouth.

Btw, this thread is getting very un-GQ. Moderator, check please.

I find this interesting. In all honesty I have never known any SOCIAL drinkers who ever felt the need to “stop drinking for a week or two” in order “to prove they’re not alcoholics.” That is alcoholic behavior.

Sam verbalized a common misunderstanding of what the first step of AA is all about. There is even disagreement among AA members concerning its meaning. I don’t wish to bring it into controversy here on the SDMB, but I can give you MY understanding of it. On a daily basis I make a choice whether or not I pick up that first drink. However, if I am an alcoholic, once I do make that decision to have the first one, my ability to stop consistently after that is no longer my decision. That’s when the disease takes over and doesn’t bother to consult me first about how much more I’ll drink. Obviously people who are not predisposed to alcoholism can’t fathom why alcoholics drink this way. But alcoholics understand it. As long as I try to “control” my drinking, and thus feel the need to continue that drinking experiment, I will continue to fail. That is the powerlessness of the first step, as I understand it to be.

This one is tricky for me because I’m usually alone when I’m drinking and so have no frame of reference for when “normal” people stop drinki…what?

I realize much of this thread is based on personal experiences, and as such it’s not very meaningful to ask for a cite. But we are still in GQ, and while I don’t want to debate this here, I am curious about research that supports the powerlessness and loss of control over drinking that are generally associated with alcoholism.

On this subject I tend to read stuff by people like Stanton Peele, Ken Ragge, and Herbert Fingarette, so I probably self-select toward my existing bias, yet these authors consistently cite studies that do not support the “loss of control after one drink” concept.

Are there studies that have shown different results?

I’ve been to AA (court appointed) and they will you have you believe we’re all alcoholics, we’re just in denial. I won’t say any more. :cool: