What's the difference between a Heavy Drinker and an Alcoholic??

I’ve been reading some of the posts on quitting drinking and making the decision whether or not to get some help or to go to AA*, and have decided to open a post about making that fateful decision. In this post when I use the term “…In the Rooms…” I’m refering to being in the halls of an AA meeting.

More and more I am seeing people on these boards who are talking about drinking, and people entering the rooms wondering if they may infact be an alcoholic or not. Maybe they are drinking a little too much, or maybe it has progressed to a place where they must drink or fix first thing in the morning to avoid the shakes or other nasty side effects of having a problem. Either one is irrelevant, and I am certainly not opening this thread to tell anyone what to do or how to do it. I’m simply opening up this question to those who are either in the rooms and comfortable talking about this subject or to those who are simply lurking and want to fnd out a little bit about the differences between being a heavy drinker and an alcoholic.

The question is not an easy one and it comes up nearly everyday at beginners meetings across the globe I’m sure. Do I drink too much, am I an alcoholic, where is the line. Most people with a little sobriety will say that if you feel you have a problem then more than likely you do. I’ve seen everything in the rooms from soccer moms hiding booze in their kids gatorade bottles, to lawyers drinking before they hit the court room floor for litigation, to regular Jack and Janes who drink to settle their nerves and it goes from never drinking before 5pm to 4, 3, 2 then drinking when you wake up.

What does the populace at large think of heavy drinking? Is there a difference between a heavy drinker and an alcoholic? How about the use of a program, is it needed? How do you know when you have to go into a program?**

*this is in no way an endorsment of AA.
** MODS this could perhaps be a GD… Please move it if necessary…

Private Investigators and writers are heavy drinkers. Everyone else is an alcoholic.

I’d better start writing then!

I would suspect that addiction is the dividing line.

For the first few years after I quit drinking, I called myself a “recovering alcoholic”. I’ve since switched to calling myself a “former heavy drinker”. At the time I quit drinking, I was drinking a minimum of a half case (12-pack) of beer every night, usually more.

One night, I did something extremely stupid that resulted in six cops pointing their guns at me. I said to myself, “You know, that’s about enough of this shit.” I decided that night that it was time to stop drinking alcohol. And so I did. Aside from a bit of trouble getting to sleep the first few nights (I’d grown accustomed to drinking myself to sleep every night), I suffered no withdrawal, no shakes, no nothing. I didn’t put myself in rehab, and I’ve never set foot in an AA meeting. I just quit, and that was that.

Now, when an alcoholic quits drinking, he has to to avoid alcohol in all its forms, or risk falling off the wagon. For example, no medicine that contains alcohol. At some point a few years after I quit, I had a bad cold and the only medicine available was Nyquil, which is about 80 proof. I went ahead and took the Nyquil, despite the risk. I discovered that I didn’t suddenly feel the urge to drink the whole bottle, or to run out and start drinking again. No problem. After that, I took Nyquil for colds several times; I never abused it, and I didn’t start drinking again.

For my 40th birthday back in May of this year, I went ahead and ordered a shot of Johnny Walker Red Label. (I got a double-take and an astonished look from the bartender, who had never seen me order anything stronger than O’Doul’s non-alcoholic beer!) I downed the shot, and then drank O’Doul’s the rest of the night. This was the first alcoholic beverage I’d consumed in almost twelve years. There was no problem, and I haven’t had another drink since. Haven’t even been tempted.

This shirt about sums it up.

I think one of the dividing lines between a heavy drinker and an alcoholic is when the alcohol is causing problems in the drinker’s day to day life - school, work, family. etc., and the person does not or can not moderate the behavior.

My experience leads me NOT to buy into the “addicted for life” concept. For me it was smoking. I smoked for about 15 years, and I stopped for about 5, then I got hooked again for another 3-4 years, and I’ve been smoke-free for another five years since. Except at a Dopefest maybe 3 years back, when I bummed two cigs from a fellow Doper. I didn’t suddenly have any recurring cravings – though I had experienced that and withdrawal symptoms before.

A think a fair basis for decision making would be an experiment – to attempt to stop for some limited time, long enough to make it a challenge and for withdrawal symptoms to appear if they are going to. At least a couple of weeks, and better a month or two. If it is impossible to stop drinking for that time, even with the psychological assurance that more drinks will be available in the future, that would be a good indicator to me that I need help.

Passing the test would give me some assurance that things are not out of control, and choices can be made.

I’m fairly sure I’m getting seriously bashed in that other thread, but I don’t buy the addicted for life thing either. I’m not going to defend myself over there, just because I’m a jerk, but when I quit I was about to lose my wife, I was drinking almost a 12 pack a night, sometimes binging as well, and had been drinking like that for several years. When I stopped I couldn’t sleep for a month, had some shakes and other symptoms I associate with stopping (although I don’t know what classic alcohol withdrawal symptoms are). That was 11 years ago, so I don’t remember what they were.

I eventually had a couple of beers and didn’t turn into a vomiting drunkard. Didn’t really enjoy the buzz, but the beer sure tasted good. I even got into home brewing and have had as much as 9 gallons of beer and mead on hand and I can still count on one hand how often I’ve been drunk in the past 11 years.

So according to some people I wasn’t an alcoholic because I don’t lose control after a tiny sip, and since I don’t make the rules or work in the recovery field, I suppose I don’t get to make the definitions. Maybe I was just a garden variety drunk, but if alcoholism is indeed genetic then I’m certainly at risk.

There is a difference betweena heavy drinker, a problem drinker and a dependent drinker. This is not an AA definition, this is the definition used in addiction psychiatry.

Only the dependent drinker is addicted to alcohol, i.e. they are an alcoholic.

The problem drinker finds that alcohol negatively affects their life, either physically, emotionally, finacially, or forensically, but has no physical or psychological dependence. An example would be someone who gets into fights when they drink, or who has a medical consition caused by, or worsened by alcohol.

And the heavy drinker is someone who drinks more than the accepted limit (i.e. 21 units a week for a woman or 28 units a week for a man), but has no social, financial, medical or any other problems caused by their drinking.

The difference between a dependent and a problem drinker? When a problem drinker has the relationship between drink and their problem pointed out, they can give up or cut down, a dependent drinker will continue to drink despite knowing the harm it is causing them.

I have too many patients who drink heavily (this is Ireland, and when I say heavily, I mean HEAVILY), but not alone, not at work, not in the mornings and not in a way which causes them problems, to believe that alcoholism is about quantity alone.

I have also seen enough patients who have gone from drinking 5 or 6 units of alcohol a day, to 1 glass of wine on Christmas day after their heart attack or stroke, without needing anything more than a decision to stop drinking, to believe that everyone who drinks heavily must have an addiction.

Some people *like * to drink a lot, some people have to drink a lot.
That’s the difference.

Try telling that to the people in AA. Most of the ones I’ve ever encountered have been quite insistant that there is no difference. Human nature, I suppose…if it happens to me, it must happen to everybody, and if you say it doesn’t you are either in denial or lying.

Needless to say, I agree with you completely. Where’s my beer?

Yes. It is a big problem with some of the “True Beliver” Steppers and it does serious harm to the treatment effort that so many are involved in.

AND-- if you show them someone who at one time engaged in heavy, daily, hugely-damaging, psychologically binding, and just flat-out addictive drinking, who has now found that they can drink a little bit here and there, with no detrimental effects, the “Pod People”* will just move the goalposts and say, “Well, he was obviously never an alcoholic to begin with!”

Fortunately not everyone in 12-Step programs feels this way, but I think that many-too-many do. They have accepted it as the Gospel without giving it much critical thought (thinking is not approved of in some AA groups that I have/still do attend). For myself, I can still find enough positive features in the groups that I attend to outweigh the unhelpful screeds from knee-jerk doomsayers.

IMO, it is so important to have viable and effective treatment options available from and for those who do not believe the “disease model” is viable. That happens to include me, too.

And, it is important that more people speak up and remind others that the disease model of: “You’re a drunk for life! You’ll never get better! If you drink just ONE drop you will die!” is *not * the only theory of what leads to problem and dependent drinking.

*people who are essentially AA Fundamentalists–preaching the early, non-adaptable version of AA, leaving no room for personal differences. They are NOT the majority of AAers, in my experience

AA has definitely helped a fair number of folks, and a pretty good boilerplate for other “self-help” guidebooks. The authors position was that a true alcoholic is one who inherently cannot stop drinking booze to excess, and will in every instance become completely ruined - financially, domestically, socially, etc. The AA book really hit upon the “one day at a time” philosophy. What’s somewhat ironic too, a vital part of the AA philosophy is one of anonymity. But as they say “What’s anonymous about Otis, everyone knows he’s a drunk!!” For my part, while I enjoy my hefes, cabs and single malts, small batch bourbons, responsible enjoyment of alcoholic beverages is such a part of life that they can sit on the shelf for months, I suspect a true alkie has a rather tough time keeping booze around for very long.

Say what you want, sometimes you just have to take it

By that definition, I was a problem drinker. The drinking did cause problems, mostly financial (at one point I considered that I had only two bills to pay: rent and beer - I ignored other obligations), but I was able to quit very easily.

A different question might be, to what extent is drinking causing problems in your life? For me, this is a more useful and interesting question than splitting hairs about terminology.

Well, the vast majority of people I know in A.A. (myself included) use this exact test when people ask if they are an alcoholic. When a newcomer wants to know if they are an alcoholic the only two answers I’ve heard given out were a) “Try and stop drinking for a month. If you can then you probably don’t have a problem. If you can’t then you probably do have a problem.” and b) “Try controlling your drinking. Limit yourself to one or two drinks. If you can limit your drinking and do not crave more you probably do not have a problem. If you cannot limit your drinking or really crave more then you probably do have a problem”. I have never heard anyone say anything else though I am sure there are people in AA who do. In fact, IIRC, the second test is in the A.A Big Book.

The thing with AA is that only the individual can decide if they need help.

From AAs 'Is AA For You" questionaire:

AA is a group just like any other. Like every other group out there, there are going to be jackasses. Sadly jackasses, in every group, not just A.A, also tend to be louder than the reasonable people.

As far as the ‘addicted for life’ issue, I have not seen one alcohlic start drinking again and have it work. Every recovering alcoholic I have met that has gone back to drinking has ended up back in A.A because drinking didn’t work or ended up dead/homeless/in jail or some other nasty place. Is it possible that some alcoholics can drink again? Maybe. But for a recovering alcoholic the odds are not good and the repercussions are so bad that it just seems insane to try.


Tangental to the question of heavy drinker vs. alcoholic.

There was a link to some study of the different methods of getting off of alcohol floating around somewhere on the board. As I recall it the result of the study was that which methodology will work best for a certain person is fairly well an individual matter. AA may not be the best route for one person, and it may be the best for another. (And please note that I am saying this all off the top of my head, so do reverify this.) But I can’t recall of they had determined any way to determine forehand which person would be best to go which way.

I believe it was a GQ thread and that the report was posted by Quadgop. I’ll try doing a search.

Found it here: An Alcoholic Quandry - Great Debates - Straight Dope Message Board

The page of the study is here: http://casaa.unm.edu/match.html

And of course, the test for “whether you have a problem”: http://www.alcoholics-anonymous.org/en_is_aa_for_you.cfm?PageID=71

And of course I meant Qadgop.


The difference, for me, was that every time I set out to drink, I ended up passed-out. By noon, typically. I was unemployed and living with another addict who, fortunately, was able to keep a job at the time. He kept me in booze.

Since I was unemployed, I didn’t really have much on my plate and was pretty lonely. The thing I looked forward to every day, watching All My Children, was usually not possible, as I mentioned I would pass out by noon. I would count pennies and bag them to buy a half-pint of cheap vodka. I chased the vodka with iced tea. When I went out to dinner, the bar bill was always higher than the food bill. Long Islands are expensive. I’d drink between 4-6 during a two-hour dinner date.

I remember very clearly hiding in my apartment one day because the people from my job came looking for me when I hadn’t shown up for several days. They thought I might be dead. I remember pulling a knife on my mom. I remember sitting in my room when I was less than 18 and having five or six of the teeny bottles of JD sitting on my headboard. I had intimate relations with people I didn’t know. I lost numerous jobs and friends. I’m lucky that today my parents don’t hate me and have forgiven the nasty things I’ve said and done to them. I’m lucky that my husband never met that woman, and my children will never have to deal with her.

So, was/am I an alcoholic? Yes, absolutely. I’m afraid of alcohol. My paternal side of the family has given the world at least 6 of us. All alkies to foolishness.

Why is it necessary for someone who doesn’t have a problem to question the self-assessment of others? I think I’m a alkie, I don’t want to tempt fate, so I don’t drink at all anymore. Why would I choose to possibly destroy my life and disappoint my family - all for a stupid buzz? Not worth it, in any sense. I can live without it, and have done very well without it for sixteen years this coming September 22. I have other defects of character now, but those I can live with and control. No sorrow or pain experienced now even compares to the sorrow and pain of the past.

No, I didn’t want to get sober at the time. I didn’t want my life turned upside down by the huge lifestyle changes that had to be made. I didn’t want the pain of DTs, vomiting, no energy and no enthusiasm for anything. I didn’t WANT to be pulled out of my hole, but now, I thank God for the strength I had at the time. The memories fade, the taste of booze is actually nasty (does any alcohol taste good?) and the joy of my life now is my kids and husband. I’m no longer alone in a deep bottle. My boys will never have to fear the house burning down from a cigarette held while passed out.

There are so many positives for me that I don’t even consider the alternative. There is no alternative. This is just the way it is. You live with what you’re dealt. And I’m pretty darn proud of my accomplishments, especially since I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I’d be married thirteen years and have two beautiful and smart kids.

Life is good…now. Sorry for the rambling, this is an issue very close to me.