Is there a difference between heavy drinking and alcoholism? How do you know when you've crossed the line into addiction?
These are complicated issues that don't have an easy answer but it is important for people with a habit of heavy drinking to think about them. While plenty of people in the U.S. are prone to nights of heavy drinking, not all of these people suffer from an addiction.
An alcoholic is more than just a person that drinks heavily; they are dealing with a disease that they have no control over. It is a problem that can consume their lives and make it difficult for them to function or cause serious consequences that are hard to recover from.
Heavy drinkers are often not fully aware of when they've crossed the line into alcoholic behavior until they are caught in the cycle of addiction.
Behavior that Defines Alcoholism
Heavy drinking or an alcohol binge usually consists of having 5 or more drinks on one occasion. It is not at all unusual for a normal non-alcoholic to have more than 5 drinks in one night at a party.
While frequent binge drinking can be a problem in itself, it is a different issue than actual alcoholism. When binges become more and more frequent and start to become compulsive then a heavy drinker is beginning to cross the line into alcoholism.
An alcoholic will sometimes want to stop or limit their drinking but be physically and mentally unable to do so. Their drinking becomes a compulsion that they have no control over and they have to drink more every time as their tolerance grows.
An alcoholic might start to feel ashamed of how much they drink and begin isolating themselves, drinking alone instead of socially with friends. They might lie or make excuses because they don't want friends or family to know the truth about how much they really drink.
An alcoholic also starts to experience physical withdrawal symptoms any time they don't drink. When they drink every day or almost every day, they might be in a constant cycle of being either drunk or hung over and nauseous.
Dependency is Different than Binging
As an alcoholic develops a physical dependence, they start to make a ritual of drinking at certain times and get irritable if they are not able to drink or something interrupts their usual drinking time. They also might keep alcohol in unlikely places to make sure it is available any time they might need it such as at work or in their car.
An alcoholic will also be unable to remember certain conversations or events because they were "blackout" drunk. This will happen to them much more frequently than it would with someone who binge drinks occasionally. An alcoholic drinks not just to have fun or feel good but simply to feel normal and functional.
They may find themselves unable to get through the day without a drink because of their physical withdrawal symptoms and emotional instability. Alcoholics usually have issues with relationships, finances and employment because their constant drinking interferes with their ability to be responsible and trustworthy.
While many people might binge drink a few times a week, if they do not exhibit any of the behavior described then they may not be an alcoholic. Heavy drinking can easily turn into alcoholism, however, if some these patterns start to develop and their behavior changes because of their frequent drinking.
A heavy drinker might be fine without drinking for weeks or months but an alcoholic depends on the drug to function in spite of how much it has interfered with their lives.