Photo: Winnie Au.
The problem with labels is how extreme they can feel. And, the perfect example of this is the way we approach the term alcoholic. The definition, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), is a dependence on alcohol that includes strong cravings or urge for a drink, an inability to stop drinking, physical symptoms upon withdrawal, and an increased tolerance level. Ironically, we have a wealth of endearing terms — "lush" and "wino" come to mind — for those who enjoy drinking, but dare not cross the line of becoming dependent. Herein lies the category of the almost alcoholic — those who drink more than they should, but not enough to qualify as a full-blown addict.
The NCADD claims that alcohol is the most commonly used addictive substance in the U.S. — and approximately 17.6 million people suffer from alcohol abuse. But, many are reluctant to admit when their drinking may be getting out of control, lest they be saddled with that label. As the BBC notes, the word alcoholic comes with a wealth of negative assumptions: "Alcoholics are people who fall asleep in skips. Alcoholics get into fights. Alcoholics start the day with a shot of whisky. Alcoholics are drunk all the time. Alcoholics can't hold down jobs." It's no wonder, then, why someone with a heavy drinking habit would be reluctant to admit to alcoholism. But, just because you're not an alcoholic doesn't meant you don't have a drinking problem.
Actually, the population of almost alcoholics is fairly big. Clinical psychologist Joseph Nowinsky and clinical instructor Robert Doyle explain in The Atlantic, "The almost alcoholic zone is actually quite large. The people who occupy it are not alcoholics. Rather, they are men and women whose drinking habits range from barely qualifying as almost alcoholics to those whose drinking borders on abuse."
And, if there's a lack of definition for someone in this shade of gray, you can imagine there's a similar lack of resources for those questioning their drinking habits. Blogger Kate of The Sober Journalist told the BBC that her visits to Alcoholics Anonymous weren't fruitful: "I felt I was out of place, I wasn't alcoholic enough. I felt that everyone else had worse problems with drinking than I did." Additionally, Dr. Sarah Jarvis of Patient.co.uk says that "people have such vivid mental images of what it means to be an alcoholic that they measure themselves against that standard and do not seek help."
While it's easy to assume that the warning signs of the almost alcoholic are easy to spot (think bar fights and drunk driving), there are plenty of indicators that go unnoticed. Consider, for example, when you're at social gatherings. Are you uncomfortable with no booze in sight? Or, are you going into work hungover? If you think you may be hitting the bottle a bit too often, you can take the self test from the NCADD here. (BBC)