General Question

gailcalled's avatar

How does one differentiate between a heavy drinker and an alcoholic?

Asked by gailcalled (54644points) March 29th, 2008
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28 Answers

mcconnehey_9's avatar

a heavy drinker is someone who drinks alot. An alcoholic is a person with an addiction

scamp's avatar
That’s a good source for information.
It should help you decipher between the two.

gailcalled's avatar

Can someone drink alot without being an addict? And I know that all this language is vague.

Scamp; thanks for source.

iSteve's avatar

I think the difference is in the motivation to drink. Drinking a lot is one thing, but drinking to escape is something else. My 2 cents…

scamp's avatar

I think you can drink alot without being an addict, but the reasons behind* why* one drinks and how often may be the deciding factors. I heard someone connected with AA tell me once, “One is too many, and a thousand is not enough.” My ex is an alcoholic and this person told me this when I was trying to find help for our family in dealing with his problem. I think it is also whether the person controls the drink or the drink controls the person.

paulc's avatar

Terms like “addicted” can be ambiguous. My definition has always been that if you’re use of any substance begins to directly change your actions (ie. you go out of your way to consume it or obtain it) then you’ve got a problem. If you also feel that you need to partake in it to “get through” something then that could be an indication too.

Its especially tough with alcohol since its so socially acceptable.

scamp's avatar

@paulc You made some good points. It can be very difficult to know the difference between a social drinker and one who has a problem with it.

kevbo's avatar

Is this a trick question? If you’re asking because someone is telling you they are not an alcoholic, they’re just a heavy drinker, then they’re probably an alcoholic. Any kind of denial/resistance along those lines is a sign in my book.

Is there a difference between a heavy smoker and a nicotine addict? I would guess not. I can’t imagine someone being a heavy smoker for the taste, image, or whatever alone.

Is this person spending an unreasonable amount of money on alcohol? That would be a sign in my book as well.

gailcalled's avatar

@kev; I never ask trick questions; you know that. And I am not accusing, yet, simply observing. I HAVE known people who hide liquor bottles, disguise drinks w. coke or gin and drink in secret. But I have friends who like an awful lot of wine, altho they do drink in public. Since I am not a drinker, I was curious.

Thanks, everyone, for answers.

blippio's avatar

alcoholics are funnier

lozza's avatar

I would say an alcoholic is someone who regularly drinks a lot, alone.

jenlk1207's avatar

If you have to question whether you have a drinking problem, you probably do. Normal people won’t need to question whether the have a problem. I am a friend if Bill W so I know first hand.

nikipedia's avatar

Most psychologists would say that substance problems fall into one of two categories: substance abuse and substance dependence.

Substance abuse means that you use that substance in situations when it could cause you harm, physically or legally (such as driving under the influence); using or obtaining the substance gets in the way of fulfilling one of your major roles; and/or continuing to use the substance even though you know it causes problems (e.g., drinking even though you have a liver condition).

Substance dependence has more to do with how much you’re using, and is indicated by tolerance, withdrawal, using more than you meant to, inability to cut back, spending a lot of time using or recovering from using, not doing other activities so that you can use, and/or continued use even though it causes problems.

The specific definitions are a lot more exact than that, but I that’s the general framework.

I personally would differentiate an alcoholic from a strong drinker by the effect that the alcohol has on his/her life.

peggylou's avatar

Oh, my, Gailcalled! As a recovering alcoholic for 24 years, I can tell you that alcoholism is indeed an addiction—like drug addiction. The reasons for it are many—the least of which is a genetic disposition. It’s usually impossible to tell who will become an alcoholic, especially ithey never drink alcohol. The reasons WHY you start drinking are unending: to be part of the group; to relax anxiety; to make you feel less depressed (alcohol will totally defeat this purpose); to conquer a fear; to look “cool” to others, etc., etc.

I became addicted after my divorce when I was feeling “out of control,” and the new dating atmosphere of my life afforded me the opportunity to enjoy drinking socially. Every day I needed to conquer my fear and anxiety. Alcohol helped!

It wasn’t until my oldest child checked himself into drug rehab that I was able to admit to myself that I, indeed, had a problem. He called me from the hospital rehab and said, “They are telling me that I’m not only a drug addict, but also an alcoholic!! If anyone in this family is an alcoholic, Mom, it’s you!” That hit between the eyes; I started doing research. As soon as I read this book by “famous people” who were recovering alcoholics and STOPPED MY OWN DENIAL, I was on the road to recovery. (This brings to mind another possibility. If you’re not sure you are an alcoholic, ask someone who really loves you if they think you are. But don’t ask another loved one who is ALSO an alcoholic. Then you’ll have a partner in denial!) But it was never easy. It took several years to fully sink in, but, fortunately, I was able to quit cold and stay sober. And after 24 years, the “urge” will still arise, and I still have to remember how difficult quitting both drinking and smoking were, and what these “vices” had almost done to my life! I was one of the lucky ones!

In regard to the genetic tendency, my grandfather, my sister, 4 of my nieces, and 2 of my own children are all alcoholics—some recovering and some not. I agree with nikipedia that substance abuse causes harm, physically and legally, but even more so emotionally and mentally. And jenlk is absolutely right! If you find yourself questioning yourself about having a drinking problem, or denying to yourself or others that you do, then you probably DO! It’s the damn denial that gets in the way of recovery!!

gailcalled's avatar

Dear dear Peggylou; that was really brave of you. Thank you. And congratulations on having beaten both alcohol and nicotine.

@jenik; Who is Bill W?

@blippio; alcoholics may be amusing to other drunks; the rest of us find them usually loud, rude, incoherent, and vulgar – that is, before they get sick.

peggylou's avatar

gailcalled: Bill W is the gentleman who formed Alcohol Anonymous. We recovering alcoholics refer to ourselves as a friend of Bill W.

peggylou's avatar

I meant Alcoholics Anonymous.

spendy's avatar

My husband is actually an alcoholic and drinks very little. He’s not a heavy drinker at all, and truly not what you would consider “dependent” on alcohol. However, the simple act of ingesting alcohol causes an accute chemical reaction…very noticably related to his temperment. It causes him to act differently. And, while he doesn’t drink heavily, or go into withdrawl…he also can’t go more than a week without at least sitting down to have even one lone beer. It’s like he’s drawn to it. I call that alcoholism…and actually, so does he. I’m no doctor…but it makes sense. I guess that was already stated though…relating to substance dependence.

pattyb's avatar

In my younger years(college& into my 30’s) when we( friends) were single and free, we used to go out every weekend and drink heavy. ( male & female ) I would not say we were alchoholics, but it would be safe to say we did abuse alchohol (just by the amounts & frequency. ) Out of all the people I hung out and parties with (30) maybe one person i thought would be considered an alcholholic, and that’d because he could not control it. He would drink during the week, and he never woke up on the weekends, he would “come to”. I am sure there is a clinical definition, but i find it odd that as much as we drank back then, none of us really drink ( or have the desire to) any where close to what we used to. Of course having children and getting old puts an end to alot of things

amounts and frequency )

buster's avatar

delirium tremens a.k.a. the shakes

cwilbur's avatar

@gail: I’d say the dividing line is whether it causes other problems. Someone who’s having healthy relationships, going to work, being active in church or community groups is a heavy drinker. Once the work life, social life, personal life starts to suffer because of the drinking, the person’s an alcoholic.

Ken00bi's avatar

nikipedia gave a good answer by explaining the difference between the substence abuser and the substance addict. The alcohol abuser is not necessarily a heavy drinker nor an alcoholic. I asked my clients the following question; If you beat up a policeofficer under the influence of alcohol ones a year, do you have an alcoholproblem?
So you can be an alcohol abuser and not drink a lot frequently. Often heavy drinking, abuse and addiction go hand in hand though. I think you could say that the heavy drinker (drinking far more than 21 consumptions a week as a male or 14 consumptions as a woman) isn’t an alcoholic yet but he/she will, if they hold on to that practice for some years.

cwilbur's avatar

…which is why I think the “is it causing other problems?” question is the critical one.

Someone who beats up a police officer under the influence of alcohol has a whole host of problems because of his use of alcohol. Someone who has these problems, knows about them, and continues to drink is an alcoholic.

And I think the use of numbers is irrelevant, and serves only to confuse the issue. I watched “scientists” play with the numbers; when I was a freshman in college, the media reported, horrified, on a study that said that 40% of college students were BINGE DRINKERS! (Binging defined, in small type, as 6 or more drinks in an evening.) Two years later, it was even worse – 55% of college students were BINGE DRINKERS! (Binging now defined, at least in Eastasia, as 4 or more drinks in an evening.) Then, in graduate school, the number went up again. 60% of college students were BINGE DRINKERS, but now we were using the Eurasian definition of 3 or more drinks in an evening. I was out of graduate school before we got the definition from Airstrip One. The uncritical, of course, use the increase in binge drinking as a sign that colleges need to crack down; those who are paying attention are watching the sleight of hand behind the changes in the definition of a “binge.”

ItsAHabit's avatar

Question, “Are you an alcoholic?”
Answer, “No.”
Response, “You’re in denial. That proves you’re an alcoholic!”

ItsAHabit's avatar

Actually, there may not be any real difference between a heavy drinker and an alcoholic; it may be a false distinction.

ItsAHabit's avatar

An alcoholic is a person who drinks more than the person making the diagnosis. :-)

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