What is an alcoholic? For the inquisitive drinker asking the question ‘Am I an alcoholic?’ the short answer may be obtained by answering this question: Do you have trouble stopping drinking once you have started? If so, you are most likely an alcoholic.

If still unsure, you may be able to define yourself as one of four types of problem drinker. These are based on those described in the Big Book for the benefit of the wives of early AA members. This will do as well for anyone – including drinkers themselves – grappling with the question of what sort of drinker a person is.

What is an alcoholic

One – heavy drinker
Many people I secretly think are an alcoholic claim to be a heavy drinker. Since it is a self-diagnosis it is not for me to brand them as anything. Publicly I accept that what they call themselves is what they are. I may question their self-diagnosis in an attempt to get them to think about it more seriously, but I have to accept their answer.
The difficulty is that many people really are heavy drinkers who will change their behavior before, or as soon as, it becomes a problem – as soon as they become an embarrassment to their family or at work. They might claim their drinking does no one any harm, but heavy drinking will still slow you up mentally and physically, even if you don’t notice.

Two – alcoholic out of control
Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight and schooling in what to look for, I can see when a large group of alcoholics graduate – when they can be identified and should be given a certificate. Many young people overindulge in drink but they stop at the family forming stage when the expense of a mortgage kicks in. This is when many an alcoholic stands out. Some get married, some don’t but, when all their peers stop going out as much and lower their consumption, alcoholics just sail on drinking more and more. How can they afford it? They cannot. They overborrow on credit cards, steal from their life partners, steal from supermarkets or cut down on all other expenditure and start leading the miserable existence of an addict.
Many who admit to being a heavy drinker are really an alcoholic in denial: you completely lose control when drinking. Your friends think your behavior is over the top and no longer funny. You admit this, and protest that it won’t happen again. Work may be affected. You may drink in the morning and/or through the day. You are sorry after serious drinking bouts and tell your partner you want to stop. But you can’t stay on the wagon. When you get over a spree, you think you can drink moderately next time. If you display some of this behavior you are in danger. These are the signs of a real alcoholic.

Three – raging alcoholic, but you can be hopeful
I was somewhere between numbers two and three when I finally went to see my doctor and the chain of events started which culminated in finding AA. I can remember sitting on bar stools thinking I was free, that I could go anywhere. I always liked travel. But I might as well have been chained to the bar stool. I wasn’t going anywhere. Near the end I wanted to stop drinking, but couldn’t. (Now I have stopped drinking for 13 years I have real freedom to travel and am fulfilling my dreams instead of filling my head full of illusion and killing my body by degrees.)
If you are a raging alcoholic, you were once like number two, but you have gone much further. Now your friends have deserted you, you can’t keep a job and your home is a tip. The round of clinics and treatment centers (they used to be called asylums) has begun. Either you pathetically hang on to the idea you’ll one day drink like a gentleman or you badly want to stop. The chances of AA working in your case are good.

Four – far gone, yet you could get well
Maybe you are despondent after detoxing many times. You might be a violent or insane drunk. But no situation is hopeless. I know someone who had 27 detoxes and frequently drank on the way home from the clinic. He came to AA but couldn’t get the message, in spite of suffering delirium tremens, until this 27th time of asking. If he could get it so can you. Another member was a former gangland enforcer who ended up living in the local park for five years – losing a kidney in the process. The surgeon told him if he drank again he would die. He even followed him out of the hospital into the bar across the road. Desperate, my friend – a member of my home group in the UK – asked another fellow member to be his sponsor. “On one condition,” said the sponsor: “that you will be honest with me and with yourself.” Our friend was outraged at the suggestion that he might not be honest, but buckled down to the task and has now been sober for some years.

Don’t expect everyone to be park bench drunks at an AA meeting. You may never see one in many years of attending meetings. Alcoholism affects the complete spectrum of society from paupers to princes and presidents. The people at any meeting will seem a fairly normal bunch.

It really gladdens my heart, though, to see young people in AA. The sooner they decide they are an alcoholic, the less harm they will do to themselves and others. They and everyone who knows them will be better off.

How do you explain alcoholism to someone who is not afflicted?

First, it cannot be controlled by willpower. You might as well try to control diarrhea by willpower. It is an illness recognised by the United Nations’ World Health Organization and by most health professionals these days. They no longer say: “pull yourself together,” but recommend treatment. And they will usually agree that AA is one of the most effective programs. Most treatment centers will suggest AA as a maintenance program after discharge and many will start steppers off in the AA program prior to discharge – sometimes immediately on admittance.

Secondly you cannot force the addict to take treatment if they don’t want it. Family interventions sometimes work, even on TV, but often they don’t and anyway there are frequent relapses. Once they have tried their best to help, the advice for family members is to “detach with love” from the addict.

Thirdly, on no account should they indulge the addict’s addiction. They should never finance it or help in any way, for example by clearing up after them. It is kinder in the long run to make addicts face the consequences of their actions. This is more likely to end the addict’s denial and lead to a voluntary start on a program.

Fourthly, some addicts die of the disease. This is sad for family members but I believe it is a mistake for medical professionals to cover up the real cause of death: for example they are inclined to write heart attack and turn a blind eye to the cirrhosis of the liver to save the blushes of the family. If they wrote alcoholism on the death certificate, its rise in the statistical rankings as a cause of death might bring about social reforms that would shed light on the problem and cause more people to seek help. It doesn’t end there of course. Some deaths due to drunk driving could be put down to alcoholism.

Fifthly, it is important to realise that most people are not alcoholics and their drinking habits are no concern of alcoholics. We are not killjoys.

Sixthly, there are two main theories among alcoholics about why they have the disease. Most believe it is genetic and that they were born an alcoholic, waiting to happen – they are just made that way. Some others believe they drank so much that they became alcoholic without being genetically predisposed. Research has established that alcoholism runs in families, but not yet that there is a genetic element. There are charities in this field worth looking into on the internet.

Seventhly, it is this lottery aspect of alcoholism that presumably makes it the global choice as the legal drug.
Heroine, for example, is addictive to anyone who takes it which makes it so much more dangerous to the human race as a whole. But the same can be said of nicotine so it is perhaps surprising that this drug is legal. Still, no one beat up their wife after smoking a cigarette.

Eighthly, steppers remain alcoholics after they have stopped drinking. The program makes them happy and contented, after the withdrawals have been negotiated. Relief is often felt at the first meeting after the miserable final stages of a drinking career when someone says: “you need never drink again.” But they must never take a drink for they will not be able to stop until disaster or oblivion intervene.

Ninthly, mothers always ask: “how long will you have to keep going to those meetings, dear?” And the alcoholic will answer: “For as long as I live if I’m lucky.” I explained to my own mother that it was a matter of life and death, but it wasn’t long before she said: “Why don’t you get yourself a new hobby, dear?”

Tenthly, this is a symptom of non-addicts not really understanding addiction. It is why we addicts go to meetings, because we are the only ones who understand each other. That is how the group therapy works.

Eleventhly, I’d love to extend this note to 12 answers to the question of what an alcoholic is, inline with the twelve steps, but I have just come to the conclusion that outsiders won’t completely understand anyway.

Still, twelfthly, maybe it will strike a chord with new alcoholics and help some of them on the road to recovery. If so, welcome to the club. VH.