How do you know if you’ve crossed the line from social drinker to problem drinker? While there is no one definition of a problem drinker, most experts agree that when alcohol consumption results in a significant risk, whether physical damage or accidents, social or relationship problems, legal difficulties or mental health issues, there is a problem. Those who have experienced some of these life issues as a result of drinking and still can’t stop are thought to be addicted to alcohol.
The amount of alcohol that it takes to cause problems varies from person to person. Because of body mass and metabolism differences, women feel the effects of alcohol far more quickly than do men, and they are more at risk for developing alcohol-related problems with less alcohol consumption. Elderly persons are also more easily affected because an older liver is less efficient at clearing alcohol from the body than a younger one. And alcohol more quickly intoxicates on an empty stomach or if it is consumed rapidly. In general, though, low risk or responsible drinking is defined as having no more than one drink per day for women and two for men. This means one 12-ounce beer, or one 5-ounce glass of wine, or a 1.5-ounce shot of liquor (vodka, whiskey, rum).
A family history of alcoholism can predispose you to move from a social drinker (someone who enjoys an occasional drink or two in the company of friends) to a problem drinker more rapidly, though this is just one risk factor. It’s thought that the earlier one begins drinking regularly (such as in the teen years), the more likely it is that an alcohol problem will develop, but alcohol addiction can happen at any age.
A simple screening test called the CAGE questionnaire is a good indicator that you’re moving from low risk drinking to problem drinking. The questions on this test are: Have you ever felt the need to Cut down on your drinking? Have people ever Annoyed you by criticism of your drinking? Have you ever felt Guilty about your drinking? Have you ever taken a morning Eye-opener drink to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover?
Another way to gain insight into your own drinking behavior is to go to a party and not drink or try to go for a month without drinking. Ask yourself whether this was hard for you and whether you (or your friends) tried to provide a rationale for drinking despite your best intentions not to do so. Remember that people tend to socialize with others with similar drinking habits. If you can’t have fun with others without drinking, you may have a problem.