Think back on February: what was the pattern of your drinking or the drinking of a person you love? Five drinks on weekend nights, or sucking back a six-pack with a side order of self-loathing every evening, or the on-again, off-again of drinking at night alternating with crushing guilt in the morning that keeps you sober…until tomorrow? Sometimes we think about problem and addictive drinking as a homogenous thing—as if there’s either a problem or there is not—but a study recently published in the journal Addictive Behaviors shows that’s not the case at all: problem drinking comes in flavors and degrees—some heartbreaking and some hopeful—and there are types of people, emotions, reasons, and paths to change associated with each.
So let’s see what we can learn from this study’s 180 people identified with at-risk drinking behaviors, followed for 180 days. Let’s see if the science of the following eight drinking patterns can be a clear-eyed look in the mirror:
1. 3-4 Drinks, 2-3 Times per Week (Weekend)
Most of the 19 people in this category were unmarried women who drank on weekends. They had few alcohol-related problems, for example missing work or losing a relationship, and were unlikely to also use drugs. That said, just over half of the people in this category reported personality disorders—the highest of any group (it’s unclear whether this was due to an especially high overall rate of personality problems in this demographic or to something in the drinking pattern). Only one in this group said she was ready to change. If you see yourself in this category, ask yourself one simple question: what’s next?
2. 7 Drinks, 4 Times per Week (Anytime)
About two-thirds of the 20 people in this group reported lifetime alcohol dependence, meaning this was an established, entrenched pattern that would require significant effort to change. And the effects are devastating: none of these 20 people were married (70% were older, white men). Here’s the heartbreaking part: of this group with a long-term pattern of heavy drinking almost half indicated they were ready to change. The study doesn’t list how many were able to follow through.
3. 4-5 Drinks, 1-2 Times per Week (Anytime)
This group had no weekly cycle and was as likely to drink on Tuesday night as on Friday. Interestingly, more than half in this group had an alcoholic father. The researchers think this group may have kept their fathers in mind when managing their own drinking, intentionally struggling to cap their drinking to avoid falling into their father’s pattern. This was the largest group, including 39 of the 177 participants.
4. 4-5 Drinks, 1-2 Times per Week (Weekends)
Like the first category, most of the 28 people in this category were unmarried women who drank on weekends—78% of the group in all. But here’s an interesting thing that happens when you add just one more drink to the weekend binge: 42% of these people indicated they were unhappy with their drinking and were ready to change. This is an important difference: it’s the switch from happiness in category #1 to disillusionment in category #3. Where are you on this spectrum?
5. 9-10 Drinks, 3-4 Times per Week (On/Off)
This group alternates drinking with not drinking, following a heavy night with a break. Of the 15 people in this group, none were married, less than a third were employed, and just over half reported drug use in addition to drinking—in other words, the consequences of this drinking pattern are severe. This group had the highest rate of lifetime alcohol dependency, the highest rate of alcohol-related problems, but also the highest rate of readiness for change. In short, this group of very heavy drinkers wants to change—if they can.
6. 5-6 Drinks, 3-4 Times per Week (Weekend-ish)
This group of 14 was on the cusp of meaningful change—few reported lifetime alcohol dependence, 57% had tried treatment, and half were in the highest, “action” stage of readiness for change. Like the first category, this category of problem drinkers was at a tipping point—they had reached a heavy-drinking stage, but hadn’t yet settled into it. If this describes you or a person you love, now may be a critical time to take action that could define your future.
7. 3-4 Drinks, 2 Times per Week (Weekend-ish)
This is almost the first group, but drinking wasn’t confined to weekends. Can you guess who has the leisure to have a couple more drinks than is prudent, during the week? Most of the 25 people in this group were young, white and college-educated. Few were ready to change. This is another group standing dangerously near the fire of what could become a more serious problem.
8. 6-7 Drinks, 4 Times per Week (Throughout)
Compare this with category #5. Both are made up of heavy drinkers. But, interestingly, people in #5 were ready to change, whereas people in this category were not. Though life-effects like drinking-related problems, unemployment and low rate of marriage were the same between the two categories, this group in category #8 was more settled into the acceptance of long-term problem drinking.
Do you see yourself? Do you someone you love? If so, now is the time to wonder: if you’re at a lower stage, what is the trajectory of your problem drinking? If you or a loved one is at a higher stage, what’s next? Certainly there’s a difference between some of these patterns of problem drinking and what is or could become addictive drinking. But if you see yourself or someone you love, use these types to understand who you are and as conversation starters for who you would like to become.
Richard Taite is founder and CEO of Cliffside Malibu, offering evidence-based, individualized addiction treatment based on the Stages of Change model. He is also coauthor with Constance Scharff of the book Ending Addiction for Good