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Why "Am I an Alcoholic?" May Be the Wrong Question

There's a better, more effective question to consider.

There's one question almost everyone asks before quitting drinking.

“Am I an alcoholic?” is a query many drinkers are too familiar with. As both a therapist and an ex-drinker, I have dealt with the question intimately, personally, and professionally.

As an ex-drinker, only I know how many hours I spent in front of my computer screen, obsessively clicking on link after link, searching for answers that I didn’t want to know. As a therapist, almost all the individuals I worked with bring up this very question in one way or another; some wish that I would let them off the invisible hook, and others are determined to “prove” to me that they “don’t have a problem.”

As Catherine Gray, the author of The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, brilliantly pointed out, “The most common thing to do in the year before quitting booze is to hunch over a laptop and miserably type 'Am I an alcoholic?' into Google at 1 a.m.”

Why Do We Fixate on “Am I an Alcoholic?”

Of course, drinkers ask this question for a good reason. Our society is conditioned to separate drinkers into two categories—the “responsible drinkers” vs. the “alcoholics,” or, put in a more professionally accepted way, normal drinkers vs. problematic drinkers.

We choose to believe if one falls into the normal drinker category, they are somehow immune to this horrible disease called “alcoholism.” Consuming alcohol on a regular basis is not just acceptable but also encouraged. On the other hand, if one falls into the problematic drinker category, all of a sudden, they become another species that, for whatever reason, cannot behave safely around alcohol the way everyone else seems to be able to.

Even professionals sometimes get caught up in whether someone has an “alcohol use disorder.” We often conveniently forget that all problem drinkers, at some point, have been normal drinkers. None of us were born with an alcohol dependency. Yet we continue to collectively fixate on a question that aims to single out the “problem drinkers” so the rest of the “normal drinkers” can continue to drink “responsibly.”

What’s the Cost of Asking “Am I an Alcoholic?”

One major cost of asking “Am I an alcoholic?” is that the answer “yes” comes with such a high price. The seemingly simple question hides a crushing weight.

The label “alcoholic” is extremely alienating. Not only does it carry an unspeakable amount of shame and stigma, but it is also seen by many as an incurable disease.

Answering “yes” to the questions is almost like taking on a life sentence that pronounces us as one of the “others” who can never again live the life that the rest of the world gets to live. No wonder drinkers often tend to deny their drinking issue or become highly defensive when challenged. If you ask me, it’s arguably an adaptive response to be reluctant to take on such an alienating label. The unspeakable weight of the question hinders the drinkers’ ability to reflect on their relationships with alcohol with full honesty.

What Would Happen if We Stopped Asking “Am I an Alcoholic?”

As an ex-drinker and a therapist who helps other drinkers break their alcohol use patterns, I believe there lies little real value in the question, “Does someone have a substance use disorder?” The answer draws only an arbitrary line among drinkers on a spectrum.

A “normal drinker” today is not immune to becoming a “problem drinker” tomorrow. The only thing such a question accomplishes is to alienate one group or drinkers from another and gives some a false sense of security to continue to consume a socially approved addictive substance.

Both professionals and individuals need to shift to the only real question that matters—whether your life would be better with less alcohol. This new question removes the weight that the previous question carries. The answer no longer bears the power to define someone and how they would live the rest of their life. One would finally have the permission to answer the question with full honesty and free from the fear of repercussions from judgment and stigma.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Paul Biryukov/Shutterstock

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