If I drink a lot, does that make me an alcoholic?

No one understands your body and your experiences better than you. What drinking “a lot” looks like to you may not be the same for someone else and vice versa. Instead of thinking about if you’re drinking a lot—think about whether or not you have control over your drinking and how much drinking causes problems in your life. Do you always end up drinking more than you wanted? Or do you feel worse when you don’t drink vs when you do? How has drinking led to issues and consequences in your life?

Determining whether you have a problem with alcohol is a deeply personal experience that requires self-reflection, self-love, and acceptance. There are also factors to take into consideration like when and why you drink.

How much is “a lot”?

While there are established guidelines, each person’s body processes alcohol differently. Some people can drink more and not seem to experience any problems. Others can get completely drunk from just one or two drinks.

  • Moderate drinking is up to one drink per day for women or up to two drinks per day for men.[1]
  • Anything more than 4 drinks in a single day for women, or 5 drinks in a day for men, is considered “high-risk” drinking. If you drink that much in the space of 2 hours, that’s considered binge drinking. [1]
  •  Keep in mind that a “drink” refers to a can of beer, a glass of wine, or a shot of liquor.[1]
  •  Many cocktails contain 2 or 3 shots. For example, a single Long Island Iced Tea can count as 4-5 drinks!

Most people who engage in high-risk drinking or even binge drinking don’t have a problem with alcohol. What separates addiction (or alcohol use disorder) from other types of alcohol use is this: When someone is addicted to alcohol, it’s difficult for them to set limits around their drinking habits. As a result, drinking leads to problems or prevents them from doing the things they want.

Why do I drink?

Sometimes people drink to celebrate a birthday, achievement, or event, to let off steam, after a tough day—or even to self-medicate. While many people can drink in moderation without causing problems in their lives, people with an alcohol problem often say “I don’t have a turn off button.” Alcohol use disorder is more than just “drinking a lot.” Why someone drinks and how they drink also play a role.

Here are some questions you may want to ask yourself when thinking about if your drinking is or is becoming a problem:

  1. Has your drinking affected you financially, physically or socially? 
  2. Do you find yourself drinking to deal with the difficulties of daily life?
  3. Do you drink to lessen the feelings or pain that you’re experiencing?
  4. Do you find yourself thinking about when you are going to have your next drink?
  5. Do you feel that you have to drink to “feel normal” or to function?
  6. Do you ever feel bad or guilty about your drinking?[2]
  7. Have you ever felt that you had to cut down on your drinking?[2]
  8. Have you tried to cut down or set limits, but couldn’t?
  9. Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking? [2]
  10. Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?[2]
  11. Do you worry about your use of other substances like opioids, marijuana, cocaine, tobacco, etc.? 

Many people also use alcohol as a way of self-medicating for mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder—sometimes without even knowing it. If you have any underlying mental health conditions, addressing them can make it easier to cut back or stop drinking.

Should I cut back?

Trying to cut back and seeing whether or not you’re able to is a good way of finding out if you have a problem. Whether or not to quit drinking entirely is a question that only you can answer.

Think about the pros and cons of your drinking. Drinking might make it easier to socialize with new people and deal with stress. But it also may lead to conflict with others, making poor decisions, long-term health problems— or keeps you from being “present” with those you care about.

You don’t necessarily have to quit entirely—you might experience a big improvement just by cutting back to moderate drinking. When people decide to test their drinking, they may use the guidelines above to see if they can stick within the recommended limits: No more than 4 drinks per day for women or 5 drinks per day for men. People who find that they cannot drink in moderation get to the point where they have to avoid alcohol entirely.

What if I can’t stop?

If you’re having a hard time stopping on your own, it’s a good sign you have to be more strict with your drinking habits by deciding to stay sober. Many people find it’s hard to maintain sobriety on their own. This tool can help work through the benefits, challenges, triggers, thoughts, and more related to your drinking. You may also consider talking to someone you trust who will support you in your decision to stop drinking. Therapy, residential treatment, medications, and support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or SMART Recovery are also resources that can help you. Recovery is difficult, but it is possible and worth it.

 

  1. Centers for Disease Control. (2022 April 19). Dietary Guidelines for Alcohol. Alcohol and Public Health. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/moderate-drinking.htm
  2. Brown RL, & Rounds, LA. (1995). Conjoint screening questionnaires for alcohol and other drug abuse: criterion validity in a primary care practice. Wisconsin Medical Journal 94(3) pp. 135-140.

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