Updated: Nov 10, 2019
If you've ever worried about your drinking, I invite you to try my foolproof and unassailable test.
Number of times googled Am I Alcoholic?
+ failed attempts to quit/moderate
x amount of blackouts this year
÷ number of alcoholic blood relations
= % likelihood of alcoholism.
Over 30 = potential alcoholic
Over 50 = early stages of alcoholism
Over 60 = mid stage alcoholism
0ver 90 = late stage alcoholism
Over 100 = DTs, you're hallucinating this test, I'm sorry
So? What were your results? Are you alcoholic or not?
YES OR NO?
This question had me flummoxed for months before I quit. If I think too hard about it now, it can flummox me still. (One... more... Google spiral.) Which is why I prefer to answer this question instead: does drinking get in the way of living the life I want?
I remember the first time I identified my own pattern of drinking as problematic. I was looking at an infographic I had found in an attempt to shame fix help a boyfriend whose drinking I was concerned about. On seeing my 'symptoms' I immediately disregarded the information as faulty.
Oh, this infographic thinks everyone's alcoholic, I thought. They should make different allowances for drinking people.
I still counted my boyfriend's results as accurate. Naturally.
This was a year or two before I quit, when tiny darts of 'alcoholism' info had begun to puncture my beer-loving psyche, albeit in service of rescuing berating helping other people. At some point I'd heard that 'alcoholism' was progressive, a fact I was horrified by, and eager to disprove.
Because if it were true, pretty much everyone I loved was in mortal danger.
Soon after, I found a copy of Alcoholics Anonymous in a charity shop, and ploughed through a chapter while my friend browsed for vintage clothes.
"Why don't you get it?" she said, on noticing me, still absorbed in the little blue book twenty minutes later.
I frowned at her. "Why should I read it? I don't have the problem!"
Never mind that the chapter was gripping and I was hooked; I didn't need it. I was already firmly on the path of self-improvement: going to therapy, joining the gym, eating more vegetables. I was determined to drink less. Hadn't she been listening? I had been to yoga!
It was a frustrating, confusing, lonely time. Never had I been less enchanted by alcohol or more in its thrall. I was either committed to not drinking, sacking that off to drink or carefully consuming my daily allowance of white wine at home.
Alcohol had loomed large over my whole life, but somehow I'd never noticed its shadow before. Suddenly I could see how alcohol's shadow darkened everything.
After years of casual binge drinking my lack of control in this area of my life was beginning to spill into other areas, and failed attempts to drink more temperately were shaking my unquestioned faith that I could stop any time I liked.
"Despair is the belief that tomorrow will be just like today," theologian Rob Bell wrote, describing the way I've felt time and again in the worst cycles of my habit.
When I tried to control my drinking I didn't enjoy it, and when I enjoyed it, I couldn't control it. Worst of all, no matter how much I wanted to, I couldn't return to my old laissez-faire perspective or relaxed habit of drinking. Something was wrong and I couldn't ignore it. Thirst which had previously been unconscious, began to tug at me, an ache at the back of my throat. I noticed that I couldn't resist ordering beer even when I wanted to. I realised that I didn't particularly like the taste.
Pubs began to seem haunted, the act of lifting a glass again and again, spooky and never ending. Some internal ghost rising up to whisper: More.
Something deep inside wanted me to stop. Something deep inside me didn't.
This inner schism drove me, finally, to seek intervention. To take action beyond reading and ruminating and talking to drinking friends. After another ugly evening of losing control I found my usual tactic of blaming it on someone else ineffective. Perhaps, at last, I respected myself too much to fall for my own bullshit.
In spite of wildly not identifying as 'alcoholic' I took myself to a support group in the city centre. I was all out of ideas.
There, I heard a beautiful young woman talk about her drinking. She didn't lose a job, didn't go to prison, didn't physically hurt anyone. But her mental health was deeply affected, as was her self-esteem.
"I couldn't live the life I wanted until I gave up completely," she said, and a rush of feeling went through my spine.
Her story was inspiring and it made me cry. She looked so calm and normal, sitting up there, free styling about how drinking used to make her life uglier than she could cope with. Afterwards we went for a cup of tea, and I told her how much her story had moved me, but how I could never give up drinking because everyone I knew loved to drink.
"Especially my family," I said.
"Me too," she said. ("The two most powerful words when we're in struggle," according to social researcher, Brené Brown.) She was over four years sober and said she was happy to help me any way she could.
It was a powerful interruption, though as I walked home I laughed off its impact. Sheesh, I must be really hungover, I thought.
I didn't stop drinking straight away - I had a trip to LA booked! - but a seed was planted, and I had made my first sober contact. For the next weeks I felt so relieved and inspired to know that all across the city, the world, even, a community of ex-drinkers were helping each other to break this infuriating habit. No matter how hopeful or hopeless it might seem, there was somewhere anyone could go.
Next time I'm desperate to drink, I'll go to a support group, I thought. But, the next time I was tempted I found, I didn't remember.
Another problem was, when I did remember about the support group, I couldn't identify with the word 'alcoholic'. It was too big. Every time I heard it I pictured my uncle, wasting away, drinking alone, morning and night.
Which is why I wish I had realised, sooner, that Am I alcoholic? is the wrong question.
If you don't, can't, or don't want to, identify as alcoholic, ask yourself the simpler question instead: Does drinking get in the way of me living the life I want?
If the answer is yes, why insist on being 'alcoholic' before you stop?
If you haven't already, do the alcohol experiment. Do whatever it takes to stay sober for 30 days: go to your doctor, try Smart or AA or Hip Sobriety or Soberistas, listen to Recovery Elevator and SHAIR podcasts. Read This Naked Mind. Try Moderation Management.
Take it seriously and pay attention to how your life changes. And remember, you don't have to do it alone. It's unnecessary, stressful and so much less fun. Find people who want live in this glorious, challenging, cruel and miraculous world free of alcohol and practise with them.
I had the urge to get sober for a long time, though for many years, it was much weaker than my desire to drink. Deep down, I knew drinking was getting in the way of me living the life that I wanted; of me being the person that I wanted. I knew that for me, and the way I drank, the way it made me feel after, that the pleasures of alcohol came too great a cost.
I'm glad I finally believed what the internet tests were telling me. That I listened to what that quiet inner voice was telling me too.