I’d venture to say that most people who drink alcohol have had at least one experience where they drank more than planned. This can happen even with the best intentions—where one drink turns into two, then three. And from there we can lose count, things can begin to blur, and we can relinquish our inhibitions and ability to think logically and reasonably. This can result in waking up with a hangover and asking yourself why you drank so much, questioning whether you did or said something while drunk that you shouldn’t have, or maybe even blacking out and remembering nothing.
While the experience of drinking too much can easily happen to anyone, there comes a time for some people where overdrinking—and the consequences of it—can become a regular occurrence in their life.
For example, hangovers might become part of your weekend ritual, after “letting loose” from a long work week. Or you might frequently find yourself waking up having trouble recalling what you did the night before, or even how you got home.
Despite these uncomfortable consequences which often accompany a night of heavy drinking, many people still go back for more—whether it be the next day, week, or month. It’s as if we seem to forget the negative experiences that result from heavy drinking, and remember only the pleasure alcohol brings. Or perhaps we tell ourselves that we won’t drink that much again, only to find that we do, and wind up beating ourselves up for it.
This is the vicious cycle of alcoholism, and this was my “Groundhog’s Day” experience that lasted for ten years, during an uphill battle with my own alcohol addiction. That is, until I discovered the medication naltrexone, and pharmacological extinction therapy, which allowed me to unlearn my cravings for alcohol (which I’ll discuss more below).
With that, I’d like to share with you eight signs of alcoholism that were always there during my decade-long battle with this substance—signs that I didn’t always see, or perhaps dismissed as “no big deal.” I hope these will give you some idea of what to look out for if you’re starting to question your relationship with alcohol.
8 Signs of Alcoholism – From a Former Alcoholic
1. Hangovers, and recovering from them, become a part of your regular routine.
Whether it’s daily, weekly, or monthly, hangovers are becoming a habit you can count on in life. Your well-being may be impacted because you spend your precious days off in bed or feeling ill, as opposed to being out and about, enjoying life. Or perhaps you show up to work, life, or family events feeling foggy, grumpy, and just wishing you could leave to go home and rest.
Most of us know what a hangover feels like, and if they’re occurring in your life more often than you’d like, you might consider this a sign of alcoholism. For me, hangovers were a consistent part of my life about 2 to 3 days a week, every week. I’d go to work hungover, taking breaks to go lay down in my car to ease the pain, or running to the bathroom to throw up. I’d spend at least one weekend day in bed nursing a hangover, feeling achy from all of the alcohol poison in my body.
I hated this part of my life. I hated spending so much time hungover. But I still couldn’t seem to control how much I consumed when I drank. Nor could I stick with long-term sobriety. I was in a trap.
2. You begin to notice yourself drinking more than others around you.
This was definitely a big one for me. I would always be finished with my glass of wine while others were just sipping on theirs. “How can they drink so slowly?” I remember asking myself.
I hated the awkward experience of having to go refill my glass while others watched, knowing I’d already polished one (or more) off. If I didn’t refill my glass, I would battle the endless chatter in my mind that repeated “more alcohol, more alcohol, more alcohol” until I finally got more. Other times, I’d bring my own alcohol and sneak it when people weren’t looking.
This was a big sign of alcoholism for me, because I could see that my drinking wasn’t like most people’s. It was compulsory, an obsession, a “need to have it” like a thirsty person needs water. When I was drinking socially, that was usually all I could focus on. I was always thinking about the next drink while I still had one in my hand, wondering if there was enough alcohol, or if we needed to get more. The people, the activities, the socializing—that all came second to booze.
3. You prefer alcohol to be at every social function or gathering.
Whether you’re having brunch or dinner with friends, going to a house party, spending time in nature, attending a work event, or simply spending a quiet night at home, you want alcohol to be there because it makes things more ‘fun’ or ‘interesting.’
Perhaps you cannot loosen up or relax without it. You might even feel irritated, impatient, or distracted if alcohol isn’t at a function, wishing you had some. I know this was true for me. For example, if I knew certain social functions wouldn’t have alcohol—or even if they’d have it, but not enough by my standards—I would often drink beforehand, or sneak in my own private stash.
I would also avoid spending too much time at functions without alcohol, just because I felt like I needed alcohol to socialize and have fun. It was hard to simply enjoy the company of friends without the company of alcohol as well. I know now that this is because alcohol had hijacked the pleasure center in my brain, making it hard for me to find pleasure in other things that did not involve alcohol. And this is why the drug naltrexone was such a game-changer for me, as I’ll discuss later.
4. You try to take breaks from drinking, but have a hard time doing so.
Perhaps you’ve heard of movements like Sober October and Dry January, which promote taking month-long breaks from drinking alcohol. Maybe you’ve even participated in these events, and found it surprisingly difficult to achieve 30 days without the booze. Or maybe you’ve instituted your own alcohol breaks—whether it be committing to only drink on the weekends, or taking a whole week or month off.
No matter what form of intentional break you take from alcohol, if you find it difficult to take space from this substance—if you find yourself craving it, or if it’s become an essential part of your routine—perhaps it’s time to reexamine your relationship with it.
For me, taking breaks from alcohol always showed me that I had a dependence on the substance. Often, I found it hard to take even five days off from drinking, let alone thirty. Over the course of my ten-year battle with alcohol addiction, I did successfully take many breaks from drinking—a few days, a week, a month, and even 6 months one time. But I would always wind up binging on alcohol again once the break was over.
Now I know about something called the Alcohol Deprivation Effect (ADE). According to studies, if you develop a dependence on regular, heavy alcohol consumption, and then remove the booze, whenever you reintroduce it you are likely to binge. Ask yourself, if you’ve tried taking breaks from alcohol, how easy was it? Did you find yourself going overboard when the break was over? Are you due for a longer break, or maybe even a permanent change?
5. You are not truthful with yourself or others about how much alcohol you drink.
Another sign of alcoholism is not being honest regarding how much you consume—whether that’s with your doctor, your spouse, your friends, your co-workers, or even with yourself.
If you find that you are regularly concealing how much you really drink, it might be because on some level you perceive that you are drinking too much. For me, I would always under-report when my doctor asked, and kept secret stashes of alcohol around my house so that my partner wouldn’t see how much I was drinking. I would also make a habit of drinking before social functions, showing up having secretly had a few, while everyone else was just getting started.
If you feel the need to conceal, or lie about how much you’re drinking, this may be a sign that you’re drinking too much.
6. Your drinking patterns are impacting your life in negative ways.
In the DSM-5, the American Psychiatric Association lists 11 questions used to diagnose alcohol use disorder (AUD). Several of these involve continuing to drink even if it’s negatively impacting your life—including increasing your anxiety or depression, putting yourself or others in danger, or causing trouble for your loved ones.
There are a lot of ways that excess alcohol use can harm your life, and it’s not always easy to see this when you’re consumed with a drinking problem. I know that for me, feelings of anxiety and depression were just a part of my daily routine, and I would usually cope with them by consuming more alcohol. I would also regularly put myself in risky situations where I could have been harmed easily. The next day I’d be filled with so much regret, asking myself why I did that.
When I started to drink less, I found myself making better choices, and I noticed the anxiety and depression beginning to lighten. I now realize just how much my alcohol consumption was actually causing and perpetuating these problems. Take a good look at the ways alcohol may be negatively impacting your life, and keep in mind that it might not always be so obvious.
7. You obsessively think about alcohol, or find that you often have cravings for it.
How often are you thinking about alcohol? How often are you planning your next drink? Or how often are you thinking about “not drinking” (i.e., resisting the urge to drink knowing you’ve already had too much today, this week, or this month)?
For me, my cravings and obsessive thoughts about alcohol were constant. However, I didn’t quite realize how much mind-space they took up until I was a few months into my pharmacological extinction therapy and the cravings were starting to go away.
My first thoughts of alcohol would usually begin in the late morning, when I’d already start fantasizing about my nightly bottle (plus) of wine. They’d last throughout the day, until the workday ended and I’d race home and open the wine the moment I got in the door. And if it was a weekend, I’d usually be drinking by 11:00am, or as soon as the first craving hit.
When I knew I’d been drinking too heavily for days or weeks on end, I’d resist these cravings by trying to distract myself with other activities that didn’t involve drinking. It was a vicious cycle, and alcohol was nearly always on my mind in one way or another.
Once I started naltrexone treatment, those thoughts about alcohol started to fade, and my mind felt spacious, expansive, and open for the first time in a decade. It was possible to focus on things other than alcohol, and genuinely enjoy them without wishing alcohol was present. I felt truly free for the first time in ten years.
I invite you to begin paying attention to how many times thoughts of alcohol come into your mind throughout the day. You might be surprised.
8. You try to control your drinking, but find it to be mentally exhausting.
Maybe you’ve realized that your drinking has gotten out of hand a few times, and you want to control or moderate it on your own by setting certain guidelines for yourself. For example, not drinking during the week, or limiting yourself to two or three when you do drink. Or perhaps deciding not to keep alcohol in the house anymore, and staying away from hard liquor.
While this approach can work for many people, those experiencing stronger dependence may struggle with this type of moderation. For example, they might commit to only drinking 2 servings, but end up having more and wonder how they let that happen. Or they might commit to drinking only on the weekends, but then binge drink every weekend, or even “slip up” and drink during the week anyway.
I know this was the case for me. I would try to save my drinking for the weekend, only to find myself binging so heavily on Friday that I’d be hungover until Sunday. And I could hardly limit how much I consumed, because once I had a couple drinks in me, all self-control would go out the window. I’d forget the agreement I set with myself, or it would feel less important. It was mental ping-pong for me to try to control or limit my drinking.
That is, until I started with pharmacological extinction.
How I Cut Back on Drinking, Then Ultimately Gave It Up For Good
The science of pharmacological extinction is what finally allowed me to gain control over my drinking, like nothing I’d ever tried before. This “extinction therapy” is known as the Sinclair Method (TSM), and involves taking an opiate blocker medication (naltrexone) in combination with drinking.
The medication naltrexone works by blocking the pleasure a person experiences when drinking alcohol. Over time, drinking on this medication reduces cravings and alcohol consumption for most people. After a year of this treatment, I watched myself go from a daily drinker, to drinking a few days a week, a few times a month, once a month, and finally deciding to go completely sober. Thanks to naltrexone, drinking was no longer pleasurable for me at all anymore, and instead began to feel quite dull. I genuinely preferred sobriety.
What’s great about the Sinclair Method and pharmacological extinction is that, when implemented correctly, it gives most people the option to drink moderately if they so choose. Naltrexone reduces your cravings for alcohol, and helps you relearn to drink like a “normal” person, which means you don’t actually need to be abstinent. And if abstinence is your ultimate goal, TSM can also help, by freeing you from having to battle cravings long-term.
For me, going abstinent “cold-turkey” before TSM never worked in any permanent way. The Alcohol Deprivation Effect would kick in, and I’d find myself battling cravings regularly, having to “white-knuckle” my way through sobriety. Ultimately, like many others, I’d relapse again. I did this dozens of times before I found TSM, and finally put an end to my cravings. After that, abstinence happened on its own.
If any of the above signs seem familiar to you, and you’re concerned about your drinking, you should know that there are many options for cutting back or gaining control over alcohol. Ria Health is one choice that offers support for TSM, and other medication-based treatments, all from a smartphone app. The program is covered by many insurance providers, and is easy to integrate into your daily life.