Do I Really Have a Drinking Problem?

Martini with oliveIt’s often hard to tell whether your drinking or drug use is just casual drinking and recreational drug use or whether it has turned into an addiction sending you on one of those runaway trains that old country singers sing about. What starts off as weekend outings with friends turns into Thursday night happy hour, then Monday through Wednesday night happy hour, then every other night, then every night, then having a drink with lunch, drinking alone, and on and on until one day you wake up at 8 AM, hung over, reaching for a bottle of whiskey, and it hits you: your life no longer belongs to you—it belongs to Jameson.

Many people can rationalize their drinking or drug use as being a bad habit that they could break if they really wanted to; they tell themselves, “I can stop anytime I want to; I just don’t want to right now.” You always feel in control until you actually try to take control. So how can I tell whether my drinking is just a bad habit or if it has become a real addiction?

What is the difference between a habit and an addiction?

We all have habits. Waking up early, daily exercise, nail biting, brushing our teeth first thing in the morning—habits enable us to establish comfortable routines, make us feel safe, aid in organizing our lives, and can increase the quality of our lives. They are automatic responses to doing the same thing and repeating the same behaviors the same way for so long. Have you ever noticed how much you prefer to sleep on one side of the bed or sit at the same seat at the dinner table? Habits are not damaging or destructive in nature. Habits can be hard to break, but they can usually be broken without the help or aid of a professional. If you want to break a bad habit like biting your nails, it’s a matter of catching yourself in the act and choosing not to engage in that activity. It can be as simple as making yourself aware. However, even simple habits like nail biting can persist for a lifetime. Usually there is not an extreme level of anxiety associated with breaking a habit or the need for psychological intervention. Many habits are positive (exercise, showering, etc.), but addictions are rarely, if ever, positive.

Addiction is broadly defined as “the continued use of a mood altering substance (or behavior) despite negative consequences.” The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines addiction as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry.” Addiction can be viewed as a compulsion with the expectation of a reward. Prolonged exposure to alcohol and drugs has been shown to alter the chemistry of the brain, leading to the classification of addiction as a chronic brain disease. People with addictions do not get over them very easily. They cannot just put down their drink and walk away as one would do if one were trying to break a bad habit. If the habit of nail biting can last a lifetime, then an addictive dependency on alcohol with accompanying changes in the brain can certainly be a behavior that is hard to stop on one’s own. Many drain their bank accounts, lose their job, lose friends and family, and sacrifice their health and well-being before ever reaching out for help. Ridding oneself of an addiction (depending on the severity of the dependence) usually requires a significant investment of time and attention in combination with many significant life changes (new sober support network, new living arrangements, new job, new coping and life skills, etc.) in order to reach a life of sobriety.

In short, with a habit, you do something because that’s what you’re used to doing and that’s how you do it. I brush my teeth before washing my face because that’s what I’ve done for years. Give me some time, and with some attention, I’m sure I can switch the two around.

In an addiction, you drink or use drugs because you expect drugs or alcohol to make you feel good, you absolutely must do it, and you cannot stop yourself no matter how hard you try. After repeated attempts to quit your drinking or to cut down, you have failed in doing so. You begin to feel as though you cannot do it on your own and must reach out for assistance, even if you do not want to. This is not just a habit. It has become more.

How do I know if I have a drinking problem?

The single most important thing to remember is that social drinkers do not sit around questioning whether or not they have a drinking problem. If you are asking yourself this question, this is a good indicator that your drinking has become problematic. Other questions to ask yourself are:
•    Am I spending a lot of time thinking about drinking?
•    Am I spending a lot of time planning out my drinking?
•    Are people complaining to me about my drinking and telling me they think I have a problem?
•    Have I tried repeatedly to cut back on my drinking unsuccessfully?
•    Is my drinking affecting my relationships (family, work, school, legal problems, etc.)?

Another method is to take the C.A.G.E. Assessment for Alcohol Abuse.

* Have you felt the need to Cut down on your drinking?
* Do you feel Annoyed by people complaining about your drinking?
* Do you ever feel Guilty about your drinking?
* Do you ever drink an Eye-opener in the morning to relieve shakes or hangover?

If you have answered “yes” to one or more of the above questions, it is possible that your drinking has become problematic and you would benefit from meeting with an addiction psychologist or addiction professional. If you have successfully cut down on your drinking, though, and have consulted with a physician who has approved your level of alcohol intake, then there is a good chance that you can continue to moderate or manage your drinking in a controlled and successful way. However it can’t hurt to enlist the support of a professional. The question about an “eye opener” should be generalized to include, do you drink as a way of coping with any consequences of your previous drinking? This question gets at the cyclical nature of drinking and is very suggestive of an abusive or alcoholic pattern of drinking. For more information on alcoholism, please visit my website (

There are also a number of online questionnaires (quizzes) that can help you examine and analyze your drinking patterns and determine whether or not your drinking is holding you back from leading a complete and fulfilling life and reaching your potential. A couple of resources are listed here:

If you are a problem drinker, the good news is that you are in no way in a hopeless predicament. There are many resources available that can help you find and celebrate a new, sober lifestyle. People get sober everyday—they really do. It’s hard, it’s new, it’s scary at first, but everyone who has been there will tell you without a doubt that it’s worth it. It’s a lot easier to maintain sobriety than it is to maintain addiction. It might be cheaper too!

Related articles:
No Pain, No Gain: Psychotherapy and Mental Health Recovery Takes Time
Identifying and Treating Addiction and Substance Abuse Problems

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jeremy Frank, Ph.D., CAC, Drug & Alcohol Addiction Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • jonny s

    March 7th, 2012 at 2:43 PM

    Thank you so much for this informative article. I think that there are a lot of drinkers out there who think that their behavior is just a habit that they can or need to break until they try to and can’t. It might have been something they have been doing for a short while or for a long time but either way it affects their personal and professional lives. We sometimes have to point these things out to those who have not opened their eyes to their reality yet, and I think that this article gives all of us a good guideline for things to look for and things that we can point out to them when confronting them about the problem.

  • Peter

    March 7th, 2012 at 3:50 PM

    Jonny- remember that you have to be careful when broaching this subject with certain people. It is easier to let someone realize that they have a problem with drinking on their own instead of pointing it out to them. They could take some big offense to you pointing out their problems, just the same way that I am sure most of us don’t want others pointing out our flaws to us.

  • Reena

    March 7th, 2012 at 5:06 PM

    if you even have to ask, chances are there could be a problem that you have already been denying

  • Layton Powell

    March 8th, 2012 at 1:54 PM

    The day when I looked at myself in the mirror and did not even recognize the face staring ba ck at me, that was the day when I realized that I had a problem.
    It was a pretty slow descent, I had been drinking daily for most of my adult life, but when I finally got the nerve to take a long hard look, it hit me like a ton of bricks.
    I did not want to have to depend on something from a bottle to keep me going anymore. I know this sounds cheesy but I wanted to be high on life and not on alcohol.
    I take it one day at a time,it is not easy and I have made mistakes.
    But I keep going.

  • Dawson

    March 8th, 2012 at 10:12 PM

    addiction to alcohol once identified is a good thing I’m sure. It’s not knowing that you are in trouble that can push you further down the dark hole!

  • zeke r

    March 10th, 2012 at 10:42 AM

    I guess I still don’t quite get the differences between addiction and habit. It is not like I can stop brushing my teeth, but that does not make it an addiction. Why can’t someone who feels the need to drink just put down the bottle? I know, I know, simplistic in rationale and I accept that. But my think is that if you recognize that this is causing a problem in everyday life, then just stop doing it. Nobody says it will be easy, or that you will even be successful the first time that you try. But why should that stop you from trying again? If this is something that you really want at your core then you will work to make it happen. I know I am gonna getr bashed for even saying that, that there will be some who scream that it is not that easy to end an addiction. But I think that if this is something in life that you really want to change then you will do it, no matter how painful it will be.

  • Julie Lawrence

    March 11th, 2012 at 3:41 AM

    I’ve been sober 14 months, thanks to AA. I recently read an article that explained how drugs affect the limbic system, which controls our “survival needs”, such that it comes to think that alcohol is the answer to stress. And that for me is the difference between addiction and habit – when “survival needs” are present, *nothing else* matters (as per Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). It’s that baffling feeling of “I must have a drink”, yet you can’t rationally say why you want it – people think you’re wanting it because you want the effect, or to relax, or for some “rational” reason – but it’s not like that. It’s a *drive*, with no thought behind it, which persists despite any logical argument to the contrary.

  • Jeremy Frank, Ph.D., CAC, Drug & Alcohol Addiction Topic Expert Contributor

    March 15th, 2012 at 2:59 PM

    Zeke, great points all around, no bashing from me. Even when someone recognizes that his or her addiction is causing a problem in everyday life it still seems to them that drinking causes fewer problems than not drinking in that moment when the critical decision is made to take the drink or not.

    I agree it is important to keep trying and the good news is that most people do. In fact, most people get sober eventually. The yearly outcome prevalence rates for sobriety from addiction are really terrible and hover between 10 and 30 percent of addicts and alcoholics in treatment who will be clean and sober a year from now. That is pretty discouraging and it makes most therapists want to drink. In actuality though, most people do recover. Most people do get sober if you look at lifetime prevalence rates for recovery. I believe the last meta analytic studies I looked at cited that approximately 55-77% of people eventually recover. You are right that when people really want this at their core they will make it happen. So how do you want to want it? How can we make someone want to want it? Do you know how many addiction psychologists/therapists/counselors etc… it takes to change a light bulb…? One but the light bulb has to want to change. Another ray of hope is that people don’t have to necessarily want to be in treatment for treatment to work. People can be urged into treatment and in those cases it can still be quite effective. So keep on begging, urging and strong arming your loved ones into treatment but my suggestion is that you do it as lovingly and as kindly as you possible can. I think that’s one of those things we learn in kindergarten that can be better and more effective than all those addiction psychology classes we’ve taken combined.



    Dr. Jeremy Frank
    Psychologist and Certified Addictions Counselor
    Topic Expert Contributor

  • Ashley

    March 17th, 2012 at 4:27 PM

    “I agree it is important to keep trying and the good news is that most people do. In fact, most people get sober eventually.”

    This is very true, Jeremy, and there’s a term for it, “Spontaneous Remission”. Most research indicated that a majority of those who do eventually recovery from drug and alcohol abuse do so on their own – without treatment – and by cutting down – not from abstinence based 12-step type programs. About 75 percent of persons who recover from alcohol dependence do so without seeking any kind of help, including specialty alcohol (rehab) programs and AA. Only 13 percent of people with alcohol dependence ever receive specialty alcohol treatment.

    There is a high rate of recovery among alcoholics and addicts, treated and untreated. According to one estimate, heroin addicts break the habit in an average of 11 years. Another estimate is that at least 50% of alcoholics eventually free themselves although only 10% are ever treated. One recent study found that 80% of all alcoholics who recover for a year or more do so on their own, some after being unsuccessfully treated. When a group of these self-treated alcoholics was interviewed, 57% said they simply decided that alcohol was bad for them. Twenty-nine percent said health problems, frightening experiences, accidents, or blackouts persuaded them to quit. Others used such phrases as “Things were building up” or “I was sick and tired of it.” Support from a husband or wife was important in sustaining the resolution.

    The reasons why many addictions treatment programs fail people is that they are abstinence based. Abstinence based 12-step treatment programs have a rate of anywhere between 10% – 30% success rates. How easy is it for you to change your life? How is your 2012 new years resolution going? Not so good? And why not?

  • CM

    February 20th, 2014 at 7:01 AM

    Hi! Thanks for such a great article. It is sad to admit but I have a drinking problem. I’m 32 now and had my first drink when I was 16. I drank on and off now for a while, some weeks more than others, some months more than others. When younger and in college binge drinking was regularly. Now that I am unemployed, 8,000 miles away from my son, with little money, I drink to scape my problems and reality, to numb out. I definitely drink to cope with frustrations in my life.

    I had higher expectations of myself (and life)… Or maybe I am just depressed because I had a few too many drinks last night.

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