Am I an alcoholic?

I'm drinking more than some people, and I sometimes hide it, but I'm not sure what that means.

Published May 9, 2007 10:06AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I have a question for you: Am I an alcoholic? I'm asking you because, from reading your column, you seem to know a lot about substance abuse. Also, I think you might be the kind of guy who, instead of giving the obvious knee-jerk response of, "If you are asking then you must be one." I trust that you will hear me out and give me a thoughtful response.

I am a 36-year-old with a loving husband and two great kids. I also have a great job in which I have done well and been promoted. I'm stressed and busy just like any mother of two young children with a full-time job. But there aren't too many things in my life that aren't going well.

My husband comes home from work every day and has one drink. Only one. Sometimes I join him, sometimes I do not. But when I do join him, I go back for a second and third drink. Last night I went out for a rare night out with my girlfriends. I had one drink. But when I came home (late, husband and kids were asleep) I opened a bottle of wine and drank two more glasses. It's usually around three to four drinks. The third and fourth are usually late at night after my husband goes to bed. I have always been a night owl and since having children, staying up late gives me a few hours of "alone time" where I read or watch television programs that my husband doesn't like. I often drink like this three times a week.

It doesn't seem to affect my life too much. Sometimes I am really tired at work because I was having so much fun sipping on Cabernet and watching an old movie, that I stayed up too late. Then the next night I am really tired and cranky with the kids. Oh yeah, and I have been known to disguise a bottle so my husband won't know I finished it.

But really, the biggest thing that it affects is my weight. I know, typical woman. But my weight really bothers me. I am fit, I work out a lot, but I am still 15 to 20 pounds overweight after the birth of my children. And I know that the drinking is a major reason. I have three glasses of wine and then my judgment or will power or whatever is dampened and I eat some bread and cheese, or finish off the leftovers from dinner at 11 p.m. (BTW, I never drank when pregnant.)

I have many times tried to stop, but I haven't been able to. Wine is the same as candy or junk food for me. If it's in the house, I will consume it. I also notice that I drink more when I am actively trying to diet and am taking in fewer calories. So I wonder if I am an alcoholic or if I am just craving the calories?

I grew up with an abusive alcoholic father whom I never see anymore and who fulfills the role of villain in all my childhood stories. I just can't seem to admit to myself or my husband or my siblings that I am the same as him. I don't jump around screaming in drunken rages like he did. I drink wine when no one is around and stay up too late. Thus, taking on the identity of an alcoholic is too humiliating because I have spent a lot of time criticizing my dad for his drinking.

While we are close and open about everything else, I've never talked with my husband about my drinking. I often wonder if he has noticed.

So, if I am an alcoholic, is there any way to go get treatment without having to reveal it and make a big deal out if it with my husband? Can I secretly go to AA meetings during my lunch hour, or will quitting drinking require some big to-do where I reveal my heart and soul to everyone I have ever known? Can you be anonymous even from those closest to you if you go to AA, or will that make it so AA doesn't work?

I just want to quit drinking so my diets will work. I want to quit drinking the same way I want to quit eating too much at dinner. I also don't want to get liver problems. How can I quit drinking without making a big deal out of it?

Wine-Loving Mama

Dear Wine-Loving Mama,

As a layman with some experience in this area, I would suggest that you consider the question of alcohol and alcoholism as a continuum. On one end is completely trouble-free drinking. You are able to drink when you want and stop when you want, and you never drink more than is comfortable for you or when you think conditions are not ideal for having a drink. Such a person I think we can agree is definitely not an alcoholic. On the other end is a state of utter physical dependence on alcohol, in which you suffer acute clinical symptoms when you are deprived of alcohol, a condition in which your drinking is literally killing you but you are unable to stop. Such a person, I think we would agree, is definitely an alcoholic.

Between these two extremes are all kinds of points at which one might be occasionally uncomfortable with how much one is drinking, or not be able to handle liquor well, or use it at inappropriate times instead of dealing with responsibilities or emotions. And, for the person in a state of acute, clinical alcoholism, there were always points along the way where things were not that bad. Maybe the person always reacted abnormally to alcohol but only drank occasionally for many years. Or maybe the person drank normally for many years and then, without warning, found herself unable to quit.

But here is what I really want to say to you: By asking for help in the way you have, you have already begun a certain kind of journey. Your purpose is to find out just what is going on with you and alcohol. This is not a one-shot deal. It may be that you sense you are becoming an alcoholic. It may be that you can moderate your drinking now and continue to drink normally. Or it may be that you have never been able to really drink normally -- that is, without cravings and secrecy and guilt.

The other thing I really want to say to you is this: "Continue! Godspeed! Continue your journey!"

How to continue? You take more concrete steps, like the one you have taken by writing to me. And you enlist the help of others along the way. How to enlist the help of others? You might call a trusted friend who can keep a secret and say, "I want to quit drinking." You might find someone who has quit and ask them how they did it. You might call the National Council on Alcoholism, or call a treatment center listed in the phone book, or talk to a therapist or person of faith.

You might also go to an AA meeting. To allay your fears in that regard, you might call your local Alcoholics Anonymous office first and ask them to suggest a meeting where you can simply observe. There may be such a meeting you could drop in on during your lunch hour and just watch how things are done. Ask the people at the local office if you would need to identify yourself. I doubt that such a requirement would exist, but getting a personal assurance from someone with firsthand knowledge would be a reasonable thing to do.

As in any setting where people gather, people being people, someone may speak to you, ask your name. They may be curious to get to know you. But also, as in any other setting, you do not have to reveal anything you don't wish to reveal.

The important thing is to take some action and continue the journey. Trust the impulse that has caused you to write to me. It is a healthy impulse. Your concerns are valid. If you're not comfortable with the amount you're drinking, then you are right to look for options.

Do not be afraid. Many people have gone through what you are going through. You are doing a good thing.

Are you an alcoholic? There's no way I can know. As I read your story over, it sounds like other stories I have heard about alcoholism. Certain things stand out: the secrecy, for instance. The second and third drink. How you feel the next day. The worrying. The family history. The not wanting to see yourself that way. Those are things you have in common with many alcoholics I have known. On the other hand, those are things you have in common with lots of other people, too.

You don't need to decide right now whether you are an alcoholic. It's perfectly reasonable to be concerned about your drinking and to seek ways to quit -- or ways to better understand your drinking and better manage it.

So, at the risk of going on too long, let's sum it up this way: If you are concerned about your drinking, this is a great time to take some concrete steps. Make an appointment. Make a phone call. Put something in motion. And keep in mind that you don't have to go faster than you want to. You don't have to make a spectacle of this. You don't have to reveal anything you don't want to reveal. This can be your personal journey. The important thing is to keep at it and find something that works for you.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

What? You want more?

  • Read more Cary Tennis in the Since You Asked directory.
  • See what others are saying and/or join the conversation in the Table Talk forum.
  • Ask for advice or make a comment to Cary Tennis.
  • Send a letter to Salon's editors not for publication.

  • By Cary Tennis

    MORE FROM Cary Tennis

    Related Topics ------------------------------------------

    Alcoholism Since You Asked