Do I have a drinking problem?

There's a history of alcoholism in my family, and I'm drinking kind of a lot, and I have cravings

Published July 7, 2010 1:01AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I hate to write you with a less-than-intriguing problem, but here it is.

I am 30 years old. I am a successful, educated, currently employed individual who is happily married and comes from a loving and supportive family. I've noticed I like to drink. It is a rare occasion that I have more than three beers, but I do drink three to four times a week. Yes, I know what the FDA says about that number. I guess I'm a bit concerned because although I sense this may be a problem in the future, I'm not sure how to deal with it now. Do I have a problem now? Or am I making a problem out of nothing?

My significant other says I have nothing to worry about; I am a careful drinker who is just "having a few beers" and "enjoying life." My siblings say the same. They are not drinkers, and so I take their opinions to heart.

I am worried, though, because I come from a long line of alcoholics. My grandmother, after drinking heavily every night of her life, quit cold turkey in her early 50s. My grandfather suffered serious health problems at 40 years old due to his pill, alcohol and marijuana dependencies. All of my aunts and uncles suffer from some unaddressed mental health issue and/or alcohol problem. My parents, however, do not have drinking problems (though my father does have some serious mental health issues) and I am very close to them both. Growing up, I did not know my father had mental health issues, or that he was sexually abused as a child. He had a major breakdown (or breakthrough?) when I was still in high school, and never fully recovered. He is better, I guess, but only in the sense that he doesn't think about killing himself every day; only in the sense that he doesn't need to be hospitalized every three months. He is a different person than the man who raised me, but he is a new kind of father. He is, perhaps, more selfish than before, and almost entirely consumed with his illnesses, but someone I have grown to love, admire, respect. Is this important to my story? I'm not sure.

Cary, I am a worrier. Always have been. When I was in my early 20s, I obsessed, worried and tormented myself to a weight that was mentally unhealthy, though not technically "anorexic." When I was in graduate school I set timers in order to challenge myself to read each page at a certain pace, and if I did not meet that pace (3-5 minutes per page of dense literary theory), then I would scold myself severely, scream insults to myself in journals. When I lived abroad, I did the self-hatred/humiliation game again every time I mispronounced a word in French. I can see now that those were unhealthy obsessions, and I am better, Cary, I really am.

So what am I asking you? I guess I'm asking if I need to quit drinking. Why ask you this? Because it's too difficult to ask myself. I don't know. I have a friend who is a high-functioning man with a drinking problem. He drinks every single night. He drinks eight to 12 beers a night and he knows, Cary, he knows he has a problem. Yet the people he's accustomed to spending time with drink so much more, that he is able to rationalize it. I fear that is what I am doing to myself. I am comparing my three beers to his eight or 12 or 20.

Cary, I drink for new perspective. I drink in order to forget, or remember, depending on the task at hand. I drink because beer tastes good, and now my mouth craves it in a way it never did before. I am scared, Cary. I never imagined I would be a person with a substance-abuse problem. I was never even interested in alcohol until graduate school. It was there that I became more self-conscious, I think. I became fearful; I became more anxious than before. I doubted myself. I still do. I still doubt myself, but now I am 30 years old, and it seems so pathetic. So pathetic.


Dear Jane Doe,

Well, I must say, I have observed that people who drink normally don't tend to sit around wondering if they have a drinking problem. They might get too loaded once in a while, but they don't crave it, and they don't obsess about it, and they don't drink to forget. So it's my opinion that generally, if you're worried that you have a drinking problem, you probably do have a drinking problem.

That doesn't mean you're an alcoholic. It just means that you're using alcohol in an excessive and perhaps harmful way. So here are some things you could do. You could talk to a friend who has quit drinking. You could go to some AA meetings as a visitor and listen to what people say about their own drinking, and see if you find some similarities. Also, you mention a family history of alcoholism. Stephannie, our researcher, has put together an Open Salon post on the genetic links.

The main thing is, people who drink normally don't sit around wondering if they have a drinking problem.

Now, you might be drinking too much now for a number of reasons, and be able to cut down or stop without much trouble. You might try doing that and see how you feel. If you find yourself uncomfortable when you try to cut down or stop, well, that's another sign that you have a special relationship with alcohol, one that normal drinkers don't have. You also mention that your mouth craves it. That is something we alcoholics readily recognize, but that normal drinkers might not understand.

One thing stood out in your letter. You started off in this way: "I am a successful, educated, currently employed individual who is happily married and comes from a loving and supportive family." Then, as you describe your family and your past, we hear that there have been troubles in your family. You have faced them but they remain as significant features. And you have had troubles, too. You have had what sounds like an episode of an eating disorder. And you have been cruel to yourself; you have disciplined yourself in a novel and extreme way in order to get the results you feel you must get.

I can relate. And I suspect that these periods of excessive self-discipline and your worries about alcohol have something in common. I have come to believe that my own past attempts to  rigidly program my life, and my tendency to take refuge in drugs and alcohol have a common root in a desire not to feel something. I have hoped that by taking certain steps I can avoid feeling things I do not want to feel. Among the things I do not want to feel are grief and confusion about my family; it is painful to think of my father and his own mental problems, and my mother and her mental problems; it is painful to think of how they deteriorated, such wonderful people, how they lost it. I, too, disciplined myself as a young person, at times mercilessly. And I, too, drank, and worried about my drinking for many years.

Control and lack of control: This, I suspect, looms huge for you.  Paradoxically, as it calms your fears about being out of control, drinking also robs you of control. It is as if by drinking, you are acknowledging that in some way your efforts at control are part of the problem, that anxiety is a way of keeping feelings at bay, that efforts at control are efforts to keep feelings at bay.

You have adjusted a painful past by saying that things are OK the way they are and there is no problem. I believe that if you continue in this way it will not work. Eventually you will have to place your life on a new footing. What will be the precipitating event that will cause you to put your life on a new footing? What will it be? Perhaps this moment right now is the precipitating event. Perhaps your decision to write a letter is a sign that you are ready to open yourself to the feelings you have held at bay all these years.

It isn't necessary or even advisable to try to understand all the things that have happened to you on your own. What you will need to do is find some setting in which you can begin feeling these things. It will probably be a long process. You may already have begun feeling these things -- that may be what the anxiety is about, the anxiety being a thin wall, on the other side of which is this great reservoir of feeling and memory.

You don't want to be flooded with all that feeling and memory. That's no good. You want to admit it to consciousness gradually. That's why you find some structured way of letting a little bit of it in at a time. That's what regular support is. It's a way of regulating the flow of emotion, so you can get a bit at a time, so you can digest it. If taken a bit at a time, all this stuff you'd rather not deal with is not so big. You don't take it all at once. You take it a piece at a time.

It's your journey. That's the other thing. You don't have to apologize or explain to anyone. The thing to do is find a setting where you are safe, where there is trust, where this stuff can come out. You become conversant with it. You don't apologize for it or minimize it or insult it. You face it, make your terms with it, acknowledge it as a strong person, as an adult, as someone with self-love.

My hope for you is that this letter is the beginning of a journey. I wish you safety and enlightenment.

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By Cary Tennis

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