The math is clear: alcohol causes more societal damage than hard drugs. There are many potential explanations, but perhaps the most compelling is this: alcohol lacks the social stigma associated with other drugs like marijuana or heroin. Because of this, no one thinks twice at the office if you talk about going out for drinks after the staff meeting; try the same sentence, but substitute “heroin” for “alcohol,” and you’ll quickly find yourself unemployed.
Alcohol has clear physical and social effects: it damages our brains, lives, bones and more; it’s linked to poverty, violence, and the disintegration of the American family. And, for some reason, no one will look twice at you if they see you drinking. This widespread social acceptance has created a society in which we have very little grasp of how much we actually drink and what those drinks are doing to us; indeed, it’s estimated that up to 32% of America’s alcoholics are classified as “high-functioning.” A full 25% of them will never seek treatment, believing that their ability to hold down a job and manage a life means they don’t actually have a problem.
How Much Alcohol is in Your Alcohol?
Some confusion may stem from a simple misunderstanding of exactly how much alcohol they’re consuming; many drinkers have no idea how widely alcohol content can vary from drink to drink. The NIAAA defines one “drink” as “roughly 14 grams of alcohol.” However, those 14 grams can show up in a variety of ways. They’ve got this handy pictorial guide on their website:
When Should You Be Worried?
In a world where one out of eight Americans may be an alcoholic, when should you start worrying about your own drinking habits? According to Dr. Ali Barwise, a doctor writing for GQ, adult men should consume less than 21 units of alcohol per week and never more than four units in a single day. Dr. Barwise also recommends that each week include at least two days in which you consume no alcohol at all.
Of course, it’s more complicated than simply counting your drinks. We now know that alcoholism has a genetic component—so if you have a family history of the disease, it’s wise to be overly cautious. Either way, there are some questions you need to ask yourself:
* Do you turn to alcohol to deal with stress or pressure? Specifically, do you choose a drink or do you need a drink (which is just another way to say the drinks are choosing you)?
* Have you asked the people around you how your drinking affects you? Often, it’s difficult to be objective about your own personality; if you ask your friends this question, be prepared to deal with some brutal truth.
* Do you associate drinking with feeling confident? Do you need a drink to prep for major moments—sales pitches, presentations, social gatherings?
* Have you traded rewarding hobbies for drinking? Is it taking over your down-time?
* Have you found yourself lying about the amount you drink, because you know the people listening will disapprove? Are you throwing empties away outside, to keep your family from seeing them in the kitchen trash?
* Is drinking creeping earlier and earlier into your day? Or are you drinking longer and longer each night?
* Are you a little off-kilter the day after drinking? A little shaky, just not quite right? Are there things you can’t remember or gaps in your memory?
If you’d like a more rigorous accounting of your drinking level, the World Health Organization has developed a self-audit that provides a score you can use to gauge how problematic your drinking is. We’ve reproduced it below, or you can download the full PDF here.
Total your score from the answers above:
– Scores from 0-7 indicate low risk of alcohol dependency or medical problems stemming from alcohol use.
– Scores from 8-15 indicate a moderate risk of “hazardous and harmful alcohol use,” including the possibility of alcohol dependence. (A score of 7 may also be indicative of problematic drinking, depending upon age, metabolism, and cultural norms in your area.) In this range, you should definitely consider a plan to cut back on drinking.
– Scores from 16 to 19 indicate a high risk of alcohol-related problems and potential alcohol dependence. In this range, it’s possible you’ll need medical help to cut back on drinking.
– Scores above 20 call for medical evaluation for potential alcohol dependence and subsequent treatment. You’ll need to speak with a doctor to determine the safest course of action as you plan to cut back.
– If you scored at all on Question 2 or 3, you’re at least occasionally drinking at a hazardous level. If you scored at all on Questions 4-6, you may be in the early stages of alcohol dependence. If you scored at all on Questions 7-10, you’re already beginning to experience harm from your alcohol consumption.
What Should I Do Next?
First of all, it’s easier to manage location than it is to manage temptation; since you know this, keep yourself physically out of places where you know you’ll want to drink as much as possible.
Numbers are your friend; don’t just aim to “drink less,” which is a vague goal that’s easy to talk yourself around. Instead, set a numerical, measurable goal: “I’m going to have fewer than ten drinks this week,” or something similar. You want to walk your drinking back slowly and consistently. It may help to substitute drinks with a lower alcohol content; have a light beer, or a less alcoholic wine than your usual.
Don’t go it alone; involve your partner or circle of friends to help keep track of consumption and give you some accountability. If that makes you uncomfortable, consider going to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or some other form of group therapy. If you’re in the danger zone based on the quiz above, it’s very important that you involve your physician; quitting cold-turkey in the middle of alcohol dependency can have real physical consequences, up to and including death.