Think I Have a Drinking Problem, Anne?

“I need a drink!”

I remember my surprise and unease when I first uttered that sentence. I knew, even at the time, that I was making a statement in conflict with my values. Needs were food, shelter and clothing. Not drinks.

Tough questionsIf any good could come from my struggle with addiction to alcohol, being asked, “Do you think I have a drinking problem, Anne?” would be it. I feel so trusted and honored to be asked.

One can very privately research one’s own answer to the question. About.com has a comprehensive list of questionnaires about drinking. My therapist mentioned a report on women and drinking in 2012 which led me to click around, find this questionnaire, and feel a wave of dread as I recognized the secret way I drank wine described for the world to see.

A lot of the do-you-have-a-problem questions focus on evaluating the evidence of external consequences – people telling you you have a problem, people asking you to quit, trouble with work or the law, etc. I didn’t have those problems and have questioned the motivating power of consequences anyway. No, drinking for me was an inside job.

Caveat: If you have any physical sensations when you delay or do without alcohol, read no further. You have a problem. See a health care provider ASAP.

If you don’t have physical symptoms when you do without alcohol, but still wonder if drinking is problematic for you, I suggest a two-part process.

Before beginning, I invite you to become aware of what you’re feeling right now. Continue to become aware of what you’re feeling as you read the rest of this post. Feelings are data. I’ll ask you about them at the end.

Part I. Answer questions about your drinking.

Here we go. I offer these questions from a personal, insider’s view:

  1. Have you ever said or thought, even in seeming jest, “I need a drink!”?
  2. Have you ever wanted to feel different or better – more relaxed, more in the swing of things, more in the mood, less bored, less worried, less lonely, less stressed, less obsessed, for example – and poured or ordered yourself a drink?
  3. Have you ever thought, “This is too much!” or “I can’t take it!” and reached for a drink?
  4. Have you ever thought during the day, “Soon, I can have a drink.”

If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, you’ve turned away from what you’re feeling. And that, I think, is where drinking* problems begin.

“[A]ddiction is nothing but a miscarried and often tragic attempt on the part of an individual who does not feel good to feel better.”
– Floyd P. Garrett, M.D., The Addict’s Dilemma

Developing a cause-and-effect relationship between wanting to feel better and doing that with alcohol is a problem. When I have feelings that unsettle me and I don’t directly help myself with those feelings – talking about them foremost – but turn away from them and turn toward something that helps me suppress, avoid, or distract myself from those feelings, I’ve actually got a feelings problem and I’m setting myself up for a drinking* problem.

Part II. Go without.

Part II in answering the “Do I have a problem?” question has two interdependent pieces. One, set an amount of time to go without and go without. Two, be acutely conscious of what you’re feeling and thinking during this time.

[How do you feel right now as you think about going without? Feelings are data. No judging, no shaming, just become aware.]

I love milk and I have it every day with cereal, after meals, and with smoothies in the evenings. If I went without milk, I would miss it. But I wouldn’t have a problem with troubling feelings or thoughts about milk. I’d be too busy living my life.

If you can go without alcohol and find it’s the equivalent of going without a pleasant food or beverage – chocolate can be a test food for some** – that’s good to know. If, at the end of the set time, you find yourself having had feelings in a pretty stable and manageable range and can’t remember if you thought about drinking or not, that’s a reasonable sign that drinking may not be an issue for you.

If you go without and find your feelings in the jagged range during abstinence and find yourself thinking frequently and longingly of a drink, that’s probably a problem.

If you can’t go without – which is my story: no matter how many times I tried to quit, no matter how much I wanted to stop, I always drank on the third day…or the second day, or the same day – that’s a problem.

So, what data have you collected from your feelings? What did you feel while you were reading this post? What are you feeling right now? The “big four feelings” are “mad,” “sad,” “glad,” “afraid.” Of which did you become aware?

If you feel glad and relieved, whew, I am, too! I wouldn’t wish a drinking problem on anyone.

If you feel mad, sad, afraid, worried, panicked, ashamed, that’s okay. I’m guessing you’re thinking you have a drinking problem. The good news is that you’re feeling feelings which is the beginning of the solution to the problem. I know all too well, though, that feelings feel unbearable without a drink. Handling feelings without drinking takes help from others. More good news, also from my personal experience: there’s a world full of others who can help.

. . . . .

If I could do my own recovery from addiction to alcohol over again, I would have asked for help on day one from my doctor. I was ashamed to tell her that her patient was in trouble. Fear of stigma kept me silent. My suggestion is to tell your doctor you’re worried. Your doctor will help you with your individual situation and will very likely send you to a support group. Here’s why and how support groups can be of huge help.

*Drinking alcohol, smoking pot, swallowing an extra Lortab, swallowing too much food, swallowing not enough food, gambling, spending, having sex, cutting, on and on – any substance or process can be used to not feel feelings or to manage or control them.

**For the 10-15% of Americans estimated to have an eating disorder, compare doing without alcohol to doing without a daily, personal practice such as reading or journaling.

Image source: iStock

The content of this post is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or professional advice. Consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical and professional advice.

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