mature woman drinking alcohol.jpg
Addiction & Substance Overuse

Are You or a Loved One “Almost Alcoholic?”

One of the pitfalls of aging is self-medicating with alcohol: using it to mask physical and emotional pain, drinking out of boredom with more time on one’s hands, or taking it as a sleep aid (even though it tends to interfere with sleep). Joseph Nowinsky and Robert Doyle, co-authors of a recent book called Almost Alcoholic: Is My (or My Loved One’s) Drinking a Problem? believe a great number of social drinkers who progress to alcohol abuse in their middle and senior years could avoid becoming alcoholics with the proper guidance.

The book is part of Harvard Medical School’s series, The Almost Effect, which suggests that a number of physical and behavioral conditions exist on a spectrum rather than as medical conditions one either does or does not have. The purpose of Almost Alcoholic is to help individuals figure out if their drinking is a problem, propose strategies for dealing with the problem, and provide tools for measuring progress of stepping back from the edge into a healthier approach to drinking alcohol.

Alcoholism, like drug addiction, is considered a chronic and progressive disease, according to the Mayo Clinic. A clinical diagnosis of alcoholism may include a need for increased amounts of alcohol to achieve intoxication, physical symptoms of withdrawal when alcohol is withheld, and problems with relationships, work, and living (paying bills, for instance) due to a preoccupation with drinking.

Just as some people are pre-diabetic, can some drinkers be “almost alcoholic?” If so, can catching them at an earlier stage of alcohol use keep them from abusing alcohol? And, to suggest a fairly radical idea, could almost alcoholics qualify for treatment for alcohol dependency before they are fully dependent alcoholics?

The authors suggest these signs indicate one is moving away from social drinking and into alcoholic territory.

  • You drink to relieve stress.
  • You often drink alone.
  • You look forward to drinking.
  • Your drinking may be related to one or more health problems.
  • You drink to relieve boredom or loneliness.
  • You sometimes drive after drinking.
  • You drink to maintain a “buzz.”
  • Your performance at work is not what it used to be.
  • You aren’t comfortable in social situations without drinking.
  • You find that drinking helps you overcome your shyness.

The action they propose is to identify and assess your patterns of alcohol use; evaluate its impact on your relationships, work, and personal well-being; develop strategies and goals for changing the amount and frequency of alcohol use; measure the results of applying these strategies; and make informed decisions about your next steps.

One criteria of alcoholism they don’t mention, however, is “You are in denial about why, when, where, and how often you drink, and about the consequences to yourself and others of your drinking.”

Since denial is one of the hallmarks of the disease of alcoholism, it is all too easy to move from almost alcoholic to alcoholic due to the inability to have a perspective on one’s own behavior. One has to be motivated by something significant in order to pick up the book and recognize oneself.

That is why this is an important book for those who love a family member or friend who seems to be drifting toward alcoholism. If you have observed that alcohol is making a difference in a loved one’s behavior, bring the issue into the open rather than ignore the signs. Alcohol treatment programs are not just for those who have gone off the deep end and withdrawn from society. They are also for intervening in behavior that could lead to chronic alcoholism, for which there is no cure but remission due to abstinence.

It often requires enlisting the professional help of the family doctor or a counselor, therapist, or social worker to convey concern about drinking behavior of a loved one. But the authors of Almost Alcoholic believe that with support and motivation, “almost alcoholics” can rein in their drinking and make the shift to drinking in moderation, with attention to the restrictions our bodies put on us as we age.

We’d like to know what you think about the “almost effect.” Is it possible for someone who is already in the almost alcoholic zone to reform their drinking behavior?

Judy Kirkwood writes articles for print and web publications – national, regional, and local; is a contributing writer to Simply the Best and Boca Raton Observer magazines in South Florida; and plays on the beach and in the pool year-round. Visit her on Facebook @JudysFlorida and please visit www.JudysFlorida.com

Judy Kirkwood is ThirdAge.com’s Contributing Writer and Forum Director.