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What is the Official Definition of an Alcoholic?

Lisa Taylor
Lisa TaylorAddiction Counsellor

Being told one is an alcoholic is something that can turn a person's world upside down. It is especially devastating when the diagnosis comes from an experienced doctor or therapist. At any rate, suffering from alcoholism is never a good thing. Undergoing a successful treatment programme is the only way most alcoholics can take their lives back from this devastating chronic condition.

Perhaps you are wondering what the definition of an alcoholic is. It depends on who you ask. Medical News Today offers an excellent definition that we believe is most helpful in understanding the condition. They define an alcoholic as follows: “a man or woman who suffers from alcoholism – they have a distinct physical desire to consume alcohol beyond their capacity to control it, regardless of all rules of common sense.”

Alcoholism is a long-term chronic condition characterised by an insatiable physical and psychological desire to consume alcohol. An alcoholic is simply someone who suffers from the condition.

It is important to note that there is often a fine line between late-stage alcohol abuse and early-stage alcoholism. This is because people are different. Correctly diagnosing an alcohol problem is not as easy as diagnosing something that is pretty black-and-white, like a broken bone for example. There is quite a bit of overlap within the three generally recognised stages of alcohol abuse.

Characteristics That Define an Alcoholic

What defines an alcoholic, in the eyes of the clinician, are the kinds of behaviours a person will engage in relating to alcohol consumption. Doctors and therapists are trained to spot certain signs and symptoms that suggest alcohol dependence. For the record, alcohol dependence and addiction are two terms used interchangeably with alcoholism.

Regardless of any single definition of an alcoholic, doctors and therapists look for the following signs:

  • Uncontrollable Cravings – An alcoholic is both physically and psychologically dependent on alcohol. That dependence creates cravings that cannot be satisfied in any other way. Therefore, a chronic alcoholic suffers from persistent cravings that only encourage continued drinking.
  • Obsessive Behaviour – Dependence on alcohol leads the alcoholic to engage in obsessive behaviours. For example, the alcoholic may talk about drinking far more often than someone who is not dependent on the drug. He or she may also be willing to go to very great lengths to ensure access to alcohol. Theft is but one example.
  • Unusual Defensiveness – Although alcoholics tend to work very hard to hide their problems from others, it simply cannot be done indefinitely. As their secrets start coming to light, they become unusually defensive about drinking in general. That defensiveness becomes more pronounced when others express concern over the person's drinking habits.
  • Dependence and Tolerance – Lastly, clinicians are trained to look for what is known as the dependence and tolerance cycle. The cycle starts when the alcoholic's body gets used to having a certain amount of alcohol in the system. The body then depends on that alcohol for normal functioning and no longer produces the same feelings of pleasure. This causes the alcoholic to drink more in order to feel good.

The dependence and tolerance cycle is really the 'silver bullet' so to speak. Why? Because dependence and tolerance are hallmarks of addiction. It does not matter what kind of substance or behaviour a person is addicted to; addiction is established as a medical condition once dependence and tolerance are identified.

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Identifying Your Own Problem

You may have your own definition of an alcoholic that you are relying on to determine whether or not you have a drinking problem. Might we suggest you get a second opinion? We say this because persistent drinking in excess affects normal thought patterns in a way that might prevent you from honestly assessing your circumstances.

As an independent provider of alcohol assessments and treatment referrals, we speak with a lot of people suffering from all sorts of drinking problems. One thing we have noticed as a common thread among alcoholics is an inability to clearly see through the haze of alcohol. Alcoholics commonly believe that drinking is the only thing helping them cope with the problems of life. Yet they have it backwards. Alcohol is not the solution to their problems; it is the cause of them.

Would you be willing to step back and honestly answer some questions? If so, would you be ready to contact us for help in the event you answer those questions affirmatively? Below is a list of questions you might want to consider. If you have to answer yes to any of them, we encourage you to contact us for more information. The questions are as follows:

  • Do you routinely hide alcohol around your home and/or workplace?
  • Do you find yourself constantly thinking about opportunities to drink?
  • Is alcohol a required part of all of your social activities?
  • Is it difficult for you to engage in social activities with your family if alcohol is not available?
  • Do you find yourself making new friends; friends who drink as much as you do?
  • Are you finding it necessary to drink more, by volume, in order to feel good?
  • Do you find that drinking makes you feel jittery or is causing sleeping problems?
  • Have you recently seen a doctor for liver or kidney problems?

The definition of an alcoholic is such that it points you back to the condition of alcoholism. But rest assured that the signs and symptoms listed above are clear indicators of that condition. Affirmative answers to any of the questions is a strong indicator that you may already be an alcoholic. If not, you may be a late-stage alcohol abuser who is but just days or weeks away from becoming an alcoholic.

Whether you fit the classic definition of an alcoholic or not, any worries that you might have a drinking problem is sufficient reason to contact our 24-hour helpline. We are standing by to walk you through the symptoms of alcoholism for the purposes of understanding your problem. We will also provide you with treatment information and, if necessary, help connect you with a rehab clinic or counsellor who can start a treatment programme right away.

Alcoholism is a condition that should not be ignored. If there is any chance you are suffering from it, get help now before your drinking problem destroys everything that is near and dear to you.

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