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Addiction: Helping Others

How to Tell if It's a Drinking Problem

​​​​​​​You're likely reading this because you think that you (or someone you know) might have a drinking problem. But, you might not be sure. You might have an idea of what a problem drinker looks and acts like, but it just doesn't fit with your situation. Does that me​an there's no problem?

What kind of person becomes a problem drinker?

All kinds of people become problem drinkers. There is not one way to describe a person with a drinking problem. Many people think problem drinkers are people that aren’t working, don’t pay their bills, meet responsibilities, or have to drink every day. This is not the case. When you continue to do something despite negative consequences, it’s a problem. Anyone can have a drinking problem.

People with drinking problems are all different. They drink differently, have different problems, and lead different lives. People with drinking problems might:

  • drink every day
  • drink only on weekends
  • binge drink every few months
  • not drink at all (if in recovery)

Here are two examples of what problem drinking might look like. Remember, these are just examples and don't describe all problem drinkers.

Example 1: Bill

Bill is the foreman on a construction site. He's married to Linda and they have two teenage daughters. After work, Bill always has 4 or 5 beers before dinner. Then, he drinks several more until he falls asleep watching TV. Bill has been having trouble at work. His boss has asked him if he has a drinking problem. When Bill and Linda go out, Bill always drinks heavily, even if he says he only plans to have 1 or 2 drinks.

Linda has told Bill that she doesn't like him drinking so much and that it embarrasses her when he gets drunk. Bill tells her that she doesn't know how to have fun. She's tried to talk to Bill about this, but she doesn't feel like she's getting through to him. When Linda tells Bill he needs help, he yells at her and throws things. Linda is scared of Bill when he's drinking. She often thinks about divorcing him. Bill used to drive the girls to school every morning. But, about 2 months ago Bill was charged with impaired driving and lost his driver's licence.

Example 2: Carly

Carly is in her first year of university. Carly and her boyfriend have been fighting a lot lately about her drinking. When they go out, Carly gets drunk and says and does things that embarrass both of them. Carly’s boyfriend said he needs time away from Carly to think about their relationship. Now instead of going out, Carly stays at home every weekend and drinks. She has missed a few classes because of her drinking. Her grades have gone down. Carly has spent most of the money her parents loaned her on alcohol. Now she has no money. Carly’s friends have sent her messages asking where she is. She hasn't called or texted her friends back.

Both Bill and Carly have a problem with alcohol. But, they are different people with different problems. They will both need different kinds of help.

Is there a problem?

About 80 percent of Albertans drink alcohol. Most people don't have drinking problems, but some people do. There is likely a problem if a person keeps drinking, even when it has negative effects on his or her life.

Alcohol problems can range from mild to very bad. Some factors to think about are:

  • how much a person drinks
  • how often a person drinks
  • if a person can’t stick to limits (says he or she will only have 2 drinks and then gets drunk)
  • being preoccupied with drinking
  • receiving feedback from others that they have concerns over the person’s drinking
The factors above aren’t the only signs of a drinking problem. A person with a drinking problem usually has problems in some or all of these areas:
  • family
  • work
  • health
  • friends
  • the law
  • money

Let's think about what Bill's drinking is doing to his life. Clear signs of a drinking problem are that Bill:

  • drinks a lot of alcohol (over 40 drinks a week)
  • gets abusive when someone tries to talk to him about drinking
  • had his boss talk to him about drinking
  • has had legal problems because of drinking
  • keeps drinking even though he knows it's causing problems

Carly’s drinking is also causing problems, but her problems are different than Bill's. Clear signs of a drinking problem are that Carly:

  • chooses to stay home and drink instead of going out with her friends
  • misses school and her grades are falling
  • is having money problems because of drinking
  • is drinking to deal with problems
  • does and says things when she drinks that she later regrets
  • drinks and this affects her relationships with loved ones

Bill and Carly both need to get help for their drinking, but they might get different kinds of help.

What can I say to help?

Expressing love and concern for a friend or family member with a drinking problem can be hard. Sometimes it’s even harder because the person might think everything is fine and that you're the one with the problem. These are normal reactions. The most important thing to remember is you can't make anyone change or see things the way you see them.

If you want to talk to your friend or family member about drinking, focus on how you feel about it. For example, Carly’s boyfriend might say "When you got drunk and passed out at my parent’s anniversary party, I felt really mad and embarrassed." Carly’s boyfriend has focused on a real event and explained how it made him feel.

Be supportive and say clearly how you feel about the person. For example, "I love you very much and I'm worried about your drinking and how it's affecting your life and our relationship."

If you can, say clearly what you want or expect from the person. For example, "I want us to see a counsellor about your drinking." If you don’t get a positive answer, you might need to set limits on what you're willing to do. The limit you set should be something you can stick to. Don't say you're going to move out if the person doesn't stop drinking unless you're willing to do it.

It is very important to take care of yourself first. If the drinking is causing you so much stress that you can't function like normal, you might want to see a counsellor. You can see a counsellor about someone else's drinking problem even if he or she won’t get help.

​What kind of help can I get?

There are different kinds of help for problem drinkers like:

  • handouts
  • books
  • videos or DVDs
  • information sessions to quit drinking
  • inpatient and outpatient treatment programs
  • self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)

You can start by reading about drinking problems or making an appointment to see a counsellor.

There are services for your friend or family member, if he or she decides to get help. If you have a friend or family member with a drinking problem, you can get help through (even if the person with the drinking problem isn’t in recovery):

  • family counselling
  • weekend family programs
  • children's groups
  • self-help programs (e.g., Al-Anon and Alateen)

Current as of: March 7, 2017

Author: Addiction & Mental Health, Alberta Health Services​