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Addiction: Helping Others

How to tell if there is an alcohol issue

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

What kind of person struggles with alcohol use?

All kinds of people can struggle with alcohol use. There is not one way to describe a person with an issue. Many people think it means people who aren't working, don't pay bills, don’t meet responsibilities, or have to drink every day. This is not the case. When you continue to do something despite negative consequences, it's an issue. Anyone can have an alcohol issue.

People who struggle with alcohol use are all different. They drink differently, have different issues, and lead different lives. People with alcohol use issues might:

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

Here are 2 examples of what an alcohol issue might look like. Remember, these are just examples and don't describe all people who use alcohol.

Example 1: Bill

Bill is the foreman on a construction site. He's married to Linda and they have 2 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 intoxicated 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 an issue with alcohol. But they are different people with different challenges. They will both need different kinds of help.

Is there a problem?

About 80% of Albertans drink alcohol. Most people don't have alcohol use issues, but some people do. There is likely an issue if a person keeps drinking, even when it has negative effects on their life.

Alcohol use issues 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 (like saying they will only have 2 drinks and then getting 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 an alcohol use issue. A person with an issue usually has challenges in some or all of these areas:

  • family
  • work
  • health
  • friends
  • the law
  • money

Let's think about what Bill's use is doing to his life. Clear signs that his use is an issue 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 use is also causing issues, but her challenges are different than Bill's. Clear signs of an issue are that Carly:

  • chooses to stay home and drink instead of going out with her friends
  • misses school and her grades are falling
  • has money problems because of drinking
  • drinks 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 an alcohol use issue can be hard. Sometimes it’s even harder because the person might think everything is fine and that you're the one with the issue. 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 someone’s 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 even if they won’t get help.

What kind of help can I get?

There are different kinds of help for people struggling with alcohol use 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 alcohol use or making an appointment to see a counsellor.

There are services for your friend or family member, if they decide to get help. If you have a friend or family member with an alcohol issue, you can get help through (even if the person with the issue isn’t in recovery):

  • family counselling
  • weekend family programs
  • children's groups
  • self-help programs like Al-Anon and Alateen

To find out about help or to find an addiction services office near you, call the 24-hour Help Line at 1-866-332-2322 (Alberta only).

Current as of: May 18, 2022

Author: Addiction & Mental Health, Alberta Health Services​