Annette is in her late 40s and was recently diagnosed by her primary care physicians with mild depression. She told her doctor about her difficulty sleeping through the night, about her periodic crying spells, and about her general loss of interest and motivation. What she did not talk about during that visit, though, was her drinking, which is something that her husband recently voiced his concern about.
Annette has been drinking at home, alone, on a daily basis for nearly a year, whereas before she only drank socially. She says her drinking is almost automatic: she opens a bottle of wine before dinner and keeps drinking until the bottle is at least half empty. She never drinks, she says, to the point where she feels “drunk,” though she has noticed that she falls asleep on the family room couch, watching the news, by nine o’clock, which is earlier than her usual bedtime by at least an hour.
If we were to delve into recent changes in Annette’s personal life, and how these could be contributing to her different drinking pattern, we would learn that it coincides with the recent departure of her youngest son for college in another state. Two years ago her daughter had made a similar departure. While Annette is happy in her marriage, and has always enjoyed her work as an office manager, there is no doubt that she is experiencing the classic “empty nest” syndrome and has been trying to fill the emotional hole in her life with alcohol.
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Ronnie started drinking regularly as soon as he became “legal.” Big, blonde, and blue-eyed —just like his Norwegian father – Ronnie was a high school football star. Now thirty, he already has established a long history of meeting with friends weekly for drinks at a popular sports bar. If you ask him, he will readily admit that he is proud of the fact that he can hold his liquor. Ronnie, in fact, is always the designated driver, because even though he typically drinks as much as any of his friends, he can still see straight when they are nearly passed out.
Ronnie had what he called a “wake-up call” about his drinking one Friday night when he drove one of his buddies home after being asked to. The first thing they heard were the sirens. Then, as they rounded a corner, the flashing lights made them wince. It took both Ronnie and his friend a moment to realize that the building in which the friend lived was on fire. Sensing that they’d both had too much to drink to be of any help (indeed, that Ronnie might be arrested if he encountered a police officer) Ronnie pulled over and urged his friend to stay in the car. The friend, too upset to stay in place, bolted from the car and staggered toward the gathered fire trucks and police cars.
Ronnie’s friend was not arrested, perhaps because he was on foot. But Ronnie remained in his car for nearly two hours, until he felt it safe to turn around and leave. Fortunately, no one died in the fire, though several tenants—Ronnie’s friend included—lost all their possessions. Nevertheless, the experience became something that lingered in Ronnie’s mind. He found himself dreaming about it. He realized that, but for the grace of God, he could have found his own house on fire that night, and he wouldn’t have been much use to his wife and young son if they were trapped in the flames. This proved to be a turning point for Ronnie and his attitude about drinking being harmless fun.
For most people, drinking alcohol makes them feel relaxed, less inhibited, and a little high or euphoric. Drinking had this effect for both Annette and Ronnie. But after a couple of drinks, alcohol has a depressant effect on the body and our mood. It also affects our ability to act and our motor coordination, which was why even if he’d wanted to there was nothing that Ronnie could do if he were ever to find himself in his friend’s situation (and he knew it). For Annette, drinking wine helped to temporarily anesthetize her sadness. But it was also having a negative effect on her daily life, to the point where her husband had commented on it.
Are Annette and Ronnie alcoholics? If we were to make a decision based on the established criteria for alcoholism we’d have to say no, they are not. And an insurance company would surely not pay for either Annette or Ronnie to enter an alcohol rehabilitation program. Viewed from the outside, both could argue that their lives were “together.” Yet both of them had experienced problems that were clearly related to their drinking.
Annette and Ronnie are almost alcoholics. Their drinking is not severe enough to warrant a formal diagnosis, and neither might think that it was something they need “treatment” for. Nevertheless, both had moved beyond the zone we call normal social drinking into a large grey zone we call almost alcoholic drinking. For Annette, drinking had ceased to be an occasional social activity and had evolved to become part of her daily life. As for Ronnie, the kind of drinking typically associated with being social—one or two beers with friends—had been left behind many years before.
The vast majority of almost alcoholics do not recognize it when they slip out of the normal social drinking zone and into the almost alcoholic drinking zone. That’s because there is no sharp line separating these zones. One doesn’t just wake up one morning to find that you are an almost alcoholic. Nor does anyone set out in life to become an almost alcoholic. Rather, the change occurs gradually and insidiously. Often, the almost alcoholic does not even see a connection between drinking and its effects, as was true for Annette, who sought help not for drinking but for trouble sleeping and general loss of motivation.
Annette and Ronnie are fortunate, in that if they were to recognize their almost alcoholic drinking for what it is, and then were to make a decision to change it, they might be able to do so. The solutions presented in Almost Alcoholic: Is My (or My Loved One’s) Drinking a Problem? represent a road map they could follow to make that change.