What is problem drinking versus alcohol addiction?

A problem drinker can display behaviors of someone out of control when it comes to their drinking.

They can have periods of heavy or even abusive tendencies with alcohol use. A problem drinker may get really sick after a bender. They may skip work because of “last night.” They may even have a brush with the law or problems at home.

However, when someone with problem drinking begins to have negative consequences of their drinking, they can rein it in. The difference between problem drinking and alcohol addiction lies in the ability to experience these consequences and self-correct. Problem drinkers can learn from their mistakes. They can realize, “Hmmm…maybe I did have one too many last night. I’m not going to do that again,” and they don’t. They can go back to normal drinking.

Addiction is far different.

Like the movie “Groundhog Day,” people addicted to alcohol are on a continual loop of drinking and consequences, with no ability to self-correct. The dangerous thing is that addiction is a progressive disease. You can start out a problem drinker and develop an addiction. You might intersperse periods of heavy and light drinking, thinking you can control it, but as the cycles progress, they will likely get worse. You might come to feel like alcohol is an old friend, someone you want to spend time with before they go away again.

The three things people addicted to alcohol don’t know (and know they don’t know) when they begin drinking:

  1. How much they will drink.
  2. Whether other drugs will be involved once the drinking starts.
  3. Where the night will lead them or how it will end.

Is there a difference between problem drinking versus addiction? Yes, there is. But problem drinking can quickly become addiction as the lines get blurred.

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Benton, S. A., MS, LMHC, LPC. (n.d.). Social Drinkers, Problem Drinkers and Alcoholics. URL: www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-high-functioning-alcoholic/200904/social-drinkers-problem-drinkers-and-alcoholics. Retrieved March, 2017.