What is an addict or alcoholic?

There is a big misconception when it comes to defining what an addict or alcoholic is. Most people think it has to do with whether or not the person in question can abstain from their substance of choice for any length of time. You hear things like, “Well she doesn’t drink every day so she can’t be an alcoholic.” Another way people define addiction is whether or not there is a physical component. If he goes through any sort of physical withdrawal when he doesn’t have his drugs or alcohol then he is an addict or alcoholic. The problem with these definitions is that there is an element of truth to them. Certainly someone who doesn’t drink everyday may not be an alcoholic or someone who has withdrawal symptoms likely is an addict but neither of those define addiction.

When I got into treatment I finally realized that I was an addict and alcoholic. But I didn’t fit either one of the definitions above. There usually was a couple of days a week where I didn’t drink or use drugs. When I got to treatment I didn’t have to go through detox like most people because I hadn’t drank in the 24 hours. I also had no physical withdrawal symptoms. But if you knew me then, or know my story, there is no doubt that I had a problem. I was stuck in a cycle that I couldn’t get out. My life was swirling around the toilet bowl and I was inches away from disaster.

So how do you define an addiction? I gave a clue above. It really is simple. Anyone who experiences negative consequences as a result of their drinking, drug use, video game playing, pornography viewing, or any other in the long list of addictions. Still that is a little vague so let’s clarify.

First of all, negative consequences is plural. We are not talking about getting in trouble one time. We aren’t talking about one hangover. This is pattern behavior. We will see the same thing over and over. The addict may have trouble with relationships, may have trouble holding a job, may be arrested multiple times for driving under the influence. There are a lot of different types of consequences. It could be health consequences. And there will likely be a mix of consequences. Personally, I had financial problems, relationship problems, I had put on a lot of weight, and I wasn’t very pleasant to be around.

Despite these negative consequences the addict or alcoholic doesn’t change. They continue to do the same things. To the outside world they seem crazy. We shake our heads at what an idiot the person is. The reality is that the person is stuck. In and of themselves they do not have the power to change. Their life has become unmanageable.

The simplest and most elegant definition of an addict or alcoholic I believe is this: Anyone who’s life has become unmanageable and is powerless to change it without help. If you are wondering whether or not your loved one has a problem ask yourself these simple questions:

  1. Has their behavior negatively effected their life in any way?
  2. Are they unable to make any lasting positive changes in their life?
  3. Does their life seem out of control?

If you answered yes to any of those questions then your loved one likely needs help. If you are still not convinced here is one last test. Think of people you know who you are one hundred percent certain do not have an addiction problem. Does anyone ever wonder if they have an addiction? No, of course not. We never wonder if someone has a problem who doesn’t actually have a problem. It just doesn’t happen. So if you are asking the question, there is almost no chance that they do not have a problem. The fact that you are still asking the question probably means they aren’t too far gone yet. It means they still have hope. It means the sooner they are able to get help the better the chance they will have of a normal life again.

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