What is an Alcoholic?

Anyone who browses through discussion forums or discussion groups online will inevitably come across one of the most frequently asked questions people have. People will either post a specific thread entitled am an alcoholic ? or the question will come up in the course of a more generalised debate.

When people raise the question and say am I an alcoholic or not, people tend to respond in one of two ways.

They either share a wide range of experiences that they have from AA meetings, or their own life, explaining what an alcoholic is or isn’t and urging the individual to try AA before they die.

The other type of advice tends to be of a more general nature, urging the individual to look at their own drinking, telling them that they can be the only person who can decide if they are an alcoholic or not.

Both of these types of advice can be well-meaning, and both have their merits and their de-merits.

There is a more fundamental issue which does not get addressed, and maybe cannot be addressed in the context of a discussion group or forum.

The issue of whether someone decides they are an alcoholic or not is to some extent irrelevant.

The reason for saying this, is that people can get caught up on whether they see themselves as being an alcoholic or not, and miss the bigger point that it is the problem they are seeking to address concerning their drinking that is the real issue.

Whether they define themselves as an alcoholic will come at any point of the process, and is something that in many ways can be put on hold until they need to address it.

If someone acknowledges that they have a problem with alcohol, or with their drinking, and can refrain from putting any unhelpful labels around it, they are in fact faced with a much starker reality.


It is the reality of what their drinking is doing to them that they then at some level have to address.

They may or may not be able to, and may well continue to deny the problem for some time.

Assuming that they are able to address the issue in some way, and assuming that they decide to seek help, then in many ways they are in a much healthier position if they can focus on the specific issue.

Acknowledging that someone is an alcoholic can be extremely helpful, so long as the notion of alcoholism is given as the context for the person’s drinking and behaviour.

The real problem of trying to define an alcoholic, is that you can’t. You can certainly identify common patterns and behaviours, and someone who is an alcoholic can certainly get real benefit from identifying with other alcoholics in lots of different ways.

The danger is that in setting up any definition or context of what an alcoholic is or isn’t is that you create a predefined set of criteria outside of the individual, that they then feel they need to fit themselves into in order to qualify as an alcoholic, and thereby get better.

The focus should always be on the individual and their life, what their problem is and what they are doing to get better from it. The understanding of alcoholism can certainly be a big help in that, but it needs to come from within the individual not outside.