Our reasons for drinking can be varied and complex.
This held true for me when it became difficult (if not impossible) to know if my drinking was simply a temporary binge behavior, destined to be left behind in my 20s; an unhealthy coping skill related to my mental illness; or an actual, full-blown addiction.
It didn’t help that my clinicians couldn’t agree if I was an alcoholic. Some said yes, and others vehemently said no.
This was a confusing and distressing place to be. Going to AA and eventually an outpatient rehab program for all of a day sent me spiraling as I tried to figure out if I even belonged there.
I went from meeting to meeting, space to space, trying to figure out my identity without realizing that my identity crisis was distracting from the real issues at hand.
Rather than focusing my energy on sobriety and recovery, I became obsessed with figuring out if I was an alcoholic.
Having OCD, obsessing about this wasn’t exactly surprising.
But it really only intensified my desire to drink so that I could play “detective” and test myself, as if the answer to my problems somehow lay in drinking more, not less.
The anxiety of not knowing how to talk about my relationship to alcohol became the focus, instead of honestly examining how I was drinking and why it was important to stop or cut back.
I know I’m not the only one to arrive at this place, either.
Whether we’re not quite ready to call ourselves alcoholics, or we simply exist on a continuum where our behavior is maladaptive but not quite addictive, it’s sometimes necessary to set aside the identity question and instead pivot to the more important questions.
I want to share some of the questions I had to ask myself to get my recovery on track.
Whether the answers lead you to claim an identity as an alcoholic, or simply help you make important decisions around substance use and recovery, the important thing is that you’re able to honestly examine your relationship to alcohol — and hopefully, make the choices that are best for you.
1. What are the consequences, and do they matter to me?
The last time I relapsed in my drinking, my behavior had some very serious consequences.
It jeopardized my employment, threatened my relationships, put me in dangerous situations (alone, without support), and affected my health in serious ways. Even knowing this, I continued drinking for a while, and I couldn’t really explain why.
Drinking without real regard for the consequences is a red flag, whether you have alcohol use disorder or not. It signals that it’s time to reassess your relationship to alcohol.
If your drinking is more important than your loved ones, your job, or your health, it’s time to reach out for help. This could be attending meetings; for me, the most helpful thing was opening up to a therapist.
If the consequences don’t matter, it’s time to reach out for support.
2. Am I compromising my values?
One thing I can say about drinking: When I’m in the throes of a binge, I don’t like who I become.
I don’t like that I become a liar, doing whatever I need to avoid the criticism and concern of my loved ones. I don’t like that I make promises I know I won’t keep. I don’t like that I prioritize drinking over most other things, at the expense of the people in my life.
What are your values? I think every person with a substance use history has to ask themselves this question.
Do you value being kind? Being honest? Being true to yourself? And does your substance use interfere with you living out those values?
And most importantly, is sacrificing these values worth it to you?
3. What’s the outcome? Is it predictable? Am I in control?
The last time I threw my sobriety out of the window, I started (secretly) drinking excessive amounts of wine.
Most people don’t know this about me, but I’m actually allergic to wine. So, the afternoon went something like this: Drink alone until I pass out, wake up a few hours later with an allergic reaction (usually involving being incredibly itchy), take Benadryl, and pass back out for another couple hours.
It’s not even fun, the way that drinking is apparently supposed to be, yet I carried on.
I think it was a way of dealing with the unbearable hours of depression I’d be sucked into otherwise. Half a day would be totally eclipsed, either with me totally drunk or passing out on my apartment floor.
The outcome? Not great and certainly not healthy. Predictable? Yes, because it kept happening no matter what I initially planned.
And was I in control? When I was honest with myself — really, really honest — I realized that when you plan one thing and the outcome is repeatedly different, you likely have less control than you think.
So, take a minute to examine things truthfully. When you drink, what happens? Is the outcome negative or positive? And does it happen the way that you planned, or does it always seem to get out of hand?
These are all important questions that can help you decide if you need support around your substance use.
4. What are my loved ones telling me? Why is that?
Lots of folks I know are resistant to this question. They want to get defensive and refute what everyone says.
That’s why for this exercise, I ask that you have two columns: one column for what people say about your drinking, and another column for the evidence or reasoning people have for saying it.
Notice there isn’t a third column for disputing it. There’s two columns, and they focus entirely on other people and not ourselves and what we think about it.
An honest inventory of how people feel about our substance use can give us insight into our behaviors and whether or not we’re making healthy choices.
It’s absolutely true that sometimes, people can see the risks and problems more clearly than we can recognize in ourselves.
Be open to that feedback. You don’t have to agree, but you do have to accept that this is how other people feel — and that those feelings exist for a reason, reasons that might offer us important insight into ourselves.
5. What is my drinking trying to tell me?
With time, I realized that much of my drinking was a cry for help. It meant that my coping skills weren’t working, and my depression was driving me to drink because it was the easiest and most accessible option.
Rather than asking myself if I was an alcoholic, I started to examine what needs were being met with my drinking, and I started to wonder if those needs could be met in a healthier way.
In therapy, I realized my drinking was trying to tell me something. Namely, that I lacked the support I needed to make healthy choices. I was struggling to cope with my complex PTSD and depression, and I felt alone in my struggles.
Drinking helped distract me from that pain and that loneliness. It created new problems, to be sure, but at least those problems I created myself and gave me the illusion of control.
I already had a propensity for self-sabotage and self-harm, and drinking became both of those things to me. Understanding this context helped me have more compassion for myself and helped me identify what needed to change so I could replace the function that drinking had in my life.
Your drinking, too, could be trying to tell you something about your life: something that needs to change or a trauma that hasn’t healed.
There are no shortcuts in recovery — which means that drinking can temporarily distract you from that pain, but it won’t heal it.
Whether you’re a binge drinker, an alcoholic, or just a person who uses drinking as a bandage from time to time, we all have to eventually confront the “why” of drinking and not just the “what” or “who.”
No matter what we label ourselves or who that makes us, there’s a deeper calling to examine why we’re drawn to this in the first place.
When you find yourself becoming too fixated on your identity, sometimes it’s necessary to set aside your ego to do the real truth-telling.
And I believe that questions like these, however difficult they are to grapple with, can get us closer to understanding ourselves in an honest and self-compassionate way.
This article originally appeared here in May 2017.
Sam Dylan Finch is the mental health and chronic conditions editor at Healthline. He’s also the blogger behind Let’s Queer Things Up!, where he writes about mental health, body positivity, and LGBTQ+ identity. As an advocate, he’s passionate about building community for people in recovery. You can find him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, or learn more at samdylanfinch.com.