Menu Close

Differences Between Alcoholism and Compulsive Drinking

compulsive drinking in college

Young adults are in college and tend to drink a lot because it is “the thing to do.”  Everyone is doing it.  It is a cool thing to do.  Some may look at the average college student and think they are compulsive drinkers.  To a certain extent, they could be right.  But does that make them an alcoholic?  Not in the slightest.  

A study at Vanderbilt University found that “Occasional binge drinking isn’t uncommon, but about 30 percent of all adults exposed to alcohol engage in compulsive drinking despite negative effects and consequences – a major feature of alcohol use disorder.” 

Negative side effects and consequences can mean completely different things from person to person.  What is negative to one may not be negative to the next.  This is why it is tough to diagnose someone as an alcoholic.  We don’t know what one person considers a negative side effect.  

Here is an example  

An average working man is compulsively drinking.  Let’s say he comes home from work and drinks six beers a night and maybe a glass of wine.  At the end of the night, his wife, at this point, cleaned up the house, put all the dishes away, got the kids to bed, and finally had a chance to sit down.  She is super resentful towards her husband because her husband sits on the back patio watching football and drinking beer the whole time she’s doing these chores.  This goes on for months and months or potentially years. It gets to the point where it causes a lot of turmoil within the family.  The wife has gone on the entire time, not saying a word and just bottling everything up inside.  She hasn’t said anything to anyone.  She keeps it to herself and builds a lot of resentment toward her “alcoholic” husband.  One night, she has had enough.  She can’t take it anymore.  She knows that she needs to say something to her husband.  Instead of consulting a therapist, she says what is on her mind and tells her husband that she wants to separate for a while because she does not know if the marriage will last.  She even goes as far as calling her husband an alcoholic.  She could say, “You know, while I am doing all the work around the house, you sit on the back patio and drink all night! I am starting to think you are an alcoholic!”

Meanwhile, he had NO IDEA that she even felt this way.  She has never said anything or eluded to anything like this before.  It catches him off guard.  

Now, is he an alcoholic?  Well, it would depend on what he does next.  Does he recommend that they have a deeper conversation about her feelings?  Is he willing to explore her feelings and make a change?  Does he have feelings of remorse?  Or does he not care at all and does nothing?  Does he view this as an opportunity to start fights with her and justify his drinking more?  

To an outsider looking in, it is apparent he has had negative consequences for his drinking. Does he believe that they are negative consequences? He may view this as an opportunity to leave a marriage he doesn’t want! If that’s the case, his drinking gave him positive reinforcement!

What is Alcoholism, aka AUD (Alcohol Use Disorder)

First and foremost, there is a lot of debate around the term “Alcoholism”  Some say that if you drink anywhere from 4-14 drinks a day, you have alcoholism. Others will say it needs to be self-diagnosed, and there cannot be a clear-cut guideline for diagnosing.  Reality is, it is a blend of both.  

According to Medline, “Moderate alcohol use is probably not harmful to most adults. However, about 18 million adult Americans have an alcohol use disorder (AUD). This means that their drinking causes distress and harm. AUD can range from mild to severe, depending on the symptoms. Severe AUD is sometimes called alcoholism or alcohol dependence.”

This seems to be an “ok” description of alcoholism, but it can be interpreted very differently from person to person.  As stated before, negative consequences are relative to the specific person, which is why there has to be a level of self-diagnosis involved.  Alcoholism isn’t generally diagnosed after a couple of severe consequences.  Some people who have undergone complete liver transplants due to drinking still believe they are not an alcoholic.  They could sometimes say, “I am just a social drinker,” and social drinking to them means 24 beers and half a bottle of whiskey.  But because they are with their friends and having a good time, they are not alcoholics.  

True Signs of Alcoholism

Here are some signs and symptoms to look out for that may lead to a diagnosis of alcoholism:

  • Health consequences (organ failure, heart problems, blood pressure issues)
  • Relationship issues (marriage separation, divorce, changing friend groups)
  • No longer partaking in activities that you once enjoyed, unless alcohol is involved
  • Making decisions based on alcohol
  • Job loss due to alcoholic drinking
  • Drinking to mask a certain feeling or emotion
  • Drinking in the morning

These are just a few things to watch out for.  These are very broad topics and can be analyzed however you choose.  The bottom line is if you notice that you or a loved one has any of these signs or symptoms, a conversation may be necessary.  

How to Treat Alcoholism

Generally, alcoholism is progressive.  It takes time to develop.  For some, it can take years and years to be considered a full-blown alcoholic. If you are in a situation where you have someone in your life that you believe is an alcoholic, you cannot label them an alcoholic.  It is ok to have your beliefs, but if you find it necessary to label them, it could backfire.  Alcoholics do not want to be called alcoholics.  It is demeaning and condescending.  It will not, under any circumstances, help the situation if you attack them out of frustration and call them an alcoholic.  Chances are, they will get defensive and angry, and at that point, it makes it harder to get them the help that they need. It is best to approach someone out of love and concern.  It is best to seek wise counsel around this.  Try to find someone who has dealt with this before and get direction from them.

There are many resources for someone that has alcoholism.  Once they recognize that they are alcoholics and are willing to make a change, help may be presented.

  • Alcoholics Anonymous is an excellent resource for someone looking to recover from alcoholism.  There are meetings conducted around the world to address this very issue.  It is generally a group of individuals who are all dealing with alcoholism.  AA has been around since 1935 and has, at this point, gotten millions of people sober.
  • Substance Abuse Treatment is an excellent resource for someone looking to get sober.  Generally, SAT has a heavy emphasis on therapy.  This usually is within a group setting and also an individual setting.  There is often a living component associated with it as well.  This is a good resource for someone who wants to get away from their hometown for some time.  
  • Church or some spiritual practice is often a key component to getting sober.  There are many great resources within the church for one trying to get sober.  They usually offer some recovery support programs for those struggling with alcoholism. 
  • Private therapists are also utilized rather often for people getting sober.  It allows someone to identify why they drink the way they do.  Having a private therapist in conjunction with another support program is helpful for long-term sobriety.

It is important to recognize that no matter what the situation is, anyone has the opportunity to get sober.  We do not have to be an “alcoholic” to get sober.  Becoming an alcoholic generally means that you have gone through a lot of un-needed harmful situations.  Many people decide to get sober well before they destroy their lives.  Alcoholism isn’t something to be ashamed of.  We can and will recover if we are willing to do the work.