For many people, alcohol represents indulgence, a way to treat oneself after a difficult day or to wind down and relax for the evening. After thousands of years of enjoying spirits, we’ve come to associate alcohol with celebration and social gatherings, which is why alcohol is often called “the social lubricant.” When people drink alcohol, they feel their anxieties and inhibitions fade away, making them more social and giving them the courage to do things they never could or would do otherwise.
According to polls, roughly 66 percent of Americans describe their alcohol consumption habits as being “social” when asked.1 Meanwhile, statistics indicate that more than one in four people who consider themselves social drinkers actually binge-drink alcohol one or more times per month.2 By definition, binge drinking refers to a level of alcohol consumption that brings the content of alcohol in one’s blood to 0.08 grams per deciliter (g/dL); this also happens to be the legal blood-alcohol limit for drivers in the US. In practice, the blood-alcohol level occurs when a female or male drinks, respectively, four or five alcoholic beverages in a two-hour period.3 With so many people abusing alcohol regularly, it’s not surprising that over eight percent of American adults have an alcohol problem.4
There comes a point when social drinking becomes problem drinking. This change is usually gradual and can sometimes go unnoticed. In fact, a person with a drinking problem may not realize that his or her drinking is no longer merely social. Whether you occasionally enjoy alcohol yourself or would like to gain a better understanding on behalf of a loved one, distinguishing between social drinking and problem drinking is vital.
“Social” Drinking vs. Alcohol Abuse
The important thing to remember is that people who drink only socially have low-risk patterns of alcohol consumption.5 This means that even when these individuals are drinking somewhat regularly, the amount of alcohol they consume is conservative.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, low-risk alcohol consumption for females is three drinks or less per sitting and not to exceed seven alcoholic drinks per week. For males, these figures increase to four drinks hourly and 14 drinks weekly. When it comes down to it, alcohol is a toxin with negative effects, no matter how little is consumed. Instead, social drinking means staying within the recommended limits of alcohol use.6 Low-risk drinking protects a person from the most dire repercussions that result from consuming large amounts of alcohol, including intoxication, poor judgement, impaired memory, reduced coordination and numerous other health consequences in addition to eventual alcoholism.
Alcohol abuse and social drinking differ in the amount of alcohol consumed as well as the purpose for consuming the alcohol. While social drinking means conservative alcohol consumption, alcohol abuse essentially means binge drinking. As mentioned previously, binge drinking causes a person’s blood-alcohol concentration to rise considerably, resulting in many of the behavioral characteristics we associated with alcohol intoxication. Moreover, someone who abuses alcohol may actually intend to binge-drink the alcohol before the first beverage is even consumed.
Identifying a Drinking Problem
It’s not always easy to distinguish social drinking from problem drinking, especially when some people mistake their own problem drinking for social drinking. In addition, the amount of alcohol being consumed is not always the most reliable indicator due to differences in alcohol metabolization from one person to the next.
Someone with a drinking problem experiences consequences from his or her drinking, and it’s those consequences that are one of the best ways to identify when someone has a drinking problem. When a drinking problem develops, its negative effects usually impact a person’s relationships,7 finances,8 performance at work or school9 or all of the above. At its most severe, the result could be a DUI, divorce, lost jobs and careers, jail time, or something even worse. Moreover, a person with a drinking problem is unable to predict or control his or her drinking; even when he or she intends to only have a single drink, the individual still drinks to excess.
In some instances, a person with a drinking problem may exhibit none of the signs we might expect, at least outwardly. Nina, a recovering alcoholic in her thirties, shocked her family after announcing she would be getting treatment for alcoholism; however, even though her family had never seen her abuse alcohol, Nina knew she had a drinking problem once it dawned on her that social drinkers don’t think about drinking and crave alcohol throughout most of their waking hours.10 Similarly, Dr. Sarah Allen Benton, author of Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic, says, “If you’re trying to ‘control’ [your] drinking, then the problem is generally out of control.”
When Intervention Becomes Necessary
The transition from social drinking to problem drinking doesn’t happen overnight. Instead, it happens gradually over a period of time as a person’s alcohol consumption increases. As the drinking problem develops, the individual becomes more captivated by the prospect of alcohol consumption. When he or she tries to set limits, someone with a drinking problem is often unable to stay within those limits. Oftentimes, those with drinking problems exhibit behaviors that are uncharacteristic of their normal selves. In some cases, negative repercussions result from these abnormal behaviors, but that doesn’t deter the individual from repeating these behaviors in the future.
If you know someone who has a drinking problem — or if you feel that you may have a drinking problem yourself — intervention may become necessary. The first step could be to simply have a discussion with the individual to gauge his or her awareness of the problem. If the individual doesn’t seem aware that his or her drinking has become problematic, highlighting some of the consequences that have resulted from his or her drinking may make him or her more aware of the problem. In the event that he or she denies the problem, or if the problem is reaching the point of alcohol dependence, it may be time to stage a full intervention. With the assistance of his or her family members and close friends, the intervention brings awareness to the reality of the problem and provides the encouragement needed to begin working toward a solution.