Is Binge Drinking Alcoholism? Maybe Not, But It Is Still A Sign Of The Same Problem
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), binge drinking is defined as consuming 3-4 alcoholic drinks in one day, or at least eight drinks in a week for women, and 15 or more drinks in one week for men. The average binge drinker, however, regardless of gender, consumes about eight drinks per session.
These drinks could be eight beers, eight glasses of wine, or two really large, potent cocktails. Moreover, if you consider that it’s not hard for some people to put down (i.e. consume) a couple of good-sized margaritas, then you might realize just how common binge drinking really is. For example, more than half U.S. college students report binge drinking. But the problem is pervasive across many age groups.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than two-thirds of binge drinking is found among adults over age 26. Recent studies have also shown that binge drinking has become increasingly common among Baby Boomers and the geriatric community.
Alcoholism, or alcohol addiction, is a bit different. Alcoholism results in increasing dependence and tolerance to alcohol. That said, someone who binge drinks a few times a week could easily be accused of being an alcoholic.
And of course, alcoholics are often notorious binge drinkers, as they would almost have to be, simply by definition.
On the other hand, some people can binge drink just once or twice a year. Others will go through periods of binge drinking, such as in college, and then abruptly cut back or stop due to lifestyle changes. The bottom line is this, however – anyone who consumes more than a couple of alcoholic drinks on any occasion is on some spectrum of alcohol abuse. It’s not all black-and-white – there’s a lot of a gray area, as well.
And this gray area has led to some revised classifications of alcohol abuse and alcoholism. For example, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) now lumps all forms of problem drinking in together and calls it “Alcohol Use Disorder.” Depending on the severity of the disorder, it can be categorized as mild, moderate, or severe.
So rather thinking of alcohol abuse (i.e. binge drinking) and alcohol addiction (i.e. alcoholism) as starkly separate categories, it may be easier to consider instead the signs and symptoms that alcohol use produces in any given individual, and use that information to gauge where on the alcohol use spectrum a person falls.
The NIAAA offers the following questions to ask yourself, or a loved on to determine if an alcohol use disorder is present. These include variations of the following:
In the past year, has the individual…
- Experienced periods of drinking in which more was consumed that intended, or for a longer period?
- Wanted to reduce the amount of alcohol consumed or stop altogether, perhaps tried it, but failed?
- Spent considerable time drinking, being sick, or dealing with aftereffects such as a hangover?
- Experienced a craving, or the strong urge to drink?
- Noticed that drinking or sickness from drinking often interfered with daily life, such as family dynamics or professional or academic functioning?
- Despite incurring problems in these areas, continued to drink?
- Reduced engagement in once enjoyable and important activities, such as hobbies and sports to drink or recover from drinking?
- Engaged in risky behavior while drinking, such as driving or having unsafe sex?
- Continued to drink despite feeling depressed or anxious as a result, incurring another health problem, or after having a blackout?
- Found the need to drink more to achieve the same effect (tolerance)?
- Experienced withdrawal symptoms, such as sleep disturbances, shakiness, irritability, anxiety, nausea or vomiting?
Frequent or common binge drinkers often suffer many of the same effects as true alcoholics. I view a true alcoholic (or alcohol addict) as someone who feels that they need alcohol every day to function.
It’s an issue of dependency. Frequent binge drinkers can get into serious trouble and have scrapes with family and the law but may go days or weeks without having even one drink.
To give you an idea of the full spectrum of alcohol use disorder, I submit the following example of real people I have known and the problems that they have incurred from alcohol use:
Craig, age 46. He has had two DUIs. Drinks daily, but holds down a regular job and is successful. Once was married to a woman who complained about his drinking, but now married to a woman who drinks just like he does, and is also “high-functioning.”
Randy, also age 46, who can go days without drinking, and then binge drink on the spur of the moment with his friends – and he gets plastered. Very functional, and although he has driven over the legal limit and engaged in risky behavior, he has always managed to come away unscathed and without family issues.
Geri, age 45, frequently drinks an entire bottle of wine every night, and maybe two bottles per day on the weekends. She has one DUI from ten years ago, and functions very well at her job. However, she has experienced serious consequences from her drinking, such as blackouts, engaging in risky behavior, and alienation from family and friends.
Deven, age 30, who probably fits the most classic alcoholic stereotype of those mentioned here. He has done stints in rehab but always returns to drinking whiskey. At one point, he could consume nearly two fifths in one day, in addition to beer. He has trouble functioning professionally, already has alcoholic liver disease, and often suffers from depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.
John, age 54. He’s a lifelong alcoholic and drug user, and has incurred many negative consequences due to his drinking – he drinks cheap beer all day long and occasionally moonshine. However, he is well-tolerated by family and friends and engages in hobbies he enjoys. He even has a girlfriend about half his age.
When you look at these cases, you see a variety of signs, symptoms, and consequences of alcohol use. Truthfully, most people are neither “gutter alcoholics” or simply binge drinkers. They are people who use alcohol for pleasure, sociability, self-medication, and a whole array of reasons.
While professional diagnosis is critical, it’s also important to realize that many people use alcohol and use it a manner that could result in harm. Moreover, stigmatizing alcoholics, just like drug addicts, is really just finger-pointing. It’s easy to look critically at people who are worse off than yourself, but if you are anywhere on the alcohol overuse spectrum, it may behoove you to take a look at yourself, as well.
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology