Medically Reviewed by Dr. Mohammed Saeed, MD.
Due to its accessibility and availability, alcohol has been one of the most frequently abused substances out there for decades. But because alcohol is often consumed socially with friends or loved ones, it can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between a casual, social drinker and an alcoholic. One of the most misleading stereotypes surrounding alcohol abuse is the assumption that an alcoholic will always have a drink in their hand or will always be drunk. While the continued abuse of alcohol may lead one to this point over time, early-stage alcoholics may not drink all that often.
Progression of Alcoholism and Addiction
Alcoholism is a disorder that often progresses over the course of time, typically beginning as a means to mask or feel better about unpleasant life circumstances, stress, or even mild to severe depression. This self-medication through alcohol consumption doesn’t necessarily occur every day.
Early Stages of Alcoholism: Situational Drinking
In the beginning stages of alcoholism, abuse may be strictly situational. For example, a fight or argument with a spouse could provoke a husband to hit the bar for a drink or two. If relational hardships between the couple become a regular occurrence, this husband could find himself at the bar a few days a week, binge drinking to mask the emotions of his marital stress.
This first stage of alcoholism is best defined as occasional alcohol abuse, binge drinking, or the act of drinking to become intentionally drunk. At this stage, the alcohol abuser may believe that they have complete control over their levels of alcohol consumption, and would likely reject the idea of having a drinking problem because they feel capable of maintaining functionality in day-to-day life.
Middle Stages of Alcoholism: Psychological Dependence
As this behavior continues over time, alcohol abuse and binge drinking can increase in frequency and become a primary coping mechanism for emotional distress. Instead of drinking occasionally to relax or relieve stress, the alcoholic becomes dependent on alcohol consumption as a means to cope with every hardship. Soon after, healthier coping skills are forgotten and drinking becomes their one solution for every problem that arises.
End Stages of Alcoholism: Physical Addiction
This next stage of alcoholism is often the tipping point from psychological dependence to a physical addiction. Once this point is reached, the situational binge drink evolves into a constant fixation on that next drink, with no conscious association between emotional distress and the masking effects of alcohol consumption. Even here, drinking may not be an everyday occurrence, but once the drinking begins, the alcoholic will often be incapable of recognizing when they’ve reached their limit.
Without outside intervention during these first few stages of alcoholism, drinking can progress into an everyday routine. But, truthfully, every individual struggles with unique circumstances surrounding their alcohol abuse disorders. Some alcoholics never transition into a habit of daily drinking, but that doesn’t minimize the severity of the problem.
If you or someone you know is using alcohol as a means to cope with stressful life circumstances, whether it be once per week or throughout each day, the time to address alcohol abuse is now.