When Binge Drinking Becomes Substance Abuse
Binge drinking has become a cultural boogie man and something we are all expected to oppose and with good reason. While the definition is murky, it’s clear that for some, drinking tips into pathology, leaving recreation in the rear view mirror. CASAColumbia, the alcohol use research institute at Columbia University estimates, “underage drinkers, alcoholics, and alcohol abusers consume between 37.5% and 48.8% of alcohol sold”.
American life, for better or worse, has normalized binge drinking especially in the college years when people are living in a world that not only tolerates drunkenness but encourages it. What’s wrong with this? Maybe nothing. For many, it genuinely is a passing phase and comes with risk of under performing, self harm, and derailing goals but for many, it is what it is, fun with friends. The Columbia study shows, that many people are drinking in a way that would meet criteria for “a problem”. So what happens when the party is over? How does one determine when it’s not just a party any longer but an actual problem that requires help? The truth is, it’s just not easy to know and it’s very individual. Here’s some thoughts that might help sort it out.
Binge drinking is ugly
Everyone has “that” family member or neighbor who is off with their drinking. It’s not really wine sipping and everyone knows it. There are 23 million Americans in need of treatment for substance use disorders, why can’t you be one of them? Be open to the possibility that drinking may just not be for you. There are worse things.
Actions are key indicators
Dont get caught up on volume and frequency. Almost universally, people who are concerned about binge drinking are very focused on how much or how often they drink. That’s a data point but doesn’t tell the whole story. What’s more relevant is what happens when you do drink. Does it become a tale of disaster? Additionally pull back and take stock of your life. Be honest about how drinking and drugging may be impacting your life.
When life passes you by
You’ve been to a million weddings. You’ve seen peers have babies, and you’re still living in your studio apartment sitting on your bed/sofa waiting for the next bar night. Conventional life isn’t for everyone but if it feels like you’re not developing or evolving, take a look at your drinking and/or drug use. One of the things it does is stifle development. If partying was “just a phase” then that’s what it was but phases end. You likely no longer play with Legos, so perhaps “partying” isn’t a phase.
Substance abuse disorders are about behavior
People with substance abuse issues often have a maladaptive thought process. While AA isn’t for everyone and may or may not be right for you, keep in mind that in all the 12 steps of the 12- step program, alcohol is only mentioned once. The rest of the steps are principals by which to live and include relationships, attitudes, and behaviors. So if things aren’t going well with family, bosses, friends, or romantic partners, be open to the concept that you might have a substance abuse problem.
Shame is pointless
Millennials have broken down some important social barriers, and this should be one of them. There was once a time when gay people were whispered about, and a gay character on TV was exotic and bohemian. Previous generations have talked about substance abuse in a similar way with staged whispers and innuendo. Millennials may be the generation to make it ok to ask for help and treat substance abuse as a mental health issue, not a moral failing.
Take a break… if you can
One of the best ways to determine if you have a substance abuse problem is to stop for a period, not as proof that you can do it but as a mission to see what life is like without intoxication. Many people discover that giving an intoxicant-free life a try has unexpected outcomes. People report losing weight, returning to the gym or yoga, renewed interest in hobbies, and new participation in community. It’s not all puppies and ice cream, however, people also report feeling lonely, confused and generally lost. The world can seem like it has neither floor nor ceiling and that’s a pretty strong indication that you’ve relied on drinking and the culture around it far too heavily. People drink in a damaging way for a variety of reasons, and many have found a need for anti-depressant medication and psychotherapy as a result.
Stay away from labels
There isn’t any need to call yourself anything. Culturally, “alcoholic” is a negative term reserved largely as an insult. Keep it simple and stay open to possibilities. Maybe developing a lifestyle without drinking is enough without climbing into a box.
Millennials are a groundbreaking generation, but you have your issues too. Perhaps you will be the first group of young adults to make not drinking ok, and to develop a lifestyle where having an intoxicant-free liver is greeted with a supreme nonchalance.
Joe Schrank is a writer and interventionist in NYC. He founded thefix.com and Williamsburg House, a recovery residence in Brooklyn. His hobbies include politics, public policy, over-eating and obsessing over the Yankees. He has two boys who have never seen him drink. He is a frequent contributor to Gawker, Huffington Post, Fox News Channel, and The Fix. He lives, one a day at a time, as a depressed alcoholic in recovery.