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What is an Alcoholic? Characteristics & Levels of Alcoholism

Am I an Alcoholic?

An alcoholic is someone who has a physical and mental dependence on alcohol. We here at Castle Craig view alcoholism as a brain disease. Alcoholism is a serious psychological illness defined as the inability to stop drinking despite potential or actual, negative consequences. An alcoholic is someone who suffers from alcoholism.

4 common characteristics of alcoholics

You’ll find many definitions of “alcoholism” and “alcoholic,” most of which have these four characteristics in common:

  • Physical compulsion or need: Without a drink, withdrawal symptoms appear; you have an inability to stop or cut down on drinking.
  • Mental obsession: You lack control and have abnormal cravings or feeling of irritability in the absence of alcohol.
  • Negative impact: Drinking causes or contributes to problems with relationships, jobs, and finances.
  • Lying, hiding or downplaying: You’re dishonest with yourself and others about how much and how often you drink.

What is the definition of an alcoholic?

Some healthcare and mental health organisations have stopped using the word “alcoholic” because it has become a negative label used to shame people who have drinking problems. Instead, you may see these organisations refer to the person as having an alcohol use disorder.

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is simply defined as “problem drinking that becomes severe.”

That leaves a lot of room open for debate, doesn’t it? How does one decide what “severe” means? Below are two resources that practitioners use to help diagnose and treat people with AUD. As always, take care when self-diagnosing; use these guidelines to educate yourself about AUD, and then seek help from licensed, experienced addiction professionals.

Are there different levels of alcoholism?

Does alcoholism fall on a spectrum? Are there different types of alcoholism? Is there a difference between a heavy drinker and alcoholism?

The NIAAA presents five subtypes of alcoholics, but again, this is for informational purposes only, not to cast blame or apply labels to you or someone you care about. Medical professionals use these subtypes to understand an alcoholic’s history and prescribe treatments. NIAAA’s subtypes are based on age and drinking behaviors:

  • Young adult subtype: 32% of alcoholics, these are defined as young adults who binge drink.
  • Young antisocial subtype: 21% of alcoholics, their average age is 26, they have an antisocial personality disorder, and they likely started drinking in their teens.
  • Functional subtype: 19% of alcoholics are middle age, educated, working and consume five or more drinks every couple of days.
  • Intermediate familial subtype: 19% of alcoholics started drinking in their teens, and they have family members with drinking problems.
  • Chronic severe subtype: 9% of alcoholics, mostly men with high rates of depression, divorce, financial problems and other drug use. Alcohol has completely taken over their lives.

The Health Department of the United Kingdom presents nine types of drinkers, all of which are based on motivations, rather than the NIAAA’s age and behaviors.

  • Border dependent: Has a combination of motives described below.
  • Bored drinker: Drinks to make up for the absence of people.
  • Community drinker: Alcohol forges a sense of security, meaning, and social networking.
  • Conformist drinker: The pub is their second home, and they feel a strong sense of community here.
  • Depressed drinker: Alcohol is a comfort and self-medication.
  • De-stressed drinker: Alcohol is used to relax.
  • Hedonistic drinker: Drinking releases inhibitions.
  • Macho drinker: Drinking asserts their masculinity and status; it provides false confidence.
  • Re-bonding drinker: Alcohol is a shared connector for this busy person.

Am I an alcoholic (quiz)?

You may be wondering whether you or someone you care about is an alcoholic. The two tools below are similar to those used by medical professionals to diagnose and treat people with AUD, but be careful with self-diagnosis. Use the tools to learn about alcohol and its negative effects, so you can take safe steps in seeking help.

NIAAA’s 11-point checklist for alcohol use disorder

The US-based National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) provides an 11-point checklist, which practitioners can use to help identify whether someone is mildly, moderately, or severely affected by AUD (scroll down to read more about the different levels of alcoholism).

How many times in the past year have you …

  • Drank more or longer than you’d planned?
  • Wanted to stop drinking but couldn’t?
  • Spent a lot of time drinking and/or being sick afterwards?
  • Craved drink?
  • Found drinking to interfere with home, family, friends, work, or school?
  • Continued to drink despite problems?
  • Foregone doing something you love in favor of drinking?
  • Found yourself in dangerous situations while or after drinking?
  • Had blackouts or other medical problems caused or worsened by drinking?
  • Increased alcohol intake because you’ve built up a “tolerance”?
  • Experienced withdrawal symptoms when you didn’t drink?

Gov.uk’s fast alcohol screening test (FAST)

The UK-based FAST is a matrix that helps practitioners assess alcohol problems. It is a scoring system that indicates risk levels for alcohol dependency.

How many times in the past year have you …

Use this as your scoring matrix for the questions below:

  • Never (0)
  • Less than monthly (1)
  • Monthly (2)
  • Weekly (3)
  • Daily or almost daily (4)
  1. Drank more or longer than you’d planned?If you score 3 or 4 on question 1, that is considered “FAST positive.” If you score 0-3, continue with the next set of questions.
  2. Wanted to stop drinking but couldn’t?
  3. Spent a lot of time drinking and/or being sick afterwards?
  4. Craved drink?

    If your score is FAST positive, answer the next questions to obtain a full audit score.
  5. Found drinking to interfere with home, family, friends, work, or school?
  6. Continued to drink despite problems?
  7. Foregone doing something you love in favor of drinking?
  8. Found yourself in dangerous situations while or after drinking?
  9. Had blackouts or other medical problems caused or worsened by drinking?
  10. Increased alcohol intake because you’ve built up a “tolerance”?
  11. Experienced withdrawal symptoms when you didn’t drink?

Total your score: 

SCORING:

  • 0-7 indicates low risk
  • 8-15 indicates increasing risk
  • 16-19 indicates high risk
  • 20+ indicates possible dependence

Is my loved one an alcoholic?

How much and how often does a person have to drink in order to fit the definition of an alcoholic or as having AUD? You’re doing the right thing by researching the answers to that question, but take care with how you use the information.

The NIAAA and FAST assessments can help you identify whether your loved one has a drinking problem. However, never use the information you find on the internet as a weapon to accuse, justify or, even worse, shame someone about their drinking. We have resources on our website that can help you understand things to remember when talking to an alcoholic friend or family member.

Get Help with Quitting Alcohol

If you identify with any of the definitions in this article, your concern about drinking may be justified. We encourage you to continue to explore our website to learn about addiction, treatment, recovery, and living a healthy and sober life. If you’re ready to talk to someone, we have recovery specialists on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call +44-844-740-1394 or email us at [email protected] with questions, comments, or concerns.