Social Drinking, Problem Drinking, Alcoholism: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Drinking is a part of our culture. Alcohol is everywhere and nearly every adult American drinks at least sometimes. For Christians, alcohol enjoys a special symbolic role in the sacred ritual of communion – it wasn’t unfermented grape juice that Jesus chose to share with his disciples at the last supper, it was wine. For many alcoholics, the process of losing control and thus progressing from social drinking to problem drinking is a slow and insidious one. Here are a few mileage markers and signposts that you might see along the way.

Understanding When It Ceases Being Just Social Drinking

Control is a lynchpin in addictive behavior, both when drinking and even when not drinking. Loss of control over the substance (e.g. drinking, or drugs, or both) is a key component in addiction. Loss of control when drinking means exactly what you’d expect: you plan to have one drink and you end up having seven. You meant to call a taxi but you spent the cab fare on additional drinks and now you choose to drive home. Loss of control when you aren’t drinking is another indicator of addiction: do you make choices about when and where drinking will be available? Do you choose to avoid church events, parties or social gatherings where drinking will not be a part of what’s going on? Do you find that you lose your temper, or lose control of your words, saying things you wish you hadn’t said – both when you are drinking but even when you aren’t? As the substance takes control and becomes the organizer of your life and your brain chemistry, self control becomes more and more difficult.

Loss of control can be sneaky and perplexing when it comes to a developing addiction. Why? Because loss of control does not mean that every time you drink, you get drunk and bad things happen. If that was what was happening, then it would be clear to you and everyone else that you were developing a problem. Alcoholism is often, at least at first, much more subtle: the loss of control first happens when you can no longer predict how it will go when you drink. That means that sometimes, all is well. You plan to go out, have one glass of wine with dinner, and that’s all… and then that is exactly what happens. You “prove” to yourself that you are fine, that you don’t have a problem that you are in control of your drinking. Unfortunately, that control is an illusion and the very next time you attempt to repeat that process, you plan to have one drink before dinner and end up with a DWI. Loss of control, understood as this inability to predict your own behavior when drinking, is probably one of the most important early signs of a developing addiction.

Trouble is another good indicator that you are leaving the terrain of the social drinker. For social drinkers, the act of drinking never causes trouble. Yes, that’s right, I said never. If drinking is starting to cause trouble in your life: social trouble, relationship trouble, legal trouble, health problems, problems at work, or in any other aspect of your life, you have crossed the bridge from social drinking into problematic drinking.

There are additional early signs of a developing problem: getting irritated or angry when someone expresses concern about you, memory loss (“blackouts”) from drinking, developing a tolerance to alcohol, so that you need to drink more in order to feel the way you want to feel, drinking a little before the drinking starts (e.g. drinking before going to an event/party/gathering), and avoiding events or activities that don’t include drinking. These all add up to the same set of behaviors that seek to protect access to alcohol, and prioritize drinking over other activities. Because family or friends notice this and often feel concern when your behavior starts to change, emotional changes in this stage of the disease are most commonly anger and tensions in close relationships. You may find that “people don’t understand you” and that relationships that used to be quite fulfilling are starting to feel “sour” or too constricting. Often what happens is that alcoholics lose friends and develop “drinking buddies” because only other alcoholics really understand the level of compulsion involved.

How The Christian Can Identify a Problem

As a Christian, these subtle behavior changes may well show up as not wanting to go to church or prayer group. You may start to reject your faith community, because they seem to always be pulling you away from what you want to do and where you want to be. If you look deeper, though, you might find that you are starting to feel angry or starting to find fault with them – they are too uptight or too judgmental, or maybe you have started to make “mountains out of mole hills” in terms of perceived slights they made have made against you.

But if you look deeper still, most likely what you’ll find is shame. As addiction develops, most people feel a growing sense of shame because they feel like they are letting themselves and their family, friends, and community down. The collateral damage from addiction (DWIs, car crashes, forgotten or missed events, etc) cuts deeply. As a Christian, you know what your values are, or at least what they were. To experience your faith faltering, and to begin to feel critical of your religion, and maybe even spirituality more generally, perhaps to feel angry at God and judged by your closest friends: these are all signals that you are crossing that line from problem to addiction.