By Bob Gaydos
“I’m not an alcoholic. Alcoholics have to go to those meetings. I’m just a heavy drinker.”
Maybe yes; maybe no. Either way, if you’re having this conversation with someone else, or just with yourself, it’s likely there are issues lurking that are related to your consumption of alcohol. As rules of thumb go, the one that says: “If drinking is causing problems in your life, it’s a problem,” is as reliable as it gets.
For those who describe themselves as “heavy drinkers,” it would probably be useful to know what health experts mean when they use the term, as well as possible risks involved in that pattern of behavior.
The Centers for Disease Control recently issued a report on heavy drinking which defined it as 15 or more drinks per week for men or eight or more drinks per week for women. That raised the limit by one drink per week in each case from standards issued by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. But, as some professionals in the field would say, if you’re counting drinks, there’s already a problem.
Of course, it’s important to know what is meant by a drink. A standard drink, according to the NIAAA is 1.5 ounces of hard liquor or brandy, 12 ounces of beer and five ounces of table wine. All alcohol has the same effect, regardless of the form. If your “standard” drink is larger, the total drink count will be higher. And, possibly, the risks.
It’s true, some people can drink more than others and not have problems as a result. It’s also true that at least 40 percent of Americans drink little or no alcohol at all. But for anyone describing himself or herself as a “heavy drinker,’’ the NIAAA says it matters how much you drink on any one day and how often you have heavy drinking days.
Among those who have one heavy drinking day per month, the agency says one in five, or 20 percent, already have alcoholism or alcohol abuse. One heavy drinking day per week raises the odds to one in three. Two or more heavy drinking days per week, makes it 50 percent, according to the NIAAA.
And so what? says the “heavy drinker.” I have a job. My family loves me. I’m young. Alcohol is good for the heart. I get good grades. I don’t drink any more than my friends do. If it becomes a problem, I’ll cut back.
Again, maybe so. But also again, it’s good to know the risks involved with heavy drinking. There’s nothing new here. Heavy drinking increases the chances of being injured or killed in auto accidents, fires, drownings, or being the victim of an assault or suicide. It poses greater risk of liver disease, heart disease, depression, stroke, sexually transmitted diseases and more. It can pose a risk to the baby if a woman drinks during pregnancy and, just as with alcoholism, alcohol abuse -- or heavy drinking -- can cause legal problems, trouble in relationships and failure to meet responsibilities at work, school, home, etc.
If you’re serious about wanting to know if you’re just a heavy drinker -- someone who can successfully manage his or her alcohol intake and even curtail it -- rather than someone who “needs to go to those meetings,” the NIAAA offers a test, as it were.
For one week, with dinner, have one standard drink of wine or beer. Or if you prefer, one standard drink of hard liquor or brandy before dinner. That’s it. Nothing else. No changing drinks from day to day. The NIAAA says people who can take it or leave will have no problem. Alcoholics flunk.
As always, the idea is not to judge or condemn, but rather to take an honest look at one’s drinking in the hope of avoiding or eliminating problems that can arise from the abuse of alcohol. A heavy dose of honesty can be the best medicine when substance abuse is in question.