I called Hazelden on my first sober day. I was sitting at my dad’s desk in his office, in the house I grew up in. I was playing with post-it notes for fidgeting purposes. I was trying not to cry. Ryan, my husband, was trying to keep the boys from coming to the door to say Mommy, Mommy, Mommy over and over, but they kept coming back. Shhhh, he’d say, and I felt that pressure, like I should hang up and go to them.
The nice Hazelden lady on the phone asked me a series of questions. I answered honestly. She did not say she was asking to see if I’m an alcoholic or not. She just let me talk about why I was calling and then she empathized and then she asked questions, one after another. Then she said that it seemed like Hazelden would be a good fit for me. I guess this means I passed the test, or failed, depending on how you look at it. I only remember a few of her questions, like “Do you drink every day?” and “If a glass of wine is 4 ounces (snort) (my snort, not hers) how many glasses would you say you are drinking nightly?”
It’s been over four years since that day. Thank God. And my sobriety and my history with alcohol has never been far from the forefront of my life and my mind. It has to be, for me to stay sober. That said, I’m writing this today because a few people really close to me are having their lives flipped turned upside down (Yo, Fresh Prince) because of alcohol and when people ask me if they, or their loved one, is an alcoholic, I can’t answer. I can only answer for me. I tell you my story, with all of its experience, strength and hope.
I googled “Am I an alcoholic” to see what others are seeing when they google, and all the lists I found were fine, but kind of lame if I’m being honest. These lists often lean toward extremes, maybe because the assumption is that a person looking for help is most likely in the later stages of alcoholism, I don’t know. But if I were in the early stages, as I once was, I would have read those questions and thought, PHEW, thank God! THAT’S not ME. Because not all of us black out every night and many of us haven’t had consequences like a DUI or a spouse leaving us. And even more of us don’t drink in the morning. Some of us do, oh yes, but if you don’t, that doesn’t really have to mean you’re not a problem drinker, or maybe even the “A” word.
So I was thinking it might be helpful to create a list that meets more people where they are,
Drinking–10 Red Flags:
(Please note: This is not a professional or clinical list, of course. I am not a medical or psychological professional. I am relaying this list because of my own experience with alcohol so you may simply take a look at your own experience with alcohol. The conclusions are up to you.)
1. Even if you don’t drink to excess daily, you drink often, and you really really look forward to it.
2. When out to dinner or at a party, you are hyper aware of how much alcohol is available, what kind, what to have next, how much your friends are drinking, and if there’s going to be enough left for you in the bottle after someone pours.
3. When out with friends and family, you wonder if they have noticed what glass you’re on. You possibly therefore have one or two drinks before heading out to ensure you’ll have “enough” without appearing to have too much.
4. You realize that “enough” doesn’t really exist when it comes to alcohol. Those people who have one or two drinks make no sense to you.
5. You have this sinking feeling that you might have too much of a dependence on alcohol, but you are good at pushing it out of your mind, especially by 4 or 5pm.
6. Mornings suck and then throughout the day, drinking comes to mind a lot and then at night, phew, you get to drink.
7. There is absolutely nothing better in life than that feeling of ease that comes after the burn of alcohol, the way a CLICK! makes your head suddenly clear up and your heart lighter.
8. You have never really had an off switch when it comes to drinking. Once you start, you have no plan at all to stop and if you have a plan, like “Yeah, I’m not staying long cause I have to catch a 6am flight,” you still end up drinking far too much, or at least more than you “planned”.
9. You have justified or minimized your drinking to yourself and possibly others. You compare it to someone who has an obvious addiction or you get defensive. Even if this justification comes after drunk driving or buzzed driving, if you’re being honest, you know you’ll probably drive home again after having too many.
10. You have made promises to yourself or others, that you will quit for a time, or even for one night, you’ll go without drinking, but you end up drinking because really, it’s not like you’re drinking in the morning. Maybe you don’t even drive drunk/influenced but you are kind of hungover pretty often, but not always, so it’s probably okay. (sorry if that got confusing, but when justifying, we usually think in run-ons)
If you saw yourself in a lot of this, here’s what I can tell you: Maybe you want to consider talking to someone about your drinking. Maybe your relationship with alcohol has the potential to effect your life even more than it currently is. Maybe you want to consider what life would be like without that constant obsession, that pull toward The Feeling. Maybe you want to think about the power alcohol has over you. I can’t tell you if you are or if you are not an alcoholic. I can only tell you that I am an alcoholic, so writing a list like that is really easy for me, and familiar to me. It is my story, and while none of us are exactly the same and we don’t even really have to use labels when we talk about it, we are also a whole lot alike.
Maybe you want to think about going to a recovery meeting, to just sit and take it in. To think. You don’t have to commit to sobriety to go and talk and/or listen. Lastly, most of the time, people already know the answer to “Am I an alcoholic?” For me, it was simple and obvious, and for a long time I knew I had a problem, but I made it complicated. I’d ask myself The Question and then over-think it, because then I could keep drinking. When I first got sober, I didn’t really know how to define what I was, or what I was going through. We use words like “alcoholic” and “recovery” because then we understand our need for help and health.
All labels aside, what was most important for me was to start to learn that I was worthy of choosing a healthier focus for my life. And you are too, you really are.
Heather writes at The Extraordinary Ordinary. You can read the start of her sobriety story, on the very day she quit drinking, here. Heather has been blogging since 2007 and her work and story have been featured in Redbook Magazine, Minnesota Parenting Magazine and on Twin Cities Fox 9 news and NBC Nightly News With Diane Sawyer. Heather speaks about sobriety, life and writing and is the director of Listen To Your Mother Austin. Follow her on Twitter.