Whether you’re the person drinking or their friend or family member, when it gets to the point where you worry about how much is too much or regret or are hurt by the drinking behaviors or keep trying or believing this time really will be different, it’s natural to ask, “Is it alcoholism or ____”?
This wondering is due in large part to the belief that drinking is either “normal” or “alcoholic,” when actually, there is a third stage of drinking. It’s called alcohol abuse. And it’s during the stage of alcohol abuse that a person’s brain starts the chemical and structural changes that make their brain more susceptible to the five key risk factors for developing the disease of alcoholism.
Alcohol abuse can be stopped, IF a person changes their drinking patterns to fall within “low-risk” levels (see below) and finds they no longer experience the emotional, physical and relationship issues associated with alcohol abuse. Alcoholism, on the other hand, can be entirely, successfully treated, however successful treatment means a person cannot drink any amount. Period. Why? Because of the nature of the brain disease of alcoholism.
These are bold statements, to be sure, and likely confusing. So to help you better understand that alcoholism is a brain disease (no drinking) and alcohol abuse is a condition (low-risk drinking may be possible), please consider watching these two short videos.
AT-RISK Drinking Patterns Defined (the kind of drinking that leads to Alcohol Abuse)
The Difference Between Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse
Bottom line: Alcoholism is a brain disease (one of the brain diseases of addiction). It is not alcohol abuse. To treat alcoholism, drinking must be stopped entirely due to the nature of the brain disease, itself. To stop alcohol abuse, on the other hand, a person may be able to curtail their drinking by staying within “low-risk limits,” which are defined by NIAAA as:
no more than 7 standard drinks/week or 3 on any day for women
no more than 14 standard drinks/week or 4 on any day for men
a standard drink = 5 ounces of table wine; 1.5 ounces of “hard liquor,” such as 80-proof vodka, bourbon, scotch or gin; 12 ounces of regular beer; or 8-9 ounces of malt liquor, such as ale or lager beers.
And one more thing… It’s important to understand that sometimes a person who drinks way beyond “low-risk” limits decides it’s just easier to stop drinking all together. This does not make them an alcoholic. Additionally, some people who drink at “low-risk” limits may still experience physical, emotional or relationship problems, in which case, the best course of action may be to stop drinking all together.
35% of American adults ages 18 and older do not drink any alcohol [NIAAA]. Sometimes it helps to know, not everybody drinks.