Outdated, Inaccurate, Presumptive: Why the term alcoholic does a disservice to the joy of alcohol-free life

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Hi, my name is Karolina and I’m not an alcoholic. I don’t fit the bill, and neither do countless varied human experiences. The word is tired, unnecessary, misleading, and laden with old-fashioned images and connotations.  

I quit drinking because drinking didn’t make me ultimately happy. Before, I thought I loved drinking and I had to do some deep soul reflection to figure out which was fundamentally true. I was a gray area drinker. Not in the black—not in the deep end. No vodka for breakfast, no nightly tipple, no binge blind drunk (well rarely). I drank around the weekend or socially and averaged three drinks per occasion (and sometimes more ya know). I wasn’t someone who “had” to quit drinking. It would have been perfectly normal for me to continue my drinking career, limit my potential, dull my senses, and feel stuck and small. And I was in the gray because drinking did make me feel small—constantly letting myself down, dishonoring my intentions, and living in my comfort zone.  

But my drinking was still normal I tell you! Because the average level of alcohol consumption has risen in years, especially among women, making drinking above the health guidelines the new normal. Happy hour with your girlfriend on Thursday, date night out with your hubby on Friday, a family wedding on Saturday, and some wine with a Netflix movie on Sunday, you know, to unwind from all the drinking done over the weekend. Gray area drinking is regularly drinking above the health guidelines, which is no more than one drink per day or seven drinks per week. God, seriously? That seems so low!

Millions of people find themselves in this area. And there is no socially acceptable fix, like going on a diet or starting a fitness routine. Because if I question my drinking, doesn’t that make me an ALCOHOLIC??!! Said no one ever out loud and only silently to themselves.  

There are plenty of people who will find comfort in the term, a way to describe their behavior and underlying issues. A way to connect to a tribe with a shared lived experience.  

But a lot of people, especially people still drinking, will want nothing to do with it all.  

The term is problematic, rather unhelpful and damaging, and not just for gray area drinkers, but for the heavy weight champions too. It stops people from getting help. And it stops people from evaluating their relationships with alcohol at much earlier stages. It does more harm than good, because:  

  1. The label alcoholic implies that alcohol isn’t addictive, or even habit forming. “Clearly you did something wrong, you are wired differently to use alcohol the way you do. Nobody in the whole world but you wants another drink after they have the first one.” Alcohol changes your brain chemistry to crave another drink, and compounds this yearning with repetition and time. It creates an artificial high in the brain, a reward that the brain learns to expect, followed by a low that can stretch on for days. We learn to seek out and chase that reward—it's part of our evolution. Nary do we point a finger at a smoker and wonder how they got addicted. We know that once you start smoking, a habit is almost inevitable. But we sure do congratulate them when they quit, and applaud most healthy lifestyle changes. Not so with alcohol. Quit sugar, quit smoking, quit fast food, quit being a lazy slob, but you won’t get hamburgerholic stamped on your identity for the rest of your days.  

  2. The label alcoholic implies we weren’t all pushed to drink alcohol our whole adult lives. Time to celebrate? Society says drink. Time to relax? Society says drink. Time to socialize? Society says drink. Time to commiserate? Society says drink. Is it any wonder we formed steady relationships with alcohol? Drinking is the in-group activity for our herd.   

  3. The label alcoholic implies that quitting drinking is not one of the best things you could do for your overall health. Alcoholics are seen as diseased and broken while drinkers are vibrant and alive. Except no amount of alcohol is good for us, even low level of drinking is tied to harming our health so much so that one drink lowers life expectancy by thirty minutes. Alcohol increases blood pressure, blood cholesterol, cancer risk, and heart disease risk, you know, just the number two killers in America. Quitting drinking should be celebrated as the healthiest choice, not ridden with stigma and shame.  

  4. The label alcoholic implies black and white categories. Either drinking is “normal and inconsequential” or “abnormal and consequential.” Either drinking is “carefree and has zero negative effects” or is “uncontrollable and dangerous.” Is it possible that we are multifaceted people and that drinking is on a huge spectrum with varying degrees? That even people who drink one drink daily can feel internal stress about their drinking? We shouldn’t have to identify as an “alcoholic” to make positive changes in our lives.  

  5. The label alcoholic implies an all or nothing situation. It’s a false dichotomy that doesn’t exist. We react and adapt differently to time, circumstance, life events, and eras.  What is an alcoholic? Is it someone who is physically addicted to alcohol? Well only 10% of heavy drinkers ever get physically addicted. Is it someone who is emotionally addicted to alcohol? Well don’t the majority of drinkers come to depend on alcohol in some shape or fashion?

  6. The label alcoholic implies it’s normal to tolerate and regularly drink a poison with no negative effects and abnormal not to. Drinking lowers our receptivity to dopamine and our levels of serotonin and GABA, the very things that make us feel happy and calm. It signals the body to release stress hormones and stimulants to counter it. It is normal to feel low, sad, depressed, anxious, worried and shameful after drinking. That’s alcohol’s effects! And yet none of this is talked about or taught, making the person who is experiencing it feel utterly alone.  

  7. The label alcoholic implies a low so low, a rock bottom, that finally justified crying out for help. Meaning that pride, stubbornness, and stigma stop so many people from reaching out or even just trying sober life on for size. “I couldn’t possibly take a break from drinking. What if they thought I was an alcoholic?”  

  8. The label alcoholic implies it’s normal to be a drinker. I have rarely ever heard the term describe someone who is still drinking. Oh no, you are normal as a drinker, and only become an alcoholic overnight when you quit.  

  9. The label alcoholic does not imply empowerment. Studies show that the most important criteria in successfully quitting alcohol for good is empowerment and not feeling powerless. Low levels of self-esteem usually lead to more drinking. So why don’t you admit to be that thing rife with stigma, shame, and judgement and then we’ll see how good you are at quitting (really?).  

  10. The label alcoholic implies the problem lies with the person and not the drink, as if alcohol weren’t addictive and habit forming, we weren’t conditioned to drink it, we weren’t told it would handle all our problems (with sayings in magazines like, “here’s to wine, because yoga can only do so much”) and a cultural norm so ubiquitous, we would stand out if we didn’t drink. And yet the alcohol industry pumps billions of dollars into marketing its attractiveness. And yet 2.8 million people have died. Last year. The problem is with the ethanol. Not with you dear one.  

Some terms just get outdated, are inaccurate, or are just plain offensive. Did I mention that “alcoholic” isn’t a medical diagnosis? It’s called alcohol use disorder and “alcoholic” isn’t a term used by the medical and scientific communities. Remember when we referred to people with intellectual disabilities with some pretty stigmafying and rude terms? Let’s retire alcoholic the same way we did “retarded.”  

(a note to sober friends: if you adopted and love the term, and are working to destigmatize it by showing your humanness, your resiliency, and your courage, more power to you)