What Is Alcoholism? A Quick Explainer [Updated 2021]

There are various definitions of alcoholism, depending on who you ask and how much reading you’re willing to do. This page exists as a quick resource to help explain some of the different points of view on alcoholism and what it means to be an alcoholic.

Whether you call it having a drinking problem, alcohol use disorder, alcoholism, or “just having a drink or two after work to take the edge off”, alcoholism means different things to different people, which can make it harder to define.

Sometimes, it’s obvious when someone is an alcoholic. You see them passed out with a bottle in their hand, or they’re cleaning ruining their lives, and you think “Yep, that’s alcoholism.”

But not everybody who suffers from alcoholism is at the point where it’s ruining their lives, so having your life ruined isn’t a necessary prerequisite to being an alcoholic. Having said that, there is some debate about what it means to be a “functioning alcoholic”, where some people would argue that you don’t really have an addiction unless it’s causing measurable harm to your life.

Going by that definition, it would mean that unless you’re ruining your relationships, getting fired from work, missing rent, or mortgage payments because you’re drinking too much, that you don’t really have alcoholism. But that feels like a stretch – because somebody could come home every day, have 8 drinks, pass out on the couch, get up for work in the morning, and aside from drinking a lot, live a relatively normal life. Would you say that person isn’t an alcoholic? They’re drinking until they pass out every day, and that sure sounds like an alcoholic to us.

The Dictionary Definition of Alcoholism

According to Oxford Languages, alcoholism is “an addiction to the consumption of alcoholic liquor or the mental illness and compulsive behavior resulting from alcohol dependency.”

In this case, they even separate the act of drinking from the mental compulsion to drink.

When it comes to the mental illness of addiction, it can be different for everybody, but some common traits are…

  • Finding ways to justify drinking to yourself, even if you’ve already told yourself you won’t drink more.
  • Drinking is the only thing you can think about until you give in and use alcohol.
  • Keeping your drinking a secret from friends and family, either entirely or by downplaying how much and how often you drink.
  • Looking forward to drinking all day.
  • Using alcohol as a coping mechanism to deal with something that happened to you.

According to WebMD, here’s their definition of what is an alcoholic: “For women, it’s having more than three drinks a day or seven a week. For men, it’s four or more per day or 14 a week. If you drink more than the daily or weekly limit, you’re at risk.”

WebMD’s definition would include most younger people, or people of any age, who go out on the weekends and have a few drinks with friends, even if they don’t drink for the other 5 days of the week. If you take a woman in college, for example, and she has a glass of wine with dinner on Tuesday, and 3 drinks on Friday night, and 3 drinks on Saturday night, she would be considered “at-risk” of being an alcoholic in this case.

That doesn’t seem like a lot to drink, does it? Now, these numbers don’t magically mean you’re an alcoholic, especially if you can easily just cease the drinking at any time, but it’s still a warning sign that you should look at and take into consideration.

What Does Alcoholism Mean To You?

Dictionaries, professional definitions of alcoholism, it’s all helpful as a starting point.

But what does alcoholism look like in your life? What does it mean to you?

It might mean that your parents weren’t there to watch your games, or to see your recital.

It might mean that you’re afraid to come home from work in case your partner has already started drinking and is going to yell at you.

It could mean that you don’t feel safe in your home.

Or, you could be the person battling with alcoholism and it could mean, “Nah, I don’t have a problem, I can stop when I want to…”

Or it could mean that people in your life just don’t understand how hard it is to quit drinking…

It could mean that you have demons that you’re battling, and you’re always looking for an escape from them, and often that escape ends up being getting blacked out.

Maybe it means that you’re still doing everything you need to do, but you just need a little help to take the edge off sometimes? Unfortunately, it’s never that simple.

Please accept this invitation to come and visit our community about alcoholism, where you can register for free and anonymously to share your own views about what it means to be an alcoholic, what is alcoholism, and more.

Category: Addiction
Martijn van Eijk
Martijn is a passionate creator and the driving force behind StopDrinking.com. He created this website to assist individuals and their families in conquering alcohol addiction and finding a joyful, fulfilling life after alcohol. With a deep understanding of the challenges they face, he empowers readers with valuable insights and practical guidance on their journey towards recovery. Author of the Stop Shaking Book.