Although millions of Americans struggle with alcoholism, only about 10% receive the treatment they need. Friends, family members, and colleagues may be the first ones to notice signs of alcoholism in a person. If you are wondering how to identify an alcoholic, it helps to understand what alcoholism is, the different types of alcoholics, and their common characteristics. Recognizing the characteristics of an alcoholic is an important step toward developing a strategy to help someone.
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What Is an Alcoholic?
An alcoholic is a person who has alcohol use disorder, which is also called alcoholism. Alcoholism occurs when a person cannot control their ability to stop drinking. They become dependent on alcohol and may develop an addiction. Addiction happens when a person is unable to stop drinking even though the person recognizes and understands the negative effects of alcohol.
Types of Alcoholics
For anyone who knows an alcoholic or is trying to identify one, it also helps to understand the five subtypes. Not all people who struggle with alcoholism are the same. Their misuse may have started at different times or for different reasons. Also, their actions can differ. These are the basics to understand the five subtypes:
- The young adult subtype comprises about 31% of alcoholism cases, and people in this group usually start drinking in their teens and are dependent on alcohol as young adults.
- The functional subtype, which accounts for about 20% of alcoholism cases, includes people who are able to maintain normal professional and personal lives for a while.
- The young antisocial subtype makes up about 21% of cases and includes antisocial people who start drinking in their teens and often have co-occurring mental health disorders.
- The intermediate familial subtype, which accounts for nearly 19% of cases, includes people who are more likely to have alcoholic family members, multiple addictions, and co-occurring mental health disorders.
- The chronic severe subtype includes about 9% of alcoholics, and they heavily drink more frequently than others, are more likely to have substantial difficulties in life, and commonly have co-occurring mental health issues.
Subtypes can help provide clues about substance misuse that may be harder to detect. For example, a common sign of alcoholism is a poorer performance at work. However, a high-functioning alcoholic may still perform well at work for several years. At some point, the person’s life may start to fall apart due to health problems, loss of a relationship, or something else. It helps to combine knowledge of subtypes and characteristics to better understand an alcoholic.
Common Characteristics of an Alcoholic
If you are wondering how to potentially identify alcoholism in a loved one, there are several characteristics you may observe. Since alcohol addiction causes changes in the brain, people often share some of the same characteristics that result from those. These are some of the most common behavioral examples.
This is a common behavior among people with any type of addiction. An alcoholic may blame the effects of alcohol use or the alcohol misuse itself on someone else. For instance, a person may blame stress from a boss at work or a spouse for their urge to drink. If the person loses a job, gains weight or experiences something else negative as a result of alcohol misuse, the individual may instead blame those effects on another person or event. You may also notice that an alcoholic tries to rationalize behaviors.
Focused on Alcohol
With any subtype of alcoholic, it is common to notice a fixation on alcohol use. For example, the person may carefully plan activities or social gatherings to make sure there will be alcohol. When there is no alcohol, the person may appear agitated or bored. An alcoholic will likely decline an invitation to your home if you do not drink or do not allow alcohol in your home. Also, if you suggest meeting at a place where there is no alcohol, such as a coffee shop, the person may quickly decline. This change is easier to notice if the individual used to attend events or meet friends at alcohol-free places.
Unless an alcoholic is in recovery, the person will continually place blame on other people or things. People who abuse alcohol do not want to place accountability on themselves for their drinking or their actions. For example, if someone you think may be an alcoholic says that a rough week is a reason for consuming five or six drinks, that is placing the blame on the week’s events. The person will make excuses to drink heavily by using that tactic. An alcoholic will also make excuses for missing work, canceling plans with friends, or anything else. Even though you may be sure alcohol consumption is the reason for the individual’s absence, the person will shift the blame to something else. It is common for alcoholics to lie about their plans or whereabouts.
Because how alcohol alters the brain, it causes a person’s mood to change. Also, when someone who is dependent on alcohol needs more of it, the individual is more likely to be agitated and anxious. You may notice that the person lashes out at you, gets upset easily, and becomes angry when you talk about a possible drinking problem. Some may appear more cheerful when they are drinking, and some people tend to become angrier or more depressed. Watch for behavior shifts when a person is drinking and when the person is in a situation where there is no alcohol.
Deceptive or Manipulative Behavior
Alcoholics tend to deceive or manipulate people in order to feed their alcohol cravings. This may include manipulating or deceiving someone for more money to buy alcohol. An alcoholic may deceive or manipulate people to keep them from criticizing the individual’s behavior or trying to help. Since alcoholics believe they need the substance, anyone who tries to take it away or interfere may appear as a threat.
Impulsiveness or Recklessness
Most of the alcoholic subtypes discussed previously include people who start drinking at a young age. Research shows that adolescents and young adults tend to have significant impairment in judgment and increased impulsivity with heavy drinking. One dangerous change occurs in the area of the brain that is responsible for higher reasoning, which is why alcoholics often make self-destructive decisions. If you spend much time around an alcoholic, you may notice that the person’s drinking and reckless behavior become uncontrollable.
Signs of Alcohol Addiction
Some people who struggle with alcoholism do not spend much time around others, which can present challenges in studying their characteristics. If you are unable to be around a person you suspect has an alcohol use disorder, you may notice some signs of a problem. Although high-functioning alcoholics may not display all these signs, these are some potential changes to watch for:
- Acting unusually secretive and maybe guarding a drawer or other place where alcohol is kept.
- Experiencing new and unusual financial or legal difficulties.
- Withdrawing from social obligations.
- Inability to maintain obligations to family.
- Performing poorer in sports, at school, or at work.
- Lack of interest in physical appearance and poorer hygiene.
How To Help an Alcoholic
If you notice any of the previous signs or characteristics of an alcoholic in a loved one, trying to help can be a challenge. The person may mistake your attempts to help as personal attacks. Every situation is different, which is why it is important to enlist the help of professionals whenever you consider developing a strategy to help someone. Rehab facilities can often refer concerned family members, friends, or colleagues to professional interventionists. They assist in helping a loved one realize the effects of alcoholism on those around them.
Convincing someone to get help often takes the collaborative effort of more than one person. If you notice characteristics of an alcoholic in someone and have questions about treatment options, we are here for you. Please contact us to learn more about how you can help. Also, if you struggle with alcohol misuse and need help for yourself, we can discuss treatment options with you.