How to Tell If Your Social Drinking Is Normal—or Something More Serious

Updated: Nov. 30, 2020

Alcoholism can affect social drinkers too. You don't have to be a daily drinker, morning drinker, or have DWI's to have a problem with alcohol.

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Alcoholism: It’s a real problem

Many adults today have come to normalize drinking “socially” when in reality it can impact their mental health in a profound ways says Emily Roberts, MA, LMHC. “Fear of missing out and drinking with co-workers and friends is an activity people use to connect and distress, but society tends to overlook the more effective and healthy ways of doing this, so it becomes reinforced that to feel better or to feel connected one must go to the happy hour or wine night,” she says. This, coupled with insecurities, trauma or any life stressors leads to even more problems and makes it harder for people who have addictive patterns or underlying mental health issues to seek help. By the time I was 21, I had all but officially identified my social drinking as problematic, but since I was such an all-star college student, local paper reporter, and publishing-house intern who never drank on the job, in the mornings, or alone, I reasoned it was something I just had to get better control over. Not so much. A year later, I had identified as an alcoholic despite being the youngest one in many of the 12-step meeting rooms —I didn’t need to go to rehab—and never picked up a drink again. More and more, women are going toe-to-toe with their male counterparts when it comes to binge drinking, and it’s not surprising: society normalizes, encourages, and promotes drinking so heavily that it can be nearly impossible, at times, to know what’s “normal” or not.


You always want to keep the party going

As everyone else starts to head home, you try to get them to stay out longer, drink more, or you keep the party going yourself by staying out alone and continuing to drink. Of course, says Roberts, after a fun night, it can be hard to back to “real life,” but the difference between social drinkers and alcoholics is that social drinkers don’t need to stay out drinking. They want to remember their night and feel good the next day; they know their limits and are aware of the way that too much alcohol will interfere with their functioning the next day. “One client of mine never wanted the party to end, so she would go out with one group for girlfriends and come home with another, and her friends couldn’t keep up with her,” she says. “She actually had a hard time being alone with her thoughts, so she’d make friends with strangers just so she could have someone to drink with.”


You wonder if there will be enough

It’s natural to expect a party or event to have enough for everyone, but if that’s the focus of your evening when you arrive, or even beforehand, that’s a red flag. If you’re unable to keep your focus on your friends and just be present without worrying about the alcohol supply and whether it’s running out, something may be up. “This most likely means that you are probably chasing the drunk feeling and feel unable to enjoy yourself with the fear of losing that feeling,” says Jaime Gleicher, LMSW at Hartstein Psychological Services. “It is most definitely a warning sign of addiction and it can be a sign of obsessive thinking around alcohol, which should absolutely raise red flags.”


You continue to drink despite negative consequences

This is a huge category and one that can encompass many different things. In its most extreme cases, a fun night out ends in harm to yourself or others—getting into a physical fight, harming yourself by accident, getting very sick, or getting a DUI. But alcohol addiction can damage people in all aspects of life, says Shanthi Mogali, MD, director of psychiatry at Mountainside Treatment Center. Maybe someone stays up waiting up for you to come home all night, worrying. Maybe you start picking fights with them when you do get home. Maybe you act in ways you regret the next day in front of your kids, or can’t even remember what you did the night before. “Failure to fulfill responsibilities is another common side effect of drinking: showing up late more frequently than not, not doing household chores (leaving laundry for weeks) or starting to spend money irresponsibly, especially more than you intended to on drinks, or skipping out on plans you made with your family and friends because you are too hungover, or choosing to drink over seeing your loved ones, are also signs” says Dr. Mogali. Unfortunately, it’s often not until people have suffered enough consequences, for a long enough time, that they are ready to quit using, she says. In the addiction rehabilitation space, we sometimes call this the “gift of desperation,” or what’s known as hitting rock bottom. Keep these recovery quotes handy to help motivate you towards sobriety.


Stopping after two drinks feels pointless or challenging

Stopping after two drinks may feel kind of like going to Disney World and not riding any of the rides for you: What’s the point? Not only that, but the idea of having one more, whether you’re fighting it or giving in, can be indicative of something more. In general, “normal” drinkers don’t compulsively think about alcohol. “Initially it may be to feel more comfortable to have a drink or two in social settings, but eventually one or two drinks seems pointless and more is required to get a buzz or to simply just feel comfortable in certain environments,” says Dr. Mogali. “If it feels like you can’t be present or even functional unless you have a drink in your system and your hand at all times, that’s a sign of alcoholism.” Another sign, she adds, is spending a lot of time and energy on drinking, and then a lot of time and energy recovering after drinking.


Family members and friends have expressed concern

Typically, an adult may ‘overdo it’ if they’re having a bad day or celebrating a once in a lifetime occasion, and they may say something they shouldn’t have or get sick the next day. But if they’re constantly behaving in a way that makes their friends and families worry enough to say something—and more than once—chances are it’s not all in good fun. “The people closest to us and who care about us are usually the first to express concern when someone is starting to develop a dangerous drinking pattern, because they notice it first,” says Dr. Mogali. “If those around you that know you the best are telling you something’s off about your drinking, you’re probably not merely engaging in ‘social drinking.'”


You drink more than you plan to

You set out to enjoy a glass of wine while reading a book on your couch and suddenly you realize that you drank a whole bottle, or you promise yourself it’ll just be two to three drinks max with the girls “this time” and somehow find yourself losing track. “When someone realizes they have drank more than they planned to and figure why stop now, that’s usually a sign of alcoholism,” says Alyson Cohen, LCSW, a psychotherapist based in New York City. “Especially if they keep going.” You may also have a problem if you find yourself not thinking about what you drink at all.


You resolve not to drink, then can’t say no

You set out to avoid alcohol at dinner or a cocktail party, but when asked if you’d like a drink, you can always find a reason to rationalize why it’s OK. “Not having control over your drinking is a sure sign there’s a problem. If your intention about alcohol and your behavior differ, then it’s definitely something you should look into,” says Cohen. This can be a tricky one—if you’re at brunch with your girlfriends and everyone is ordering mimosas, says Cohen, it’s normal to want to enjoy one cocktail with them. However, if you are the only one drinking at brunch when you had planned not to drink at all, it’s possible it may indicate a problem, and if you are the only one getting drunk at a meal out with friends, that’s another red flag.


You sometimes miss out on plans or work

Many people are unaware that they have a drinking problem just based on the sheer fact that it hasn’t ruined their lives. “Being an alcoholic doesn’t mean that you can’t hold a job, drive a car without a DWI, or maintain relationships. It just means that alcohol is always part of your life and you have no control over your desire to drink,” Cohen says. “Many alcoholics are very high functioning and it only makes it harder to accept when you have a problem.” There are plenty of people who are not alcoholics and cancel plans or miss work due to a hangover, so only you can really know if, even though you’re able to hold down a job, family or a social life, and pay the bills, your drinking is causing you to miss out on things that you otherwise wouldn’t have, and more frequently than you feel good about. These are the 6 things that guarantee a hangover.


You switch drinks or change the rules to try to drink less

You know you can’t stop after one or two glasses of wine, so you try to switch from wine to beer, or just clear liquor, or only drink on weekends. Basically, you try all kinds of ways to find a way to make it work, but no matter what you’re drinking, you find yourself in the same place, eventually: a place where you don’t stop at two. “Changing your drink order and confusing yourself will only make you sick,” says Roberts. “Social drinkers often have a drink of choice and rarely mix alcoholic beverages, a few glasses of wine or a couple beers, but they don’t try and overdo it by mixing in several different drinks in the same sitting.” Another sure sign of addiction, she says, is when you realize you set drinking limits for yourself, but you ultimately don’t end up sticking to them. “A social drinker doesn’t feel the need to make rigid plans for their next drink, because their life doesn’t revolve around drinking,” Roberts says.


Now what?

Nobody can “diagnose” you as an alcoholic but you, and you won’t stop unless you have an actual desire to try and stop drinking. People struggling with addictive disorders are often in denial about their use, or that their alcohol use is a problem, and they can be unwilling to admit they need help or treatment. But if you can honestly say that the above sounds like you, don’t psych yourself out by imagining an entire lifetime without a drink. Resolve not to drink for today and explore some options for furthering your understanding about the disease and what your options are. And if this sounds like someone you know or care about, know that sometimes a one-time conversation addressing the problem in a simple, non-confrontational manner can get the ball rolling for someone to recognize that they have a drinking issue, according to Dr. Mogali. “People who are struggling may not recognize the impact their drinking has had on themselves or others,” he says. “Letting them know you care can help them take steps forward to address it, such as therapy, Alcoholics Anonymous, or rehab.”

Helaina Hovitz is an editor, journalist, and author of After 9/11.