Drinking is such a common social lubricant that it can seem unusual if someone doesn't join your team's after work happy hour. And that awkwardness can make it difficult to have an honest conversation about how alcohol makes you feel — including the good, and the bad. Having a toxic relationship with alcohol doesn't necessarily mean that someone is using the substance in a disordered way, but rather might want to reconsider their relationship to the substance.
Patricia Wallace, head of SOBA College Recovery, tells Bustle that questioning whether you've got a healthy attitude towards alcohol might be a signal that something's wrong. "If you're wondering if there is a problem," she says, "there probably is”.
According to studies, young people are the most likely group in a population to binge drink, which can contribute to a toxic relationship with the substance. Drinking alcohol in spite of not liking how it makes you feel — physically or emotionally — can also indicate it may be time to reframe how you think about alcohol.
If you are feeling as if you'd like to re-examine your relationship with alcohol, it's always a good idea to see your GP or a therapist for a talk about what lies behind your feelings. Having a toxic relationship with alcohol doesn't necessarily mean you have a substance use disorder; rather, it can be an opportunity to increase your mindfulness around drinking.
1You Use Alcohol To Avoid Complicated Feelings
If alcohol is being used to avoid uncomfortable emotions like sadness, anger, or even stress, it's a sign that its use isn't necessarily healthy. People drink for many reasons, but over-dependence on alcohol for the sake of avoiding or numbing negative feelings is a signal that a person may begun to use it as a coping tool, rather than a way to enjoy oneself harmlessly. Nobody should need a drink to be able to face their issues — or not to face them.
2You Can't Stop Thinking About It
"Obsessive thinking about alcohol," according to addiction specialist and counselor Frank Say, is a key sign of a troubled relationship with drinking. Say notes that if somebody is constantly "thinking about alcohol, wondering when your next drink will be, how will you get money for your next drink, how to hide or sneak your next drink from loved ones or employer, how to recover from the results of your last binge, where to consume your next drinks," it's a signal that their relationship with alcohol isn't healthy.
3You Can't Go Near It Without Anxiety
If past experiences with alcohol, whether your own or those of others, make you deeply averse to it now, that can be a discomfiting sign. It's healthy to be able to make choices about your consumption. If, however, those choices are driven by disgust, fear, trauma, or bad memories, according to studies of kids of alcoholic parents, then it likely reflects that your relationship with alcohol is a bit skewed. It's fine to drink or to not drink if alcohol makes you uncomfortable, but know that it isn't necessary to have anxiety around it, either.
4You Avoid Company When Drinking
Secretive behaviors around drinking can indicate that there's an issue, according to Say, whether you feel that you "can't do it in front of your kids" or need a lunchtime cocktail to get through your workday. The social aspect of alcohol can indicate toxicity in two ways. "Do you justify your drinking by claiming to be a social drinker? Conversely, do you often drink alone?" says Say. It may feel like a way to keep everything under control, but it's often indicative of a problem.
5You've Experienced Worrying Consequences Because Of Your Drinking
If you "continue drinking despite severe consequences," says Say, it's a signal that you may have a problem. Severe consequences can mean anything from risky decision making, aggressive behavior, being "out of it" for important occasions, to spending excessive amounts of money without thinking about it.
6People Around You Are Concerned
Some people are so high-functioning that their toxic relationship with alcohol makes no apparent impression on others (or at least, they think it doesn't). But if multiple people have raised it as a problem, it's possibly something that you may need to examine. Counselor and addiction specialist Erin Parisi tells Bustle that clients often tell her, "My loved one asked me to cut back and I wouldn't or couldn't," or "All my friends also drink."
These people may have their own motivations — if they're tee-totalers who believe all alcohol is the devil, for instance, their opinions can be taken in context — but the view of those who love you may see something that you don't.
7It Takes Precedence Over Responsibilities
If "the use of alcohol become increasingly important in regards to other responsibilities in life, such as family, work, friends, etc.," says Say, it's being prioritized too much. Blowing off jobs, commitments, appointments or relationships to drink in peace, indicates that time may be structured around alcohol in a toxic way. If someone is "making deals with yourself," says Parisi, "saying things like 'I can only drink on the weekends', 'I can only drink after the kids are in bed', and then 'I can only drink after 7 p.m., after 5 p.m., after work'," it's a signal that things are not all well.
8Things Have Become Gradually Worse
"Generally speaking," Parisi tells Bustle, "people have a tough time identifying their own problematic behaviors, mostly because of the way it's a slow progression over time for most people." The issue, she explains, is that addiction is a "progressive disease" and that toxic relationships with alcohol develop over time. "When someone creeps from three nights a week of having a glass of wine after work to four or five, to a bottle of wine on a weekend night, to a bottle of wine per night," she says, "there isn't necessarily an alarm bell that goes off, but the beginnings of a problem are already there."
9You Experience Cravings And Withdrawal
"Needing more of the substance to get the effect you want," and "development of withdrawal symptoms, which can be relieved by taking more of the substance," says Parisi, are warning signs that there is a problem. Alcohol can be an addictive substance, and these two physical symptoms can be indicative of that addiction.
10You've Tried To Quit And Can't
Ruby Warrington, the author of Sober Curious, tells Bustle that the pattern usually goes like this: "repeatedly deciding not to drink (for whatever reason), then drinking again anyway and feeling super guilty about it." This is a big signal that one's relationship with alcohol isn't healthy.
If you want to reframe your relationship with alcohol to fix your issues, Warrington says, it can help to go cold turkey. "Take an extended break from alcohol — anything from one to three months (or longer)," she tells Bustle. "Commit to focusing on all the positive things you experience as a result of not drinking during this period. This will begin to rewire the subconscious neural pathways that lead to you drinking habitually — even when your conscious mind is telling you it's time to quit."
It's a sensible idea to get help during this period, whether it's from a support group, your GP, a therapist or another professional — and to let friends and family know you're working on your relationship with alcohol, and plan on being sober for a while. Whether you come away from this self-reflection with an idea to continue being sober, or to resume drinking in moderation, it's important to periodically check in and understand the relationship you have with this substance.