When I first meet a new client, one of the questions I ask him/her is “how much do you drink?”

Over the years, I have gotten some pretty amazing answers. Some of the more memorable ones include, “Just enough until I black out so I can sleep” and “Not very much, just a bottle of wine or two every night with dinner.”

For many people, alcohol, like sex, is a topic that makes us a little nervous. We wonder how much we should drink, how much other people drink - and what if a licensed psychotherapist like me thinks you drink too much, what then?

It’s not my place to decide who should drink how much and how often. My job is to help my clients become the men and women they want to be. For some people, alcohol gets in the way. It’s an obstacle, not a pleasure.

While I am not a licensed substance abuse counselor, I have worked with many clients who question whether they are drinking too much. It is a fine line between freely enjoying alcohol (you can take it or leave it) and depending on it (using it to get you through a tough day/week/life).

Many of us, myself included, enjoy a drink occasionally: it relaxes us, takes the edge off a rough day, helps us be less socially anxious or shy. Many people can enjoy the occasional pleasurable effects of alcohol without becoming hooked or suffering significant negative consequences. Some people can’t. While they are often called “alcoholics”, the more accurate psychological terms would be “alcohol dependent” or “alcohol abusing”.

People who are dependent upon or abuse alcohol cannot have a casual relationship with booze; they “need” alcohol to function. Is this you? Can you function just fine without alcohol? Do you need a drink (or two or three) to make it through the day? To get through a social situation? To cope with a difficult relationship? If so, you may have a form of alcohol dependence.

Does the alcohol control you, or vice-versa? Alcohol dependence can be identified by an increasing need for larger amounts over time. If it’s hard for you to quit or cut down your booze intake, you may have an alcohol dependence. But don’t freak out, keep reading.

If you have a dependant or abusive relationship with alcohol, the booze is typically interfering with your daily activities, e.g., making it hard to get to work and do your job or getting along with friends. You may not be dependent on alcohol, but booze could still be a problem for you, even if it’s not severe enough for you to be considered an “alcoholic.”

If you were my client, I’d have some questions for you:

Do you ever binge drink?
Do you ever drink until you pass out?
Do you ever drink to avoid feeling sad/angry/lonely?
Have you ever driven your car while intoxicated?
Do you drink alone on a regular basis?
How much would your life change if alcohol suddenly disappeared off the face of the earth?

You may have some degree of alcohol dependence if you try to impose limits on yourself but can’t stick to them. For example: you go out clubbing with your friends and resolve to drink only two drinks, three drinks max, and three hours later you’ve had eight drinks and wonder how you got there, cursing your lack of self-control. Maybe what started out a few years’ ago as fun and experimentation has now become a necessity. Your tolerance for alcohol may have increased so much that what three drinks used to do for you now requires eight drinks.

If you wonder if you drink too much, look at your motivations for why you drink. I had a client tell me, “I’m only 21, isn’t it normal to drink a lot?” I encouraged him to dump the word “normal” and substitute “healthy” or “smart” and answer his own question. While younger people may drink more, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

Dear Reader, today, why not take a good honest look at your drinking and ask yourself the above questions. If you are concerned about how much you drink, you can get more information about alcoholism and alcohol dependence/abuse on-line or from a 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous group (for locations near you, Google “Alcoholics Anonymous”) to help you decide if it’s time to modify your booze consumption.

No one – including me - can tell you if you drink too much, but if alcohol just isn’t working for you, tell yourself the truth and get some help. Now is the time.

For more information, visit lifebeyondtherapy.com.

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