Q: My husband drinks a lot but it doesn't affect him very badly. It is amazing just how much he can drink without getting dead drunk. Does that mean he isn't an alcoholic?
A: I'm afraid you are describing a telltale characteristic of alcoholism. Let me turn to a physician who specializes in treating alcoholics. I asked him to describe the early symptoms that family members should look for. Dr. Simpson said:
"The first red flag is a 'tolerance' for alcohol. The person finds he has to drink more to achieve the same result. He calls this being able to 'hold his liquor' -- a status symbol around the world. In reality, it is a danger signal indicating a chemical adjustment has been made.
"Second, a person reaches a place where he doesn't want to talk about his drinking anymore. He knows he is consuming more alcohol than other people, and he wants to avoid all reference to it. This begins a process of denial that may be with him for years to come.
"Third, the person begins to experience blackouts. By that I mean that he has brief periods of amnesia that lengthen as time goes by. What is happening is that the brain's recording cells aren't remembering what is being said and done.
"Furthermore, it's a low-dose phenomenon: It happens after one or two drinks. I'm not referring to the process of being stone drunk from the anesthetic effects of great quantities of alcohol. Instead, the person thinks back on the previous night and says, 'Gee! I can't remember a doggone thing after that second drink.' It's a scary experience.
"Fourth, the person begins to notice that he can't consistently predict how much he's going to drink once he starts. To me, this is the key feature of alcoholism and constitutes the definition of the disease. It occurs when an individual is constantly drinking more than he intended because he can't help it. He sits down to have a beer and wakes up the next afternoon.
"It may be hard for people to believe, but alcoholics don't drink to get drunk. They merely want to have a drink or two. That's why they can swear they'll never get drunk again, and mean it. They have no intention of breaking that promise. Nevertheless, they sit down to have a drink with a friend and bingo, it's morning."
Let me share with you the words of Pauline, the spouse, and Bob, the alcoholic, about their experience with this family nightmare.
"I couldn't count the times Bob promised he would never drink again. That must be the most frustrating part of the experience, having Bob look me straight in the eye and tell me he's through -- really done with bingeing. He'd say, 'I've seen how it hurts you and the kids, and I've had it. I promise you that I'll never do it again!' Then in a day or two he was dead drunk. I thought he was lying to me. How could he love me and lie so many times to my face? But he wasn't lying. He couldn't keep his promise. Bob thought he could whip this problem with willpower. It's like trying to stop diarrhea by making up your mind to do so."
We asked Bob to express what he was feeling during this period of repeated failure. He said he was confused by his inability to overcome the habit. "I thought the problem might be vodka, so I switched to scotch, and then bourbon. Then I tried meditation. Nothing worked. I tried a dozen approaches to control my drinking, but I always went back to it. Then I tried covering it up. I carried a bottle of Binaca in my pocket and always had a green tongue.
"I drank for six months without Pauline ever knowing it. Every Saturday morning she would wash her hair and then sit under a noisy hair dryer for a half-hour. I could hardly wait for her to get preoccupied because I had a fifth of vodka in the cupboard. I would race in and get a can of Fresca from the refrigerator, pour half of it down the drain, and fill the other half with vodka. Then I'd drink it in front of the television set with a halo around my head. You really have to be calculating to hide a drinking problem from those you live with. This went on for months. You see, I was addicted to a drug and was completely unaware of it."