The Difference Between Alcoholism and Heavy Drinking

Alcoholism is widely misunderstood because it functions differently than most diseases. People with Type-2 Diabetes, for example, are asked at a minimum to remove problematic foods from their diets. When they do this, they get better.

The cure for alcoholism isn’t as simple as “stopping the drinking.” With real alcoholism, removing alcohol from a person’s life can actually make the symptoms worse.

There’s another complicating factor with alcoholism, and it’s that it doesn’t come with the same stigma as drug use. As a society, we clearly understand that a person who uses intravenous drugs is suffering from addiction. But how do we know if a person using alcohol has an alcohol addiction?

What Happens When a “Heavy Drinker” Stops Drinking?

With a Heavy Drinker, drinking is the problem. Once they stop drinking, their life gets better because they’re no longer experiencing consequences related to alcohol.

That’s not to say that Heavy Drinkers don’t suffer serious consequences as a result of their alcohol abuse. Oftentimes, a DUI, a health scare, an ultimatum from a loved one is what causes them to stop using alcohol.

What makes a Heavy Drinker different from someone with alcohol dependence is that they have the ability to stop on their own with little or no support. They are able to let their negative experiences or consequences related to alcohol change them. And because of this, they can make the decision to stop drinking and follow through.

What Happens With Alcohol Addiction?

Alcohol use is dangerous because it’s socially accepted and much easier to disguise than illegal drug use. Over a period of time, people cross the invisible line from weekend recreation use to daily drinking. They then develop a chronic compulsion. Eventually, they find themselves in full-on, soul-depriving alcohol dependence.

When someone who is suffering from alcoholism stops drinking, their life may get better for a time — but eventually, things get worse. Why? Drinking isn’t the problem; it’s actually their solution to their problems.

For this reason, someone struggling with alcoholism may stop drinking for a time due to the pain or shame of consequences related to alcohol, but without the proper support, they will eventually return to drinking. On their own, they do not have the ability to follow through. They make a promise to stop drinking and are resolved. Then some time passes, and they break that promise to themselves. They minimize, rationalize, and justify their drinking history, and then they drink again.

This constant returning to drinking, even after solid evidence that it’s harmful or even destructive, is a big difference between a hard or problem drinker and a real alcoholic. Their brains and bodies have developed a relationship with alcohol that makes it virtually impossible for them to stop their own.

My Recovery from Alcoholism

Like most people with alcohol addiction, I knew I had a problem because of the way I felt when I would try to get sober. It felt like I had a spiritual relationship with alcohol, and when it was taken away, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It gave my life meaning and purpose.

The consequences I experienced as a result of my alcohol dependence weren’t enough to make me stop. That’s because I didn’t fully experience alcoholism through my consequences. I only experienced it when I would try to stop. And on my own, I couldn’t. Without alcohol, I would obsess and become afraid, anxious, and irritable. Drinking solved those problems for me and gave me relief — at least temporarily.

Luckily, I received the help I needed to begin my lifelong recovery at a young age. I chose treatment at a quality facility. I accepted placement in a suitable sober living environment. I engaged in a recovery process through a fellowship that empathized the importance of having a spiritual practice, which included living by principles and serving others.

These events happened how they needed to for me. I’m proud to say that I have created a powerful recovery for myself. I am living a life that has been enriched by the help of so many others.

My journey of recovery is one of the main reasons I now work as a Recovery Coach for Feinberg Consulting, a case management company that helps individuals and families navigate the addiction, mental health, and recovery process from start to finish and for all the steps in between.

The Goal of Sobriety Is Recovery

The type of support that helps people with alcoholism get sober and eventually enter long-term recovery is different for every person. It’s based on a variety of individual circumstances, but the overall goal is changing the relationship with alcohol or another drug.

That’s why we have to make sure that people suffering from alcoholism and drug addiction are able to address their real problem or problems – they can be physical, spiritual, mental, emotional, or relationship-based – with new skills and healthy behaviors and that do not involve alcohol or other drugs. Otherwise, the internal elements that caused them to drink or use drugs will still be there. They will return to seek relief through destructive behaviors.

The powerful and effective thing about recovery from drugs or alcohol is that by nature, it’s a practice that brings meaning and purpose to life just like alcohol and drugs once did. We remove the unnatural connection to substances and replace it with something much bigger and more real. By doing this, we become in service to ourselves by pursuing meaningful goals. At first, that means simply “getting sober,” but as we move deeper into recovery our goals deepen as well.

By being in service to others and living a life of principles, we are giving ourselves a better direction and orientation. Where does a new direction and orientation take us? To a place where anything is possible. Because as an alcoholic in recovery, we give up one thing so we can gain access to everything.

Thatcher Shivley

Director of Community Relations | Recovery Coach

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  1. Alcohol addiction could ruin your life, it destroys not only your life but also your health. Treatment is necessary for them to have a second chance in life. I’m so proud of Thatcher for becoming an inspiration to those who are dependent on alcohol.

  2. Thank you for sharing this inspirational article, Thatcher. These can be beneficial for those who are planning to start cutting alcohol in their lives. I agree that there are people that are suffering from staying away from alcohol since their brains and body have developed a relationship with alcohol, and it very serious. Some don’t realize that alcohol addiction is not only impacting health but also their safety. Hopefully, for those who are drunk, they don’t attempt to drive. It can cause an accident and the worst risk of another life. If someone we know is drinking, do not let that person get behind the wheels. I believe that this may not be easy but, being surrounded by people that can lift the positivity can make a difference. I am very proud of those who are willingly diverting their selves from positivity and trying their best to cut alcohol.

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