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Is it Time to Stop Using the Description 'Alcoholic'?

There was an interesting article on the BBC News website (8 January 2014) by Olivia Sorrel-Dejerine entitled Should There Be a Word for an 'Almost Alcoholic'? The word 'alcoholic' does come with a lot of baggage, being used to describe many different types of behaviour. This has led some experts to wonder if it is even helpful to use this word any more, especially when it comes to describing those people who do not fit the regular alcoholic stereotype.

What is an Alcoholic?

The word 'alcoholic' is sometimes used to refer to all types of problem drinking; strictly speaking, though, it only means those individuals who have developed a dependence on alcohol. This dependence is typically physiological and psychological in nature. Increased tolerance and withdrawal symptoms are the classic signs of physical dependence, while cravings are a sign of psychological dependence.

The way individuals experience dependence on alcohol can vary a great deal. Some are able to continue functioning well in life despite their dependence - such people may even be very successful. It is possible to be dependent on alcohol but not drink every day. Some individuals even belong to a category known as 'top-up drinkers'; they never really get drunk but just experience a state of almost constant numbness due to always being mildly intoxicated.

The fact that alcohol dependence can manifest in so many ways has encouraged some to claim that the word 'alcoholic' is not very helpful as it describes so many different behavioural patterns.

The Negative Stereotype of Alcoholic

Despite the fact that the word 'alcoholic' is used to describe many different patterns of drinking, it still tends to be associated with a certain type of stereotype that involves:

  • someone who is out of control
  • someone who is down on their luck
  • a person who can't hold down a job
  • someone who has poor hygiene
  • a person who drinks cheap spirits
  • an aggressive drunk
  • somebody who drinks in the morning.

Only a tiny minority of those dependent on alcohol meet the criteria of the stereotypical alcoholic. It is understandable then that some would fear being stigmatised by admitting they are an alcoholic; it may even prevent them from looking for help. This is why some experts would argue that the label 'alcoholic' could be detrimental, and now is time to use new terms to describe the condition.

The Dangers of Avoiding the Alcoholic Term

The reality is that many who fit the criteria for alcoholism are resistant to accepting this label because they do not want to stop drinking. These individuals are often tempted to use word games as a means of avoiding the help they need; if the person believes they are not an alcoholic, they can use this to justify continued drinking. The word 'alcoholic' might be a little vague, but it helps the individual see the reality of their situation.

The same argument for not using the word 'alcoholic' could probably be used against most medical conditions. After all, even those dealing with something like asthma will not experience all symptoms the exact same way. This does not mean there needs to be many new words created to describe all the different types of asthma - it would just get too confusing.

Many people feel that using the term 'recovering alcoholic' actually benefits their life - this is especially true for those who use Alcoholics Anonymous.  It gives these individuals a sense of shared purpose, being a powerful reminder that they can never drink safely again in the future.

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