What are the characteristics of an alcoholic?

I keep seeing people write things like ‘like many alcoholic personalities, I have a tendency to manufacture drama’ or ‘I always want more than I have, which I guess is common amongst boozers’.  Caroline Knapp does this a lot, categorising various personality traits as being ‘alcoholic personality’ character traits.

I’m very, very resistant to this idea.  In part, because I can see how tempting it is.  I almost wrote a post the other day about the fact that I’ve finally changed my hair colour, but I don’t like it because it’s gone from slightly wacky and dramatic to mid-brown (how?  I have no idea.  This is not the conversation I actually had with the stylist) and I like my hair dramatic rather than natural-looking.  And then I jumped to a thought about whether this is an addict’s trait, to want drama and artifice rather than having the courage to show one’s authentic hair colour/personality…

And then I realised that bloody well everybody dyes their hair and I should get a grip.  Not everything is about the fact that I like to drink.  Very few things are, in fact.

I guess I’m just not very interested in diagnosing myself.  Every time I hear someone say ‘My problem is I’m a people pleaser, I just want people to love me, I really love my friends but sometimes I just need, need some alone time, I yearn for deep connection but it’s hard to let go of my own vulnerabilities, I’m happy on the outside but I feel really sensitive to any sort of slight’ I kind of want to scream SO DOES EVERYBODY ELSE.  YOU ARE DESCRIBING THE HUMAN CONDITION.  Which is obviously why I never went into counselling as a career.

And the thing is, what people describe as an alcoholic, or addictive, set of personality traits just strike me as ‘personality traits’.  Yes, absolutely, some people are more vulnerable to substance abuse issues than others; mental health issues, family histories, childhood traumas, all of these affect one’s susceptibility.  And it’s absolutely useful to examine one’s coping mechanisms and emotional strengths and triggers in order to overcome those issues and be able to function without substance crutches.  I completely get that.

But is it useful to build up a picture of what an alcoholic or addict is like?  I mean, is it useful to label certain facets of one’s personality as being ‘alcoholic personality traits’?  When are we even talking about?  People talk about ‘pre-morbid’ personality traits, but there’s problems with that.  Either we mean ‘while we were drinking, but before that drinking became alcoholic’, which is hugely problematic; for a start nobody really knows when that line was, anyway.  And even if we do, alcohol itself has an effect on our mental health.  So one can be drinking heavily, but non-alcoholically, and suffering from low level depression.  But alcohol is a depressant, so by that logic we can also rope in ‘knows where all the good liquor stores are’ and ‘ability to enunciate very carefully when necessary’.  That is, those are things that excess alcohol intake causes, whether or not they were pre-existing.

Or do we go back to the time before we started drinking at all?  Well.  I don’t know about you, but I started drinking at fifteen.  Have you even MET a fifteen year old?  If my inherent personality is the one I displayed immediately prior to my first drink, I can only conclude that I am prone to bouts of weepiness for no reason, loathe my parents, and am convinced that miniskirts and fishnets in mid-winter is an edgy and fascinating look.  Also you wouldn’t get me, because the only person that gets me is Nick Cave.

So there’s that, for a start: if you start drinking before you reach full adulthood, then when you stop, you can’t possibly tease out ‘inherent’ or ‘pre-morbid’ personality traits from ‘things you are because you just spent your whole adult life drinking’.  But neither can anyone else; we are all a product of our experiences and our choices overlaid on a basic framework, whether those choices involved addictive substances or not.  There are certainly inherent personality traits; my two girls are very different, and have been since birth, and every parent will tell you that holds true.  But by the time you’re thirty, or forty, or fifty, in the therapist’s chair, I believe that you can no longer point to some of those traits and say these.  These things are why I drank.

Maybe my objection to this tendency is more aesthetic than it is practical, because let’s face it, listening to someone else’s Inner Stuff is next only to listening to their dreams in terms of dreary cliche – which is, of course, why therapists are expensive.  But maybe it’s more pragmatic.

Maybe it’s just that if you’re going to look at your Inner Stuff, you should be looking at the things that gave you the determination to beat an addiction.  Maybe you should be examining why you are determined.  Where your willpower came from.  What gave you the insight to see beyond the seduction to the abusive lover within.  How you harnessed your social skills to reach out to a community of sober people, and how your posts and your thoughts have helped them.

Whether you’ve quit drinking, or you’re still just thinking about it, you’re right here right now today.  Let’s look at why.  Let’s look at how awesome you are.

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13 thoughts on “What are the characteristics of an alcoholic?

  1. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. That’s one of the things that put me off AA – the idea of a defective alcoholic personality type. (Usual disclaimer about no offense to AA and all the great people here it seems to have worked really well for and what do I know anyway, as I’ve never properly attended etc etc but that’s my impression..)

    I sometimes find myself attributing way too much to the fact I’m not drinking. I’m depressed and can’t concentrate – oh no, it’s PAWS! I feel left out and insecure – it’s because all my friends are drinking and I’m not! I’m bored – it’s because I’m not drinking! Or maybe it’s just me sometimes.

    Not everything is about alcohol all the time. At the same time this… “it’s absolutely useful to examine one’s coping mechanisms and emotional strengths and triggers in order to overcome those issues and be able to function without substance crutches” … Yes, that’s the crux of it. The helpful part in examining all of this so much and why we’re ultimately here and blogging about it all. Because conversely if it were as simple as just drinking or not, well, it would be much simpler.

    Also, the bit re ‘you’re just describing the human condition” ha ha ha ha absolutely. I have definitely had this thought. AND been guilty of thinking my own human condition issues were somehow saying something special all about ME when really just… yep.

  2. I’m jumping up and down yelling “yes yes yes” right along with you and Lilly here! I think alcohol might do some similar things to some people, and there may be a lot of similar patterns in ways people come to drink too much and also come to quit, but the whole idea that there are alcoholic character traits puts me right off. And even past that, the whole idea that some things are “inherent’ becomes a problem, because pretty much everything a person is comes about because a creature acts in a physical world and within a social environment. But yes, we can look at how we ended up with these problems, and there are some similarities, and lots of non-drinkers do the same thing and have some similar patterns.

    I’m writing lots about what looks like “inner stuff,” except for me it is how I am coming to terms with living without wine, and that’s hard. But I don’t actually think it’s all “inner.” It’s me in the world, living, and yes, I guess that’s the human condition.

    Great post and lots to talk and think about here. xo

    • Thirsty, you’re writing about how you feel (& also rather wonderfully about sensory pleasures! Manchego cheese, yum), though. There’s a distinction between that and just talking about personality traits. Show don’t tell is the first rule of good storytelling, and I absolutely believe in stories as healing tools. Which is a fancy way of saying I think your posts are great and therefore do not apply to my admittedly snarky category of Inner Stuff.

  3. Your post is very insightful and I love the idea of focusing on what works rather than looking for addictive traits that we might share with other drinkers. The last time I went to an AA meeting, I had such a powerful urge to say my name is Hana, and I used to be a problem drinker (rather than I’m an alcoholic – in the present tense). I didn’t, but if I go again I will.

  4. I’ll leave others to diagnose themselves.

    However I do know after some time listening to many stories and people talking about their alcoholism that I do find myself more often than not seeing similar traits in their personalities to me.

    At the end of the day though I diagnose myself as an alcoholic on the following basis.

    1. I drank way too much however you cut it. Whether you looked at it on a daily, weekly, monthly whatever my intake was way over any definition of a safe limit, consistently as well, day in day out, week in week out… etc
    2. Once I did start drinking – I could not easily stop. I couldn’t say “I’ll only have two pints today” and stick to it – pretty much ever. I always drank more than I set out to and more than I wanted to.
    3. I was obsessed with it. It was always in my head when, where, how much etc. I would be able to get to it again
    4. I lied about my drinking. To my wife, my family, my colleagues, my friends… even frankly to myself. Ask me how much I drank I instantly lied regardless of the reason for the question or the nature of the judgements likely to be made

    I could go into traits like – massive ego, low self esteem or that I felt booze made me a better person (it never did in reality) or that I needed it to feel like I fitted in etc. But really they are incidental to the characteristics above

    • Oh, I think there are certainly characteristics of an active alcoholic that we all have in common, sure. It’s more the underlying personality traits that – some say – precede the problematic drinking that I take issue with.

  5. Now we’re getting into the thorny subject in psychology of trait vs state. I didn’t drink because of my personality I drank because I wanted to alter my mood or state of mind at the time. Comparing apples and pears and suggests you have no control over it which as we are happily showing just isn’t so 😉 xx

  6. Your post got me wondering if I had the alcoholic traits before I started drinking alcoholicly, since I didn’t really pick up till my late 20s. That said it’s almost like trying to figure out what came first the egg or the chicken. Do we get the traits because we are alcoholic or do the traits make us alcoholic. Who knows! I am sure this is a debate for the ages. For me, I think I was alcoholic before I started drinking and I also had the alcoholic traits! So I was a mess already, then I just poured alcohol on top of it all and boom, huge fire started! Lol!

    Great post! Thanks.

  7. just a big Thank You for your sharing and clever ways of adressing Stigmatisation. Running at Day 33 and am truly struggeling with how to announce my pride in the first month sober. Thx

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