Traditionally alcoholism has been understood as a black-and-white condition. Just like it's impossible to be a little bit pregnant, it's long been considered that a person must be either an alcoholic or not an alcoholic. Yet the mood is shifting as various shades of grey emerge and some experts claim that there may be an entire spectrum of possibilities that lie between the non-alcoholic and the alcoholic state.
Welcome to the world of the "almost alcoholic". It's far more accommodating than the narrow definition of old. Alcoholics Anonymous has always set the bar pretty high. The online quiz to help you "[d]ecide whether Alcoholics Anonymous is right for you" doesn't make it easy for the average person to qualify.
Evidently four positive responses indicate a problem. But when the questions include "Have you had to have an eye-opener upon wakening during the past year?", "Do you have blackouts?" and "Do you ... keep getting drunk when you don't mean to?" they're unlikely to resonate with a high proportion of people.
Never fear, there is a condition that more moderate drinkers might genuinely be able to claim for themselves. According to Are you an "almost-alcoholic"? 10 signs you might have a problem, some of the signals seem fairly benign. They include: "You drink to relieve stress," "You drink alone" and "You look forward to drinking". Perhaps I mix in the wrong circles but most adults I know would admit to all three of those.
Are You Almost Alcoholic? Taking a New Look at an Old Problem says: "According to the literature, you're either an alcoholic or you're not an alcoholic. But might more awareness of the in-between help us?" It suggests that some drinkers may be unaware of the negative impact their alcohol intake is having; "suffering may take the form of declining job performance and declining health so that the individual does not yet recognize it as being related to drinking."
It's thought that a label for these people, those who aren't "fully-fledged" alcoholics but are nonetheless experiencing booze-related negative consequences, may help them reassess their drinking habits. And, it certainly seems there could well be a gap in the market for such a nuanced approach.
One blogger, known as The Sober Journalist, has embraced the term "almost alcoholic". She wrote about going to an AA meeting: "I sat there feeling like a fraud. As I listened to other people share, I felt guilty, like I wasn't 'alcoholic enough'. So I slunk off and never went back." But surely there's something wrong with a support system that makes a woman who admits to "years of binge drinking, black outs and drinking in secret" feel she's not hardcore enough.
The advertising blurb to the book Almost Alcoholic: Is My (or My Loved One's) Drinking a Problem? that launched this movement and introduced the idea of an alcoholic continuum says: "Every day, millions of people drink a beer or two while watching a game, shake a cocktail at a party with friends, or enjoy a glass of wine with a good meal. For more than 30 percent of these drinkers, alcohol has begun to have a negative impact on their everyday lives. Yet, only a small number are true alcoholics - people who have completely lost control over their drinking and who need alcohol to function."
The website also offers an online assessment which provides a verdict on your personal imbibing habits. I was surprised that my score classified me as a "normal social" drinker; no one has called me normal or social before but I'll take it.
Is there value in the term "almost alcoholic" or is it just trivialising bona fide alcoholism? Could such a label help more people gain insights about their potentially damaging relationship to alcohol?