Alcohol Use or Alcohol Abuse? Myths and Realities of Having a Drinking Problem

In typical movies and television shows, characters with a drinking problem are easy to spot: they’re sullen, unemployed and estranged, typically found drinking alone or picking fights. Outside of Hollywood fiction, however, problem drinkers often look like our neighbors, co-workers, loved ones, and friends. The signs and symptoms of a drinking problem aren’t always obvious, especially when our view of alcohol use disorder is colored by stereotypes and myths, which can be harmful to perpetuate.

Myth: “Alcoholics can’t hold down jobs or be successful.”

Individuals who abuse alcohol don’t necessarily look or behave in a particular way. Many “high-functioning alcoholics” have a healthy income, a wide circle of friends, and committed relationships with loved ones. Often, these individuals are very skilled at leading double lives. Those who abuse alcohol may engage in binge drinking each weekend but abstain from drinking during the workweek, or they may refuse to drink in front of their children but make a habit of drinking alone before family outings. To complicate matters, for those with high-pressure jobs, a drinking problem is easily dismissed as the “cost of doing business” or a way to “take the edge off.” Outside accomplishments can be used to excuse problem behavior, and traditional markers of success can feed denial. Just because they may be “high-functioning” or “successful” doesn’t mean their alcohol abuse isn’t putting themselves and those around them in danger.

Myth: “Campus drinking culture is nothing more than harmless fun. It’s part of the college experience.”

While it is true that for many students—more than 40% of them, according to some estimates—binge-drinking is a part of their college experience, the behavior is far from harmless. (While binge-drinking is defined as four or more alcoholic drinks within a few hours for women, five for men, it is important to remember that alcohol doesn’t affect everyone the same way, especially young people, and fewer drinks can lead to negative consequences as well.) The dangers of binge drinking include alcohol poisoning, sexual assault, drunk driving, legal or academic consequences, unsafe sex, and injury. Binge drinking could also be an indication of an alcohol use disorder or a symptom of an underlying mental health issue such as anxiety or depression. If you suspect someone is masking a mental health issue with drinking, strongly consider consulting a mental health professional who can help you make informed decisions about next steps.

Myth: “Alcoholics lack willpower. With discipline, they could easily get their drinking under control on their own.”

This kind of myth is especially harmful, because it might prevent those suffering from alcohol abuse from getting the help they need. Alcohol use disorder is a biological, brain-based disease. It is the job of each physician and of society as a whole to treat addiction with the compassion and medical attention it deserves. Consider a disease such as cancer or diabetes: you would never suggest to people battling those illnesses that they should simply will themselves to health. Additionally, as with drug addiction, sudden and severe withdrawal could cause painful physical symptoms that lead to hospitalization or death. Safe, effective treatment is the bridge between the desire to overcome alcohol abuse and the ability to overcome it.

True Life Center for Wellbeing is an integrative mental health and addiction treatment center located in La Jolla’s UTC area that offers an Intensive Outpatient Program, as well as outpatient psychiatry and therapy appointments. If you or a loved one are ready to break free from the grip of alcohol abuse, please call at 858-384-4535 or visit