The Social Stigma of the Alcoholic

Most of us have some idea of what we think an alcoholic is. We have a sense of what an alcoholic looks like and how an alcoholic behaves. Alcoholism is often portrayed in movies and television shows in extreme ways and this shapes the public perception of what an alcoholic is supposed to be. Many of us think of someone who is belligerent, disheveled, untrustworthy, combative, or sloppy (and this is by no means an exhaustive list of descriptions). Perhaps we develop an image of a homeless person that we walk past on the streets who is panhandling for money.

Due to the unfortunate stigma associated with this condition, it is not uncommon to feel ashamed or afraid when an individual suspects that they might have a problem with alcohol. They often don’t tell people what is going on with them, and don’t ask for help. Nobody wants to be portrayed as a “bad” person and this becomes a real fear and a major obstacle for too many people who are truly suffering. This keeps people in the dark and stops them from getting the treatment that they need and deserve.

The Truth about Alcoholism

The truth is that alcoholism affects people from all different walks of life and does not always look the way that we may imagine it to be. For many people, it is hard to believe that alcoholism can be present in people that are relatively “high functioning” from an outsider’s perspective – people who hold down important jobs, have families, and are active in their communities.

The clinical term for alcoholism is “Alcohol Use Disorder,” which is defined by the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (known as the “DSM-5”). There are 11 symptoms that are described in this diagnostic tool to help health care providers determine whether their patients suffer from an alcohol use disorder. Alcoholism can be more insidious and discrete than we may realize, so it is important to educate yourself about what the true symptoms are.

11 Signs of an Alcohol Use Disorder

  1. You drink more alcohol or you drink over a longer period of time than you intend to.
  2. You have persistently wanted to and/or tried to cut down the amount of alcohol that you drink or stop drinking completely, but you have been unsuccessful.
  3. You spend a great deal of time seeking out alcohol, using alcohol, and recovering from the effects of alcohol.
  4. You find yourself having strong cravings, desires, or urges to use alcohol.
  5. Your use of alcohol leads to your inability to fulfill your obligations at work, home, or school.
  6. You continue to use alcohol even after your drinking has caused problems in your social life or interpersonal relationships.
  7. Your use of alcohol leads to a reduction in or disengagement with important social, occupational, or recreational activities.
  8. You find yourself recurrently using alcohol in situations that are physically hazardous to you.
  9. You continue to use alcohol despite your awareness that your drinking has caused or exacerbates a physical or psychological problem.
  10. You have developed tolerance to alcohol, which is defined as needing larger amounts of alcohol to obtain the desired intoxication level or feeling a reduced effect when you drink the same amount of alcohol.
  11. You develop withdrawal symptoms when you don’t drink alcohol, or you use alcohol (or a closely related substance) in order to prevent withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms include: sweating, fast pulse rate, hand tremor, insomnia, nausea or vomiting, hallucinations or illusions (visual, tactile, or auditory), psychomotor agitation, anxiety, generalized tonic-clonic seizures.
  • A person who has 2 to 3 of the above symptoms is considered to have a “mild” alcohol use disorder.
  • A person who has 4 to 5 of the above symptoms is considered to have a “moderate” alcohol use disorder.
  • A person who has 6 or more of the above symptoms is considered to have a “severe” alcohol use disorder.

Help is Available

If you are worried that you may have a problem with alcohol, you should be incredibly proud of yourself for acknowledging this issue and taking a step to research this important information. Alcoholism can be treated, and there is help available for you when you are ready to take that step. This post is meant to give you a sense of whether you may need to seek professional help for an alcohol use disorder, and it is not meant to be used as a professional diagnosis. It is imperative that you seek help from a qualified health care provider or mental health practitioner if you believe you suffer from this condition. Contact your local health care provider (primary care physician, psychologist, social worker, counselor, psychotherapist, psychiatrist) for professional advice and assistance. A professional who has been trained in the treatment of alcohol use disorders can recommend a course of treatment for you, which may include residential or outpatient treatment. Below are additional helpful online resources:


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