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"He takes three pills at work and drinks eight cans of beer when he gets home...
Does that make him an alcoholic?"


Question from a psytalk reader:

"Over the past six years, my husband (age 38) has been taking tranquilizers for panic attacks. For the first few years, he would take a pill and drink beer a few hours later (not more than four cans). Now for the last two years, he takes three pills at work during the day and when he's home he drinks eight cans of beer and goes to sleep no later than 9:30. (I've also found some empty liquor bottles.) I am scared for his health. I told him if he doesn't stop I'll call his doctor -- then he'll stop for a few days but soon starts up again. He says he drinks because he is bored! He drinks everyday -- does that make him an alcoholic and a drug abuser?! Please help me. Thank you so much!"

M. B.



Dear M. B.:

It makes sense to be worried about his health. For several reasons. The combination of tranquilizers and alcohol can be fatal! Both suppress vital body functions. Furthermore, alcohol -- particularly in significant quantities -- gradually destroys both liver cells and brain cells. He is at risk of developing cirrhosis, which is a crippling and debilitating disease.

As it happens, a series of three of my columns on coping with someone who is hooked on alcohol or drugs appear elsewhere in psytalk. It would probably be helpful to you to read them. (See hot-links at the end of this response.)

Regarding whether your husband is an "alcoholic" and/or a "drug abuser," it seems extremely probable that he uses them to control his moods and dull his sensibilities -- evidence that is often taken as sufficient to warrant the "abuser" label. I urge you to attend Al-Anon meetings, which you will find very helpful. [To find out about Al-Anon meetings near you, check your Yellow Pages under "Alcoholism." In New York City, Al-Anon's number is (212) 254-7230.]

In addition, if possible, obtain counseling -- for yourself and/or the family. Psychotherapy provides meaningful guidance in learning to deal with the issues you describe.


It Doesn't Help To Call A Person An "Alcoholic"

Curiously, many programs designed to help people who use alcohol or drugs to excess refrain from "diagnosing" with labels. They hold to the position that the person who is addicted is the only one who has a right to designate himself or herself an addict or an alcoholic. There is a reason for this. People who are addicted are extremely adept at employing a defense mechanism called "denial." That means, simply, that they can deny they have a problem with alcohol (or drugs). They maintain there is an external reason for their using a substance to alleviate their distress. In fact, they can think of all sorts of reasons to explain why they use alcohol or drugs. (Your husband's claim of boredom is an excellent example.) That is why people who run substance abuse programs know that it does not prove beneficial to stamp a stigmatic label on a person who needs help.

Incidentally, some other examples of ways people deny having a problem with drugs or alcohol include: having a tough boss, having a nagging spouse, making too little money (they ignore how much they spend on their habit), being too short, being too heavy, needing to relax, it being Sunday (or Saturday, or some other day of the week), being tired after work, because it is raining, and on and on. If some of these sound silly, that is because they are. The mechanism of denial serves to shield the individual from reality. The denial user wants to avoid having to cope with some aspect of real life. Hence, use and abuse.


About Boredom

Blaming "boredom" is interesting. To my surprise, boredom afflicts many people. I'm surprised because it seems to me we live in the most exciting of all times. We have more options open to us, more varieties of stimulation available, more avenues to explore than any population in history. Our culture offers food for every palate, music for every ear, masterworks of art for every eye, ideas in majestic abundance, travel at modest cost, career paths and intellectual pursuits beyond reckoning -- levels of experience which, until modern times, were beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest and most powerful monarchs. Nonetheless, many people are bored.

Why and how do we cut ourselves off from such riches? Boredom involves longing for something we can't identify. So we feel empty and frustrated without knowing why. Boredom occurs when we are out of touch with our desires, hopes, values and fantasies. We don't know what to pursue, so we wait -- and hope for someone else to take action and break the monotony.

Chronic boredom is distressingly painful. Usually it is caused by long-term deep-seated depression, which results from believing that we are powerless to make things better. The belief prevents us from taking constructive action, so we lapse into lethargy...or into uninteresting routines.

Chronically bored people cast about for relief. But their searches are unimaginative. They therefore fail to discover any activity they can become absorbed in pursuing. Instead, they may discover that, for them, TV, gambling, drink, drugs, or any of many other activities -- including sex -- can serve to assuage their pain. At least for the moment, which seems an improvement. As a result, they become -- or behave like -- addicts, using their particular anodyne in self-prescribed doses that appear excessive to others.

TV is diverting because it provides an illusion that something is going on in their lives. Gambling generates the excitement of suspense. Alcohol dulls the pain and temporarily erases the sense of powerlessness. Drugs lift the mood by inducing temporary euphoria. But all these are, at best, stop-gap measures. They fail to deal with the underlying problem. And sometimes they give rise to additional problems, which may well be worse than the original!


What To Do About Boredom

The antidote is simple to describe: it lies in active, gratifying pursuit of goals you value.

The first step involves discovering some objectives you want to achieve. It is a good idea to discover a few of such possible objectives; the variety will assure having healthy and meaningful alternatives.

The second step is to check out which of them you enjoy pursuing.

It is important that what we do, moment by moment and day by day, be rewarding in itself. That is the key to evading the pain and risks of boredom. Enjoying what we do, rather than what we possess or what we have achieved, is the key to being happy.

Whether or not your husband will attempt to employ these measures is a difficult question. He may not be willing to take the risks involved or to expend the energies required. The reasons for this discussion of boredom and its remedy are twofold: You may be able to suggest activities to your husband that will help him lift himself out of his doldrums. Failing that, the discussion provides you with a way of determining for yourself whether he is improving at all. If he is taking no action to alter his situation, then you can be pretty certain his abuse of drugs and alcohol will continue. That enables you to make better decisions for yourself. They may not be easy decisions, but they will be more informed decisions.


If you want more information on coping with a person who seems to use alcohol or drugs to excess, take a look at these earlier columns...

Is Someone You Love Hooked? #1 ...questions and answers on alcohol abuse.

Is Someone You Love Hooked? #2 ...what to do for yourself -- this column includes information about how to organize an intervention.

Is Someone You Love Hooked? #3 ...this column is about solo intervention.



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