That was the question. Before I stopped drinking, I spent a lot of time wondering whether or not I was an alcoholic. The thought cycle went a lot like this:
- I wonder if I’m an alcoholic.
- I should take the CAGE questionnaire:
- Have I ever felt I should CUT DOWN on my drinking? YES
- Have people ANNOYED me by criticizing my drinking? YES!
- Have I ever felt bad or GUILTY about my drinking? YES!!
- Have I ever had an EYE-OPENER (a drink first thing in the morning to steady my nerves or get rid of a hangover)? NO!!!!!!!!!!!!
- Clearly, I’m not an alcoholic.
Perhaps more clearly, the CAGE questionnaire leaves much to be desired for those asking honest questions about their drinking. And most clearly, this is why I returned to the CAGE so many times when I wasn’t really ready to do anything about these nagging questions.
A lot of people subscribe to the idea that alcoholism is a progressive disease: you either are an alcoholic or you’re not and if you are, the disease will inevitably progress. I never could locate myself in either of these two columns. For years, what kept me from really changing my drinking behavior was that I existed in some sort of gray area between the only two categories I thought existed.
Over the years, I tried to cut back. I vowed to only drink on the weekends, to stop drinking at home or when alone, to stick to beer and wine and give up hard liquor. At times I was successful in abstaining, like the times I did the South Beach diet, which calls for no alcohol for the first two weeks. But once the dry spell was over, I found my drinking habits swing to the other extreme much like the famed pendulum.
What ultimately allowed me to stop drinking was deciding it didn’t matter whether or not I was an alcoholic and certainly not whether I ever answered that fourth question in the positive. What mattered was making the choice to make a change and see how it went.