The Hidden Signs of Alcoholism
The majority of people are probably familiar with the obvious signs and symptoms that a person exhibits when they are drinking excessively and have been diagnosed as being physically dependent on alcohol.
But what about the hidden signs of alcoholism? There are probably a countless number of people who are well on their way to becoming physically dependent on alcohol or at least in the early stages of this unfortunate pathway.
Identifying an accurate number is virtually impossible, particularly as many people aren’t exactly forthcoming about their true drinking habits.
According to a 2019 YouGov survey 25% of British people have lied about how much they have drunk, mainly to their doctor (5)
What signs should people watch out for as clues that may indicate that a person they know and care about is consuming alcohol at high levels and in danger of becoming physically and mentally unhealthy?
Remember no one becomes alcohol dependent overnight! Alcoholism progresses slowly over a period of time, some people progress quicker than others, some people spiral out of control quickly whereas others can control their behaviour to a degree until it becomes unmanageable.
The earlier people receive help the better the health outcomes for them.
So what signs and symptoms are associated with people who are alcohol dependent?
Below, we list some of the often hidden signs of alcoholism:
1. Having a Job Where Socialising is Important
It’s possible that people who develop alcoholism may work in a job that requires a lot of socialising, they may regularly be attending networking events where alcohol seems to be present.
If this happens often then it is easy for them to brush off their heavy drinking as part of the duties associated with their role.
They can easily hide their drinking behaviour if the culture surrounding their job is in the habit of normalising drinking and views it as part of the job role whether socialising or entertaining clients or part of team bonding activities.
However, anyone in the habit of turning up to an event having already been drinking alcohol could be vulnerable to becoming physically dependent.
2. Devious Behaviour
People in the grip of alcoholism become totally absorbed in their daily quest to consume alcohol, it becomes their primary motivational need, although the shame and guilt they feel will lead them to disguise the fact that they drink alcohol as regularly as they do.
They become very skilled at hiding their behaviour and are quite ingenious in the strategies that they use to maintain their secret life.
They may become expert liars, particularly surrounding their drink-related behaviour, such as the time they arrived home, how many drinks they had and the nature of the evening out.
For example, they may claim they went to a restaurant and consumed some alcohol with a meal rather than to a pub to specifically drink alcohol.
They will also attend events with which alcohol has a strong association but is not the main focus, such examples include sporting events and music festivals.
This again enables them to hide their excessive alcohol consumption behind the event as this appears to be the main reason for attending.
3. Secret Drinking
Many dependent drinkers tend to drink alcohol in isolation, whether in bars or at home, particularly if they are unable to find anyone to drink with them regularly.
It’s cheaper to drink at home rather than in pubs or bars so they may avoid socialising in order to hide the true extent of their drinking from friends and work colleagues.
They may therefore possess a lot of alcohol at home, which may be hidden in various places or disguised in other containers, for example storing vodka in what may appear as bottles of water or whisky in hip flasks or opaque containers.
They may also mix alcohol with other drinks, such as coke or orange juice to disguise its presence. (3)
They have enough awareness to know their breath smells of alcohol so they may disguise this with mints and chewing gum.
As well as alcohol being hidden around the house there may be evidence of a lot of alcohol bottles and cans frequently left out in their waste collection.
4. Decrease in Mental Abilities
It is strikingly clear that regularly drinking large amounts of alcohol over a period of time significantly decreases a wide range of a person’s mental abilities.
Efficient mental functioning involves attention, concentration, decision making, short and long term memory, judgement, reasoning, demonstrating self-control and being able to learn new skills (2, 3)
People will find their potential to show these mental abilities will sharply decrease if their drinking becomes out of control.
They will slowly over a period of time lose the ability to pay attention for as long as they previously did and will be unable to concentrate on tasks that require precision and attention to detail for a sustained period of time.
Their ability to retain information will also become poor meaning they can appear forgetful and they also will find it harder to learn new information
They may also struggle to read social situations and start to behave in inappropriate ways or say things that aren’t suitable in a particular context due to poor judgement and an impulsive nature as alcohol has reduced their capacity for self-control. (2,3)
This decline in their cognitive abilities can affect many areas of their lives, including their performance at work and there may be a change in their personality as alcohol becomes the dominant focus in their lives.
5. A Decline in Productivity at Work
The main area of their lives where any decrease in their cognitive functioning may show up is at work, particularly if their job involves high levels of thinking, analysis, decision making, concentration and attention.
There are not many jobs that do not require people to demonstrate cognitive competence, whether it is the intricate skills needed to be a surgeon or the concentration, perception and decision making abilities of a taxi driver.
Any person in any job is vulnerable to seeing their work standards drop if they become heavy drinkers and this may become noticeable to those around them.
Negative consequences could include regular admin errors, minor and serious accidents, forgetting about work meetings and being slower than they previously were in learning how to use new systems and procedures.
Work colleagues may notice their decision-making abilities are not what they use to be and such poor judgement can become a financial burden to the company they work for.
A decline in a person`s decision making and reasoning abilities is a definite sign that something has changed and if there is no other clear explanation then it could be down to excessive alcohol consumption.
6. Debt/borrowing money
Drinking a lot of alcohol is a very expensive habit and it isn’t only people with plenty of money that develop this habit. Unemployed people, those on a low income and retired people are all vulnerable to falling into a routine of heavy drinking.
If someone is asking to borrow money or is regularly taking out loans or unable to meet their financial commitments then there is a good chance that they are spending their money on something else such as alcohol. (6a)
If people become more dependent on alcohol they lose the ability to plan their finances as their capability to make good decisions and show sound judgement has decreased.(6a)
7. Legal Issues
Similarly, people who regularly consume large amounts of alcohol tend to get into trouble by breaking the law because of the way alcohol affects their behaviour. Alcohol tends to lessen our inhibitions and make us more prone to act impulsively as well as affect our judgement.
This can lead to heavy drinkers finding it harder to exercise greater control over their behaviour when the need arises which can lead to them being arrested or facing legal proceedings. (6a)
Their poor decision making and judgement can lead to them driving a vehicle whilst their alcohol levels are over the legal limit and their impulsivity and lack of control can lead to them becoming involved in aggressive acts where they end up either harming themselves or others.
8. Attitude towards People
It has been stated that many people who develop a problem with their drinking are narcissists and have an inflated opinion of themselves accompanied by a sense of entitlement and arrogant nature. (6)
They tend to display a lack of empathy towards other people with who they interact and have been known to manipulate other people for their own self-gain. They can also be jealous of other people who have attained some level of success and possess things that they would like.
9. Unreasonable Resentments
This jealousy can easily lead to resentments and it has been acknowledged by the AA movement (1) that many individuals who suffer from alcoholism do tend to have resentments that may appear extreme or unreasonable.
It is a common trait for people in the grips of alcoholism to blame other people for the unfortunate situation they find themselves in and find it difficult to take personal responsibility for their predicament. (6)
10. Relationship Patterns
Research has indicated that people who become dependent on alcohol have a history of relationship problems due to their unhealthy drinking habits, many have been married and/or divorced several times.
It is claimed that over 50 % and as much as 70% of divorces occur because of the unpleasant fall out from excessive drinking. (6)
Heavy alcohol use leads to financial problems and in many cases violence and unreasonable behaviour which can all lead to discord in relationships. T
here are of course many other reasons why relationships fail but alcohol misuse is unmistakeably a huge risk factor. (6)
Other Behavioural Clues
There are personality changes noticeable when someone is developing a dependency on alcohol, for example, someone who is regularly very sociable may withdraw from their usual social life.
They may find it difficult to hold down a job and/or change jobs frequently, this could occur if they feel they are unable to meet the requirements of the job anymore, particularly if their work involves them being monitored and supervised frequently.
Their behaviour could become more emotional as they will find it difficult to control angry outbursts at any perceived unfairness, or because of the pressure they are under, this is because of a lack of ability to restrain such displays of emotion. (4)
They could become hostile and start acting vindictively towards people, particularly if experiencing withdrawal symptoms
Smoking is an important clue to help detect alcoholism, a strong association has been found between smoking and heavy drinking with some research (6) stating that up to 90% of all people with an alcohol dependency are heavy smokers.
1. Mood / Emotion
Heavy drinking also contributes to a low mood, you may notice people are agitated or irritable more often at more trivial things than they previously were.
It is natural to be irritable at times as really stressful events do happen but alcohol depletes people’s ability to tolerate frustration so they will become increasingly more irritated by smaller things.
This could be made worse by the lack of sleep or in extreme cases insomnia that people who drink heavily experience (5).
Alcohol disrupts sleep which is essential for our mental well being as it replenishes the energy we require to help us tackle all the mental challenges we face the following day. (8)
Heavy drinking can also lead to the development of mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, if a person experiences depression and anxiety already then consuming a lot of alcohol regularly will exacerbate these conditions. (2, 3)
They are also more likely to experience blackouts because of their tendency to drink a lot of alcohol.
2. Further Physical Problems
People who drink alcohol heavily can develop an alcohol use disorder, Delirium Tremens is an example of such a disorder and can affect people’s perception.
People with such a disorder may experience symptoms such as tactile sensations (e.g. feeling something crawling on your skin) and auditory hallucinations (hearing sounds that are not there). (2)
Their bodies will also be more vulnerable to infections as high levels of alcohol can damage the efficiency of the immune system.
They will also be vulnerable to developing metabolic and gut disorders and their liver is at risk of developing cirrhosis. (2)
There are some clues available to spot if someone has developed an alcohol dependency, if they are experiencing withdrawal symptoms for example then it is likely they will exhibit the following signs:
- They may be tired and/or irritable
- They may be eating less or lost their appetite
- They may be experiencing headaches more often
- It is possible they may be sweating a lot more previously
- Those around them may notice that they have developed hand tremors
- They are taking more time off work due to illness because the large amounts of alcohol they have consumed have reduced the efficiency of their immune system
(1) Alcoholics Anonymous (Fourth edition) (2001) Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered From Alcoholism. AA World Services Inc. New York
(2) Kahan, M. (2014) Physical Effects of Alcohol and Other Drugs. In Herie, M. & Skinner, W. (ed) Fundamentals of Addiction: A Practical Guide for Counsellors. CAMH. Canada
(3) Mack, A.H., Harrington, A.L. & Frances, R.J. (2010) Clinical Manual for Treatment of Alcoholism and Addictions. APP. London
(4) Moss, A, Dyer, K (2010) The Psychology of Addictive Behaviour. Palgrave McMillan. New York
(5) National Health Service (2021) Alcohol Misuse available @ Alcohol misuse – NHS (www.nhs.uk)
(6) Thorburn, D. (2004) How to Spot Hidden Alcoholics: Using Behavioural Clues to Recognise Addiction in its Early stages. Galt publishing
(6a) Tsanos., A. 92014) Concurrent Disorders in In Herie, M. & Skinner, W. (ed) Fundamentals of Addiction: A Practical Guide for Counsellors. CAMH. Canada
(7) Waldersee, V. (2019) Brits More Likely to Lie About Alcohol to GP
(8) Walker, M. P.hD, (2017) Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams. Scribiner. London