'I'm an Addiction Expert. These Are 3 Signs You Have an Alcohol Problem'

I had a problem with alcohol and substance addiction 25 years ago and ended up receiving treatment. My life has changed dramatically since then. A few years down the line, I decided I would like to help other people, so I went through training and now I have been an addiction counselor for more than 20 years.

People come to me with all kinds of addictions: substances, alcohol, drugs and prescribed medication, but also behavioral addictions, such as gambling, sex and shopping addiction.

In my private practice, I conduct talking therapies. In my role as senior treatment consultant and head of treatment at the UK Addiction Treatment Center (UKAT), people usually come in for talking therapies and also some kind of medical assistance, like detoxing.

I've seen people transform their lives. It's what keeps me going. It's amazing the changes that people can make should they allow themselves to follow suggestions, overcome fears, risk new things and trust the process. I've seen people who were feeling suicidal and hopeless who, today, have a family and are helping other people. It's amazing.

Nuno Albuquerque, Addiction Expert
Nuno Albuquerque is Treatment Lead for the UK Addiction Treatment Group. Albuquerque has been an addiction counselor for over 20 years. UK Addiction Treatment Group

But there are a lot of people that end up not getting that recovery—they might struggle to engage, or relapse. The biggest challenge of my job is feeling powerless, and not being able to help someone. When I find out that someone has passed away because of a drugs or alcohol-related incident, it is very difficult to process and overcome.

People don't get addicted overnight. There is a build-up. The following are the warning signs that I have witnessed, that could indicate that someone has a problem with alcohol.

1. Trying to control consumption

I have very few clients that go into residential treatment straightaway because they feel like they have a problem. Normally there are attempts to control or stop their drinking first.

If you attempt to control your drinking, that implies to me that there is already a problem. When you say to yourself, "Tonight, I'll only have three drinks," and that becomes a theme, almost every night, that implies there's a worry and you see your drinking as something you need to start observing a bit closer.

I've currently got a client who is in her twenties, and she is trying to control her drinking. She felt that she drank too much and was struggling to keep to drinking just a few drinks in a typical night.

She created a five-item plan, including to not drink more than three drinks, and not drink shots, among other things. She feels it helps her to control her alcohol intake, and my role is to keep her accountable.

My suggestion is that people need to speak with someone even if they are trying to control their drinking, as this could indicate that they have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.

Illustration of Alcoholic Woman in Bottle
Illustration of an unhappy woman sitting in a bottle, signifying a problem with alcohol. In this essay, Nuno Albuquerque shares the warning signs of alcohol dependency that he sees in his job. iStock / Getty Images Plus

2. Missing your targets

The loss of control is the other side of the coin. So we try to control our drinking and just have three drinks, for instance, and then we end up having six or 10. This also suggests an unhealthy relationship with the substance.

I currently know a chap who drinks once a week—every Thursday night. That might not seem like a problem, but when he went to see a psychiatrist and was told not to drink for four weeks because of the medication he was put on, he wasn't able to do so. He could go one or two weeks without drinking, but he couldn't manage four weeks. And that brought him a lot of shame, so he would not come into therapy because he was ashamed to talk about the drinking, which would lead to him drinking more.

When someone has an eating disorder or a sex addiction, we recommend they have a more balanced relationship with food or with sex, as opposed to giving either up. But when we are talking about alcohol and street drugs, people can stop. If you ask someone to stop drinking for a month and they cannot do so, they might already have a problem with their substance intake.

3. Disruption of work or family life

It's not necessarily about how often you drink—it's about your relationship with alcohol. Someone might drink a glass of wine every night and feel it's not a problem: they've never attempted to control their drinking, never had blackouts, and there are no negative consequences on their life.

But when there are consequences—relationships have broken down, your professional life is suffering,there are financial or health implications—and a person is not able to stop drinking, at that moment I would say they are addicted.

I had a client in his early 50s who tried to control his drinking with periods of abstinence. His wife trusted that he was doing his best and was not going to drink again, but he kept relapsing. She was frustrated and disappointed, so she decided to leave. That trust was broken.

In that particular case, his partner came back. But their relationship is still very fragile. Trust is so easy to lose but very difficult to repair.

Nuno Albuquerque is the Treatment Lead for the UK Addiction Treatment Group.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Newsweek's My Turn section deputy editor, Katie Russell.