How do I know if I’m an alcoholic…??

This is the third part by Lyle Prouse

This is offered for what it’s worth although it’s longer than I intended. I offer it based on decades of studies and research, all of which is available for your objective assessment. You may accept this, reject it, pooh-pooh it, or whatever. It’s what I’ve learned in about 21 years of being sober and working in the field of alcoholism/addiction. It’s also very personal.

One definition of alcoholism is “When one continues to drink in the face of adverse or even lethal consequences.” The simplest one (I think) is: “If one experiences problems due to alcohol and continues to drink.” Problems can be relationships (husband/wife, family, friends, coworkers, etc.), legal problems (DUIs (driving under the influence), jail, lawsuits, etc.), employment (excessive absenteeism, poor or declining performance…), financial, health issues due to booze, and many others.

If one cannot stop drinking – and stay stopped – it’s a good indication of a problem. I quit many times, sometimes for a month, two (usually before an FAA physical), or whatever, but I never intended to stop permanently. I was convinced that my ability to stop for a month or more was positive proof I could NOT be an alcoholic. And I was dead wrong.

Statistics can tell you anything if they’re tortured enough, but the following is considered both true and accurate. In the U.S., 7 out of every 10 people drink. Of the 7 who drink, only 2 are genuinely “social drinkers,” although we all claim to be. A social drinker is a person who could care less if they finish their drink and only have a drink to “be social.” I always thought an unfinished drink was an example of alcohol abuse.

The remaining 5 will abuse alcohol to some degree, some more than others (driving home drunk from a bar), over-indulging from time to time, etc. Of those 5, 1 will become alcoholic, so there’s a 10% overall alcoholism factor in the general population. I am aware that some ethnic groups are different.

Most abusers eventually slow down as they age and time takes its toll; that has certainly been true among my friends over the years. But while they were slowing down, my tolerance was still rapidly increasing. In the midst of abusers it’s difficult to pick the alcoholic out of the crowd, especially since alcoholism is a long process and not a sudden event. All alcoholics first use alcohol, then abuse it, and eventually slide into alcoholism, and there is an early, middle, and late stage to the disease marked by certain symptoms along the way. Most of us visualize alcoholics in the late stage (drunks in doorways, alleys, drinking out of brown paper bags, etc.) and we’re blind to those in the early and middle stages.

Ironically, I learned that 95% of all alcoholics are upper income over-achievers, and that only 5% fit the picture I had. None of my initial beliefs or ideas was accurate.

Two of the most significant symptoms for me were preoccupation and loss of control, or predictability. And they were both extremely subtle. I knew where most of the liquor stores or bars were on most of my layovers. I knew which liquor stores were open on Sunday, which closed early at night, and when I needed to carry my own booze. I attached no significance to this, however, as I just considered it “good planning.” Checking my booze supply at home to make sure I had plenty, selecting restaurants that had liquor licenses so I could have drinks with/after my meal were only two examples of my preoccupation with alcohol.

I was never a morning drinker nor did I check my watch for the 5 o’clock “cocktail hour”. My drinking patterns varied and I did not always drink every night or every weekend. I did not beat or abuse my wife and kids. I didn’t do a LOT of things I was convinced all alcoholics did…but I also operated from a base of zero actual knowledge about it. Like many pilots, I assumed my ideas and opinions constituted knowledge and facts.

One strong symptom is loss of control, or more accurately, loss of predictability. Many years ago, it was no problem for me to “stop for a couple,” have them, and go on my way. Later, I would stop “for just two,” and I might have them and head home – or I might stay and close the bar, stay longer than I intended at a friend’s and drink, and call home to say I’d miss dinner. More and more and ever so slowly, my intentions failed to match my actions…after I’d had that first drink. Of course, there were times I fully intended to make an evening of it, but that’s not what this is about.

I learned later that it’s not the 10th drink that causes me to get drunk – it’s the first one that triggers the so-called “phenomenon of craving,” or loss of predictability. After that first drink I can no longer accurately or consistently predict what I’m going to do.

I am an alcoholic. I metabolize alcohol different than you but will not go into that here. I also have the usual (but not always) close, genetic predisposition since both my parents died of this disease. The genetics can skip generations but the connection is very parallel to that of diabetics and just as deadly. If one parent is alcoholic, the child is 4 times more likely to develop the disease. With both parents alcoholic, the risks increase exponentially, not linearly.

There is no shame in being a recovering alcoholic; there is only shame in continuing to drink. I’m not a victim of anything because I’ve taken action to recover and I refuse to be a victim. No one I ever knew intentionally set out to become an alkie…anymore than any smoker I ever knew did so with the intention of dying from lung or other cancer (I’ve never smoked).

One gent sent me a message saying, “Alcoholism is a self-inflicted disease.” I responded by saying I’d heard that before and believed that idea was supported by the need to feel superior, much as I could point to someone obese and feel the same way – if I chose. Most things that come our way due to poor choices and bad behavior are “self-inflicted”; and that includes many things we visit upon ourselves due to poor lifestyle choices, which often includes the top killer diseases of heart disease, cancer, and stroke. But none of us use the “self inflicted” comment for those situations.

Some will undoubtedly choose to take issue with this, I’m sure. If you do, how about using facts versus injecting opinion and visceral reaction. Having been a pilot since 1961 I’m familiar with the propensity of pilots to be authorities on things we know nothing about – and I include myself in that group…although I’ve done much to try to change that.

Read the fourth part: “Recovering…or recovered. Does it make any difference?”   

You can read the complete account of Lyle Prouse’ autobiographical account of his tryst with law and his redemption against alcoholism in his book,Final Approach“,  by ordering the book online at


Permission of Captain Lyle Prouse to use his posts on an aviation forum for the purpose of this blog is gratefully acknowledged.

Grateful thanks to Brian Abraham for introducing me to the story of Lyle Prouse, and to Rob, Forum Administrator, for consenting to use the material on their forum for the larger public good for information and knowledge dissemination.

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