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The Social Drinkers, Dry Drunks & Sober Alcoholics

Last Updated: Tue, January 23, 2024

The social drinkers, problem drinkers, high-functioning alcoholics, dry drunks, and sober alcoholics. What are the differences? For a close look, you can use these terms to identify a tiered system of drinking patterns and behaviors.

Social Drinkers

Social drinkers are people who exhibit low-risk patterns. What this means is, they may drink heavily at a social gatherings, but that's also the only time they're drinking. How social drinkers behave when they're drinking is not a determining factor, it's their rate of consumption and frequency. If someone is drinking heavily and frequenting social events as an excuse, then that would put them in another category altogether.

Problem Drinkers

"Problem drinkers" is a term that reflects a very specific demographic. It's typically someone who exhibits the drinking patterns of an alcoholic, but they can still recognize the consequences of their actions. For instance, they may drink heavily and frequently, but they can recognize the consequences of their actions if it lands them in a hospital.

Problem drinkers are almost always people who have been drinking for several years (3-4) and it's most common in college-aged people. College students who are drinking heavily and frequently during the week may appear to be alcoholics in their behavior, but typically, when this time frame ends or a negative consequence occurs, they cut back or stop completely.

High-Functioning Alcoholics

Does exist. Most people suffering from Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) are likely to have been a high-functioning alcoholic at one point. "High-functioning" meaning no discernible or public consequences have occurred (yet). This means they're able to hold a job, maintain relationships, and continue their drinking patterns.

A big component of long-time drinkers is that alcohol suppresses excitatory neurotransmitters. What this means is, the brain ends up working much harder to produce these neurotransmitters so that it can maintain a normal level of brain function. As a result, the brain is working twice as hard to operate at the same level it has been without alcohol.

All this said, a high-functioning alcoholic is typically a period of time. For most people suffering AUD, it's only a matter of time before they're unable to hold a job and lose relationships due to their drinking behavior.

Dry Drunks

A dry drunk is someone who decides to get sober by going "cold turkey." This is someone who quits drinking without the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, rehab centers, nurses or friends. Many people also refer to a dry drunk as someone is "white knuckling" their way to recovery.

In Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), "dry drunk" is often used to refer to someone in the "pink cloud".

Pink Cloud

The "pink cloud" is a term used in AA to describe someone who is recently sober and seeing recovery through rose-tinted goggles. This is someone early in their recovery from alcohol, who are only seeing benefits. Those that get through this phase, move on to being "sober alcoholics" but it's all too common to see people relapse when recovery stops being easy.

Sober Alcoholics

A sober alcoholic is someone who has been sober long enough to not be suffering from withdrawal symptoms or cravings. For lack of a better term, it's someone who has their addiction "under control." For many people, they reach this point in their recovery after a year.

Key Differences Between Casual Drinkers & Alcoholics

A key factor in identifying the difference between casual drinkers (social drinkers and even problems drinkers) and alcoholics is the recognition of negative consequences. If someone with risky drinking behavior is able to understand and change their drinking due to a negative consequence, then they are likely not an alcoholic.

People suffering from Alcohol Use Disorder do not change their behavior even if they're fired, wind up in the hospital, or suddenly become a parent. They do not see a problem with their drinking, so they continue to pursue it.

The "drinking behavior" is especially important to note because many alcoholics will admit to having a problem and promising to quit or change, but do not. If you are a friend, family member or concerned party to someone who may be suffering from Alcohol Use Disorder, confronting someone about their drinking habits is one part of the process. The next is monitoring their behavior and drinking habits to see if it has changed. If it hasn't, that's indicative of someone suffering from AUD.

Difference Between Being Sober & Staying Sober

The steps to get sober are very different from the steps to staying sober. Ultimately, it's the equivalent of asking someone if "they're sober" or "are they in recovery". Being sober can mean you've been sober for 6 hours or that the addiction has been substituted from alcohol to food. Being sober isn't easy, but it's a broad definition. Being in recovery however means that the addiction is -- for lack of a better word -- in remission. People who are no longer plagued by cravings or are locked in a hamster wheel of though thinking about their drug of choice; essentially, people who have found an emotional peace with their disorder and are no longer struggling day after day to maintain their sobriety. Being in recovery in many ways means just that, being at peace.

Alcohol Use Disorder cannot be cured but it can be managed. It's a long road to recovery, but far from impossible.

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