Bingers vs. Habituals: Spin the Bottle

By Paul Staley 09/12/14

The binger knows that alcohol gets you loaded and they make sure that happens. The habitual on the other hand sees alcohol as the solution to problems for which there are a host of other remedies.


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In general there are two types of drinkers who show up at our meetings: habituals, those who drink daily, and bingers, those who have episodic bouts of over-consumption. There is obviously a third category, habitual bingers, but the few who have ever classified themselves as such have never been consistent about attending and the literature suggests that such continuous heavy consumption usually predicts that moderation will not be a successful remedy for their drinking problem.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) three-quarters of the 38 million Americans who are drinking more than moderately are binge drinkers. Our sample size in terms of attendance at our meetings in the Bay Area indicates a more even split. But that may say more about differences in how these two types self-diagnose their drinking problems than it does about people in this region. Habitual drinkers may see their problem–because it is a daily phenomenon–as more chronic, while the binge drinker may see his issue as essentially episodic and therefore less critical. Many habitual drinkers already exercise a certain amount of restraint–they aren’t having blackouts, they’re just not having days off–and so a formal program of moderation becomes an extension of a natural tendency to keep things in check.

I find the differences between habituals and bingers to be particularly interesting and so a certain amount of this blog ends up being dedicated to exploring those. I don’t think there’s one type that has a better chance at succeeding at moderation. In a sense each already has half the formula for success – bingers take days off and habituals stop before the numbers get too high. The challenge is mastering the other half. But success does depend on understanding how tactics and plans will differ between the two. And that understanding begins with recognizing that they are starting from different places.

First off, the biggest difference between the two is that while bingers have a realistic appreciation for what alcohol can do, habituals are a bit more confused. The binger knows that alcohol gets you loaded and they make sure that happens. The habitual on the other hand sees alcohol as the solution to problems for which there are a host of other remedies. The habitual sees alcohol as providing something he or she needs: solace, diversion, reward. Yes, it’s true that drink can do all that but that is not what drink is. It’s a drug. A drink can comfort but it is not love. A drink can alleviate loneliness but it is not a companion. We get in trouble when we expect a drink to be something it isn’t.

The problem with using alcohol to satisfy our needs and wants is that those are things we experience everyday and as a result we find ourselves wanting to drink every day. The habitual drinker uses alcohol when there are so many substitutes. The world is full of ways to reward or comfort yourself. A run, a walk, a workout can relieve stress. A few moments of meditation can relax you. Water can quench your thirst. And who doesn’t like a special dessert?

At the risk of great generalization, the habitual drinker is looking to fill a void: restlessness, boredom, loneliness. A dose of alcohol every day is a defense against something. Looking back I can see how I drank in part to combat loneliness. But the obvious irony is that drinking, by substituting for companionship, only reinforced my solitude. As a friend of mine I call Mr. Aphorism has said, “We get old too fast and smart too slow,” and so it has taken me a while to realize that things I am drawn to because I think they will complete me, or make up for something I lack, are really the things I should avoid.

But it is the old game of spin the bottle that offers a final illustration of the difference between these two drinkers. The habitual drinker spins the bottle and it ends up pointing right at her: drinking is a way to take care of herself. The binger spins and the bottle points away; drinking starts as a way of calming social anxiety or simply as a way of joining the party. It has to do with how you interact with others, not so much yourself. The binge drinker is calming his social anxiety, or searching once again for the surge of buoyant camaraderie. The idea is to get out of your skin, to connect with others and leave behind the day-to-day.

So having made a big deal about the differences between these two types of drinkers, let me change course and suggest some similarities. Each has a little bit of the other in them. A lot of habituals (and I was one of these) have fairly regular sessions that are well above the consumption guidelines for moderate drinking. For all that well-developed tolerance there are still plenty of lousy mornings after. There is also an indulgent binging flavor to the habitual drinking style: you can’t say no to yourself, and so you stubbornly, unconsciously forge ahead with the same behavior. And for some bingers, there is an habitual element to their over-consumption. They keep doing it, whether it’s on a particular night, or at a particular bar or under a specific set of circumstances. The binge becomes the habitual way of handling that situation. A lot of bingers will talk about having ‘one way of drinking’, i.e. going all out, and doesn’t that sound pretty habitual?

But there are also things that each can learn from the other. When we reject the label of abject sinner and look not for redemption but instead for practical responses to our drinking issues, we open the door to a lot of things, not the least of which is the possibility that we can learn from each other. At a minimum the habitual and the binger can look at each other and see that a different mode of drinking is possible. Each is obviously problematic, but each also illustrates that a very different relationship with alcohol is not only possible, but apparently pretty easy with which to become accustomed.

For example, the habitual drinker becomes one by learning how to hold their liquor and control their intake to a certain degree. Unless you have a very serious alcohol problem you can’t possibly drink day in and day out without learning how to stop at some point. Thus the binger can look at the habitual and realize that there are ways to enjoy drinking that don’t involve taking it well beyond the limit. You can drink for the buzz, but not to get blasted. You can see that it is possible to develop an internal thermostat, that let’s you know when you’ve had enough.

And on the other hand, the habitual can learn from the binger that it is possible to say “no” and that your next drink doesn’t have to be today. For all the problems that befall them because they can’t regulate their consumption once they start, bingers have retained the sense that drinking is something special. It is part of the ‘night out’ or the celebratory occasion with friends and not a daily dosage.

There is unfortunately a bit more of the inspirational, and somewhat less of the instructional, to these lessons. You can see that a very different relationship to alcohol is possible, but you don’t necessarily learn how to be that way. After all, we have each developed our chronic patterns through that interplay of genetics and environment that has made us who we are. It’s well above my pay grade to parse the differences between nature and nurture on this, or any other, personal issue. But it does seem obvious that we drink the way we do because of the way we are. The habitual drinker may be that way simply because he is, for example, more cautious and fearful of consequences. Drinking in daily but limited amounts helps keep his fears and anxiety at bay. The binge drinker, on the other hand, has not necessarily developed a better aptitude for delayed gratification; he just doesn’t go in for daily routine in the same way, and doesn’t worry so much about what tomorrow may bring.

By talking to other drinkers we learn that there are different ways to be a drinker, but at the same time we come to realize that changing requires that we confront some of the most hard-wired aspects of our personality. That’s what makes moderation so challenging at times, and that’s what makes it feel like such an accomplishment when it works.

Paul Staley is the facilitator of the San Francisco and Oakland Moderation Management meetings. He is a graduate of Harvard College and the Goldman School of Public Policy, UC Berkeley. He lives in San Francisco and his blog is The Moderation Manifesto.

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