Can an Alcoholic be “Not a Regular Alcoholic?”

by John Doe
(Midwest USA)

I wonder about my step-father, who recently died of congestive heart failure. He was an alcoholic for years but in the last 10-15 years of his life he went from being a “public drunk” as people would call him, and severe alcoholic, to simply drinking a little more than one should in his house, but nothing in public. He was likely still a mild alcoholic, as he missed an important occasion once about 3 years ago because of his drinking. However, for the last 15 years of his life, he no longer caused any hurt and cut back on about 75% of his drinking, though never went dry. Numerous people stated how much better he was, even his son who hadn’t spoken to him in 10 years. They ended up being close for the final 10 years of his life.

While I know the man still had the disease of alcoholism, could it be that I can state that this man was no longer an alcoholic except mildly, or am I lying for him even after he died? I tended to say “oh it’s just a mild case” even when it was real bad. However, the last 10 to 15 years it really was just mild and he hadn’t been seen publicly drunk since 2001, he died in 2016.


Wow, it’s great to get such a history of what is going on for your step-father. It sounds like you still have a lot of questions about who and what he was. What I would ask next, if you were in front of me, is what happened that made you wonder about this recently? Sometimes we ruminate on things, and sometimes these thoughts just pop into our heads when the littlest thing happens. Think about that, and let me try to provide some guidance on your question.

From what you described, it sounds like your step-father struggled with drinking earlier in his life. While public intoxication is not necessarily a taboo, it is something that is generally frowned upon in society. In other words, a person doing that regularly is likely unable to control their drinking, otherwise social pressure would tell them to stop. I’m not sure what caused his desire to slow down, and I don’t know if you even know, but it seems like there was a powerful reason to motivate him to cut back.

A person with an addiction is considered by researchers, doctors, and therapists to have a chronic condition. This means that, like someone with diabetes, they will have to take care of this condition for the rest of their lives. It certainly doesn’t mean that they are always drunk! It does mean that they have to watch out for warning signs of relapse and be aware that taking a drink could cause them to spiral down again. If someone has an addiction and relapse, they will likely go right back to the level of use they had before they got sober. That’s what makes relapse so dangerous and addiction a chronic condition.

It seems like your step-father had his drinking under control to a point where it was manageable, and any pressure he felt to quit altogether was gone. He was able to still drink and maintain his life and felt no need to go all the way and commit to abstinence from alcohol.

What I recommend you call him is his name or any terms of endearment you have for him. He is still the same man he ever was. Addiction is a disease and it was one he seemed to struggle with. We don’t introduce people often as diabetic or have to come to terms with a relative with diabetes, so I encourage you to still think of him as a person first and remember he had the disease of addiction at times. You can think of levels of severity if you want, but to me, it seems like wasted thought. Remember who he was and celebrate his life first, then recall he had a problem with alcohol. I hope this helps.

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