Shortly we will look at the 3 categories of drinkers mentioned, but there is also a fourth which deserves mention, the people who are abstinent. In my years as an addictions therapist, I have not had anyone sway me from my convictions that if you don't want problems with alcohol, don't drink at all. Being a realist, I know that doesn't work for everyone so it is important to keep alert for potential problems.
The Social Drinker:
A social drinker drinks occasionally, and when they do there are no problems or negative consequences. There are no real surprises as a result of having a drink. When they drink there are no complaints about behavior from friends and family. As an example there are no fights, nor extreme emotional mood swings.
A social drinker does not think about drinking often, it does not occupy their thoughts. Lastly, there is no loss of control or need to set limits when drinking; it just doesn't get that far.
The Alcohol Abuser:
An alcohol abuser is someone who has episodes of going to far with drinking; it can be frequent or just occasionally. This might be drinking when it could be physically hazardous, such as driving, or ending up in dangerous areas. A DUI is a common marker of alcohol abuse. The alcohol abuser starts to let obligations at work and home start to slip.
Drinking creeps in and occupies more and more thoughts and drinking is needed for its effect. At this point the drinkers' family and friends start to complain, but it is dealt with. Now there is a need to set limits on drinking, but they can be maintained. We have upped the ante from a social drinker, but at this point things are not always out of control.
Alcohol Addiction or the Alcoholic:
One aspect that is confusing for many is that alcohol addiction is not dependent on quantity or frequency of alcohol consumed. For example someone who drinks daily may or may not be addicted. Drinking 12 beers vs. 2 beers is not a necessarily a criteria for addiction. People with addiction generally show an inability to control or set limits and keep them. Drinking is occurring in larger amounts and taking up more time. Increasing tolerance for alcohol is an indicator, as well as having withdrawal effects when drinking stops.
At his point the drinker may want to stop or has tried to but not been successful. They continue to drink despite the problems and negative consequences that keep occurring. An example would be repeated DUI's or drinking when the doctor says it is hurting ones health. Important activities and roles are given up; the drinking becomes more important than family. Alcoholism is a disease of isolation, in order to keep drinking the user will push family and friends away. The sneaky thing about this phase is that it is characterized by denial. The drinker cannot honestly see that the problems occurring are a result of drinking.
And that will hopefully help clear up some differences in drinking behaviors. If you or someone you care about be be moving along the course of drinking outlined there is more information hand help available.