The 4 Types of Drinkers

Al Heystek

September is National Recovery Month.

My work with male clients who have substance problems has taught me that there are basically 4 Relationships to Alcohol.
For the sake of discussion keep in mind that one drink is considered a 12 oz beer, 5 oz glass of wine, or a mixed drink with 1 ½ oz of liquor.


Relationships to Alcohol Coke1: An Abstainer (Low Risk)

First, there is an Abstainer, who doesn’t use alcohol at all – or drinks so rarely and in such small amounts that I would put them in this category.

I would put someone in this category if they have a glass of champagne on a special occasion, maybe once every 3-4 months.


Relationships to Alcohol Wine

2: A Social User (Low Risk)

Second, there is what I call a Social User. They regularly drink in small amounts – perhaps as much as 4-5 times a week, or as little as 1-2 times a month. Either way, the key is small amounts*.

After having 1-3 drinks, a social user usually draws a boundary and doesn’t have more.  They get a little tired, feel a bit out of control, or they have a buzz and say that’s enough. This is why the abstainer and social user categories are labeled “low risk.” These types rarely have problems related to alcohol.

An exception to this category is when a person regularly consumes 1-3 drinks on most nights to calm their anxieties in order to sleep.  This would be an example of using alcohol as a way of self-medicating which can be harmful.


Relationships to Alcohol Binge#3 A Binger (High Risk)

Next, there is a binger, or abuser of alcohol. These terms can be used interchangeably when referring to drinking in large amounts.  When someone drinks to excess, we generally understand that to mean they have abused alcohol, but as with the exception above, it’s possible to abuse alcohol (using as self-medication)  when using highly frequent small amounts. 

Binging or using large amounts of alcohol (experts say 4 or more drinks in one setting for a woman and 5 or more drinks in one setting for a man) is common in our culture and this type of drinking can contribute to social problems such as driving accidents. It is a common report of men I see in counseling to state they have had frequent episodes of drinking 6-12 drinks in one evening.

Usually this type of drinking (which I place in a “high risk” category) is done in a social context, but it is not small amounts. The low risk categories draw a boundary after a couple of drinks, whereas the high risk drinker doesn’t. After several drinks the high risk drinker doesn’t get tired, he gets energized.  He doesn’t feel he’s losing control, he says bring it on.  He doesn’t want to stay in the foothills of a slight buzz, he wants to scale the mountain.

A high risk drinker has a different biological and psychological experience from ingesting alcohol than the low risk drinker. It’s possible someone in the low risk groups on occasion will drink more, like a night of binging. So there could be crossover instances, but when talking about these 4 types, I refer to the pattern a person typically shows.


Relationships to Alcohol Beer4: Dependent (High Risk)

The fourth type of drinker is the person who is alcohol dependent. This type is high risk, in fact, the most high risk.

Alcohol dependence doesn’t necessarily mean the person needs alcohol on a daily basis, which can happen when someone is in the later stages of chronic alcoholism. Alcohol dependence usually means the person is consuming large amounts of alcohol and there are issues regarding loss of control.  

Guys say to me, “Well, I don’t really need it,” or, “ I don’t get drunk all the time.”  I respond that dependence is mostly about what happens when they do drink, not so much how often or how much they drink.

If they often drink more than they planned on and then have significant problems with the law, or work, or their health, or family life because of their drinking, they may be alcohol dependent. When guys are hesitant to accept this, I tell them I believe they are a high risk drinker. 

Relationships to Alcohol

It’s easy to tell the difference between low risk (Type 1: Abstainer and Type 2: Social User) and high risk (Types 3: Binger and Type 4: Dependent) because the main difference is the high risk drinkers consume much more alcohol than the low risk drinkers.

What’s not so easy to distinguish is the difference between the two high risk (Type 3: Binger and Type 4: Dependent). It’s not always clear whether a person is a binger or whether they are actually in the beginning stages of addiction, or alcohol dependence.

I tell these guys what is most important is that they recognize they are in the high risk category, because people who are high risk drinkers are much more likely to experience alcohol related social problems like DUIs, fights,  employment or health issues, and problems with domestic partners or children, including emotional or physical abuse.

For men seeking help with alcohol issues, the Men’s Resource Center at Fountain Hill offers both individual and group therapy, as well as assessments. I’d be happy to help with your next step. contact me…

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Al Heystek, MA, LPC, MDiv

Al is a Licensed Professional Counselor who has worked professionally with men’s issues since 1994. He has been a therapist with the Men’s Resource Center at Fountain Hill since 2002. Prior to that Al worked for OAR, Inc. in Holland, Michigan as a therapist in both outpatient and residential men’s chemical dependency programs. Al also worked for Gateway Foundation, an Outpatient Treatment center in Chicago and prior to that was on a ministerial team for 10 years in an urban ministry in Chicago.  Al is also an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.
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*small amounts
The notion of small amounts can be tricky. In comparison to men, women are more effected by the same amount of alcohol due to body chemistry and the fact that in general women have less body weight than men. 

Men who weigh between 160-180 pounds will tend to have a higher blood alcohol concentration than men who weigh between 200-220 pounds after consuming the same amount of alcohol over the same duration of time.  Men who possess a small, but easy to carry blood alcohol concentration wheel, are at an advantage because they can have a better idea about how their drinking is impacting their alcohol blood levels.

So depending on the person, “small amounts” conservatively ranges from about 1-3 drinks.

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