In honor of National Recovery Month, I’d like to put forward a discussion of the 4 Types of Drinkers. My work with male clients who have substance problems has taught me that there are basically 4 Relationships to Alcohol.

(For purposes of this discussion, keep in mind that one drink is considered a 12-oz beer, a 5-oz glass of wine, or a mixed drink with 1 1/2 oz of liquor.)

Relationships to Alcohol Coke1: An Abstainer (Low Risk)

First, there is an Abstainer, someone 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 like an anniversary dinner, baptism, or wedding, 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. Social Users 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 noted above, it’s possible to abuse alcohol (using as self-medication) when using highly frequent small amounts.

Binging, or using large amounts of alcohol (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. Men I see in counseling commonly report 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 not done in 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—for instance, during one night of binging. So there could be crossover instances. However, 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 highest risk.

Being dependent on alcohol doesn’t necessarily mean a person needs alcohol on a daily basis. (Though this can happen in the later stages of chronic alcoholism.) What dependence means is that a person is consuming large amounts of alcohol and having 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 drink, not so much about how often or how much they drink.

When someone often drinks more than they planned on and then has significant problems with the law or work or their health or family life because of their drinking, they may be alcohol dependent. When guys I work with 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 drinkers (Type 1: Abstainer and Type 2: Social User) and high risk drinkers (Type 3: Binger and Type 4: Dependent), because high risk drinkers consume much more alcohol than low risk drinkers.

What’s not so easy to distinguish is the difference between the two types of high risk drinker (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 the guys I work with that 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. Contact me if you think you’d like some help taking your next step.

*small amounts

The notion of small amounts can be tricky. In general, women are more affected than men by the same amount of alcohol due to differences in body chemistry and the fact that, on average, women have less body weight. 

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 carry a blood alcohol concentration wheel in their pockets are at an advantage, because they can have a better idea about how their drinking is impacting their blood alcohol levels.

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

Al Heystek, MA, LPC, MDiv
Al is a Licensed Professional Counselor who works primarily with men on men’s issues. He began offering specialized treatment services to men in 1994 and has been a therapist with the Men’s Resource Center at Fountain Hill since 2002.

Prior to joining Fountain Hill, Al worked for OAR, Inc. in Holland, MI, as a therapist in both outpatient and residential men’s chemical dependency programs. Before his time at OAR, Inc, Al worked for Gateway Foundation, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Chicago. Al also served for over 10 years on a ministerial team engaged in urban ministry during his time in Chicago. Al remains an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. Click her to learn more…