The first step is about recognizing that there is a problem. Clearly, this needs to be the first step in recovery. Denial, the inability to see that alcohol or drugs have caused problems in a person's life, can prevent treatment. In fact, the majority of people with alcohol and drug problems die of their disease: liver disease, accidents, and other problems that arise from substance abuse will, if not cause a death directly, lead to a significantly diminished quality of life (and often cut short lives through physical deterioration).
Admitting one is powerless over alcohol or drugs is more than an empty gesture. It has to be deep-felt and owned. It is when a person honestly and fully embraces that they have a problem that they can then start on the road to recovery. It is often that glimmer of false hope ("Maybe I can control it.") that leads to repeated relapses and failed treatments.
Recognizing that your life has become unmanageable can be a subjective exercise. You may see your life as perfectly fine, whereas your spouse, parents, siblings, co-workers are not so confident in the manageability of your life.
One of the barriers to treatment often comes in the form of misconceptions about what alcoholism or addiction looks like. People imagine winos, homeless men, and scrawny street addicts begging for enough money to buy another "fix" as the "real" alcoholics and addicts. However, alcoholism cannot be defined by such extremes--that's the end of the spectrum of consequences for alcohol or drug abuse.
Alcoholism does not necessarily mean you drink every day, or in the morning, or at work. It doesn't necessarily mean you have the DTs (shakes) and need a shot to calm your hands. Many "high-functioning" alcoholics keep even the most demanding of jobs, sometimes without ever being detected. For most people with a problem, however, it usually catches up with them.
Probably the fairest description of an alcoholic is:
An alcoholic is someone who, when they drink, bad things happen.
These "bad things" can be verbal fights that damage relationships; physical aggression; driving while under the influence; blacking or "browning" out (forgetting what happened); embarrassing or humiliating behavior in front of family, friends, or co-workers; ending up in a dangerous or unhealthy situation. If you often regret something you did while drinking, that's a good sign you have a problem. This is true even if you only drink on the weekends.
"The fourth time I woke up in a bed and had no idea who was next to me, that was when I got really scared. That wasn't me. I felt sick. What else was I doing when I was drunk that I didn't know about?" Janice K.
An Obvious Sign: Drunk Driving
It doesn't have to be that you killed a family while driving your car drunk. Maybe you didn't even get caught. But you still did it.
"With the laws the way they are for driving while under the influence, you'd have to be a fool, or an alcoholic, to take the chance. I turned out to be the latter." Sarah G.
"Normal drinkers generally know the laws about driving and drinking. They might get caught once, but I think most people would agree, if you've been caught driving under the influence more than once, you have a problem with alcohol. A normal drinker would most likely be mortified by the embarrassment and consequences and never drink and drive again. The abnormal drinker doesn't have a choice--once they have a drink, their normal judgments are thrown out the window." Paul F.