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Extension > Family > Live healthy, live well > Healthy minds > Dealing with stress > When Does Alcohol or Drug Use Become Abuse?

Dealing with stress

When Does Alcohol or Drug Use Become Abuse?

Judy Myers, Extension Educator — Children, Youth, & Family Consortium

September 2014; reviewed by Ellie M. McCann, Extension Educator — Family Resiliency.

There are many ways to cope with the loss and grief associated with divorce or separation. Some ways are healthy, but others can lead to serious problems like alcohol or drug abuse. When does alcohol or drug use become abuse — and then addiction?

It’s not uncommon for people to occasionally use alcohol or drugs to escape painful feelings. If you’re using alcohol or drugs, you might not realize when you have crossed the line from occasional use to frequent use, especially when life’s stresses seem overwhelming.

Some people cross the line from occasional to frequent alcohol or drug use while married — and bring on a divorce or separation. Others cross this line after divorce or separation, or another crisis. Whatever your situation, if you suspect you have become dependent on alcohol or drugs, you need to take an honest look at your habits.

Finding Out If Substance Use Is a Problem

Richard Brown, a physician and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has developed a questionnaire called "CAGE-AID." To use the CAGE-AID tool, visit the CAGE Substance Abuse Screening Tool. The questionnaire starts on page 2.

You may also want to take a lengthier questionnaire to assess potential problems with alcohol or drug abuse. Many such questionnaires are available on the web, including the Addiction Research Foundation's Drug Use Questionnaire (DAST-20).

If You Know Substance Use Is a Problem

It can be very hard to admit having a problem with alcohol or drugs. People who abuse alcohol or drugs often look for excuses to justify their behavior and deny the seriousness of the problem. Unfortunately, substance abuse worsens depressive symptoms and limits the ability to effectively manage stress and difficult life situations. If you suspect you have an alcohol or drug abuse problem, seek professional help promptly. You and your loved ones will benefit.

Here are some places to find help:


Botman, J. A., (1997). How to break through the alcoholic’s wall of denial. Alcoholism & Drug Weekly, 9(4), 5.

Brown, R., & Rounds, L. (1995). Conjoint screening questionnaires for alcohol and drug abuse: Criterion validity in a primary care practice. Wisconsin Medical Journal, 94(3), 135-140.

Mayo Clinic. (2012). Alcoholism.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol use disorders.

Related resources

Workshop 11: Getting Good Professional Help — Online workshops help you look at your own behavioral health, become better informed about when professional intervention is needed, and better understand how to find and pay for professional behavioral health help. Part of the Dealing with stress: A Web-based Educational Series.

When is gambling a problem? — Learn the signs of problem gambling and how to start the conversation. En español: ¿Cuándo es problemático el juego? 

Alcohol and Your HealthNational Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism — Research-based information on alcohol and it's impact.

Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other DrugsSubstance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) — The misuse and abuse of alcohol, over-the-counter medications, illicit drugs, and tobacco affect the health and well-being of millions of Americans.

Alcohol, Tobacco, and Drugs: Families with Teens — Get a review of the facts and tips for talking with your teen about these issues.

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