The American Medical Association defines both alcoholism and drug addiction the same disease – the disease of addiction. In this article, I will use the terms “alcoholism,””alcoholic, ” and “drinking” to represent both drugs and alcohol.
Realizing that it is a disease will help you to understand that alcoholism is not a character defect or a moral failing – even though some of the behaviors associated with alcoholism make it appear to be so. Alcoholism is an involuntary disability and a primary illness – meaning that it is a disease in and of itself, not caused by any other illness. It is progressive, meaning that it gets worse and worse, and just like diabetes, if not treated, it can be fatal.
One of the first symptoms of alcoholism is a high level of tolerance. By “tolerance,” I mean that the drinker requires more alcohol to get the same effect, as the usual amount of liquor no longer does the job.
Here are some other warning signs:
Losing time from work due to drinking, discord at home because of drinking, drinking because you feel shy with other people, drinking affecting your reputation, feeling remorse after drinking, financial difficulties as a result of your drinking, turning to lower companions and an inferior environment when drinking, being careless of your family’s welfare because of drinking, decreased ambition since drinking, craving a drink at a definite time daily, wanting a drink the next morning, difficulty in sleeping because of drinking, decreased efficiency because of drinking, the job or your business jeopardized because of drinking, drinking alone or drinking to escape worries or trouble, and loss of memory as a result of drinking.
There is an ominous list of diseases that an alcoholic/addict may develop over time. Some of these are high blood pressure, cirrhosis of the liver, ulcers, varicose veins of the esophagus, ulcers, pancreatitis, heart attack, stroke, and brain damage.
Alcoholism also brings profound emotional changes. At first when a person drinks, it feels good. As the drinking continues, he learns how much to drink to get the desired effect. This is considered to be normal drinking because at this phase there are no adverse consequences in the drinker’s life resulting from his use of alcohol.
After awhile, when a person drinks, he is seeking the mood swing associated with drinking. At this point the person will occasionally drink too much and maybe have a hangover the next morning. But he stays within the norms of society, drinks where it is socially acceptable, and all-in-all, experiences no emotional pain from his alcohol use. This way of drinking is still considered to fall within the normal range; however, this phase is the dividing line between the social drinker and the alcoholic (or person who has become harmfully dependent on alcohol).
Let’s zoom in on a group of people “tying one on” at a New Year’s Eve party. Most of them are not alcoholics. The next day after everyone has sobered up, “moderation” becomes the word of the day, and everyone decides to wait awhile before drinking that much again.
Unfortunately, for the alcoholic, this is not so. The person who has become harmfully dependent on alcohol may decide that next time he will not drink so much. But that doesn’t occur. Something happens that moves the person from a social drinker to one with a harmful dependency on alcohol: The drinker begins to experience a loss of control.
“Loss of control” is when a person can no longer predict the outcome of his drinking. He will behave in ways that violate his values and will experience remorse over his actions. This process will repeat itself many times, resulting in lower self-worth and ebbing ego strength. The drinker will experience mood swings and depression.
As the process of drinking, violating his values, and feeling remorse repeats itself over and over, the drinker begins to feel that he is “no damn good” – but doesn’t know why. He becomes angry and resentful, but at no one in particular. Feelings of anger, anxiety, guilt, shame, and remorse are with him all the time. The drinker becomes preoccupied with alcohol, leading to a diversion of his energies away from important life concerns.
As his disease progresses, the alcoholic can no longer hold the pain inside. He projects his pain in the form of criticism, anger and negativity onto those in his immediate circle – his spouse, his family, his employer. Now the alcoholic drinks to try to feel normal. But, his pain is unbearable and drinking does not take it away.
One of the strangest aspects of this disease is the phenomenon of “denial,” which is a delusional system that prevents the alcoholic from understanding the consequences of his drinking. He is not unwilling to see reality; he is actually incapable of seeing it.
From the beginning he rationalizes away many things, i.e., the tolerance he develops to liquor, the hangovers, the days missed from work, legal problems such as DUI’s, his sinking health and self-image, and on and on. He drinks alcohol. It causes problems in his life, and he continues to drink in a way that continues to cause problems.
His denial is like a brick wall. Every time he makes an excuse or rationalizes his drinking, he adds another brick. Pretty soon that wall is impenetrable. It surrounds his rational defenses and locks them inside until they become a free-floating mass of negative feelings that stay with the alcoholic whether he is drinking or not. At this point the alcoholic can become self-destructive and even suicidal because he is in constant, chronic emotional pain.
On top of the physical, emotional and legal difficulties, the alcoholic’s job and finances suffer. His interpersonal relationships take a direct hit, and he feels spiritually and morally bankrupt.
I am wary of anyone who claims to have a cure for addiction because – as yet – no cure has been scientifically proven. There needs to be much more scientific research done on the possibility of an addiction gene or personality disorder that predisposes a person to addiction. My theory, as a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor, is that heredity holds the key. Unfortunately, though, society is treating addiction as a criminal disorder, and this approach couldn’t be any further from the truth.