This post was originally published on July 25, 2014.
After much contemplation and discussion with fellow humans who have experienced an addiction to alcohol, I have formed the opinion that alcoholism is a rather unfortunate title for the particular disease it represents. That may strike some as a rather odd statement but seriously, it really does misrepresent the true essence of the disease. When you hear the word alcoholism or alcoholic, you immediately form the opinion that the whole problem with the person is due to alcohol. But the majority of alcoholics and health professionals will tell you that alcohol is just a symptom of a more complex disease. It’s not just the word alcoholism either that bothers me. I mean, when the terms drug addict or sex addict or food addict are uttered, immediately we are led to believe it’s all about the substance or behavior. It gives no indication what the person with the addiction is really going through. In fact, it indicates that if the addicted person stops using the substance or ceases the behavior, everything is rosy in the garden once more. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say, “Just stop drinking and your life will be better.”
The opinion that addicted people are just immoral, selfish people draining family, society and the government of its resources is fueled by these somewhat misleading and inaccurate labels. Those labels don’t explain what goes on beneath the surface of an addict. Underneath my drinking and using was a whole labyrinth of complexities to be explored. I had no idea about the intricacies of my disease. In fact, it was quite a shock to learn just how messed up a girl I was—and still can be—and how fixing me was about a lot more than physical abstinence.
Regardless of the substance, all addiction comes from the same place. That, understandably, is a bitter pill to swallow. In my opinion, giving the same disease different labels according to the person’s preferred substance creates what addiction elitism and enables people to live in denial about their mental, emotional and spiritual states. Those who smoke cigarettes wouldn’t necessarily put themselves in the same category as say, a heroin addict. Every smoker knows about the well-documented negative effects of puffing away on a tube full of tobacco containing a cocktail of chemicals. They are also fully aware that they are addicted to nicotine but if you tell them that their addiction is just has harmful and destructive as a heroin addicts, you can bet it will not be taken positively. Okay, so the progression of destruction through smoking may be quite a bit slower than using heroin but it still leads to chronically bad health, families who are worried and affected negatively by the smoker and a strain on the health system. I’d also argue that the mental, emotional and spiritual condition of a smoker is pretty much on a par with a heroin addict. Quitting any addictive substance or behavior is horrendously difficult and relapse is a threat to anyone on the recovery path.
If you take away the countless addictive substances used, you are still left with a group of people with the same basic disease. Often, when the process of recovery begins, people discover that they have more than one preferred substance and that those substances are interchangeable. But is it fair to still call a person in recovery an addict when they are no longer physically addicted to their preferred substances? A friend of mine in recovery for almost 30 years says that even though he drank for 30+plus years, his addiction to alcohol only developed in the last two years of his drinking even though he was always an alcoholic. He sees his alcoholism as something that can’t be cured but can be managed, even though his physical addiction has been cured. Once he quit drinking, he saw that he had work and sex obsessions as well. I can definitely relate to that. My list of feel good go-to’s was as long as my arm and I’m still battling to control some of them.
I’ve been reading articles lately about new studies comparing addictive behavior like this one which often list the 10 top addictions of the year in a way that makes it sound like they deserve an Oscar or something. But this particular piece explains that people with addiction to different substances and behavior all experience similar brain activity. Well yeah! They make you feel really good—some of the time, anyway—and any active addict’s aim in life is to reduce crappy feelings and replace them with intense joyful experiences.
So what makes people with a common disease choose different substances? Perhaps opportunity and just using whatever’s most convenient—or maybe the easily excitable clamor for sedatives while the mellow types crave cocaine highs. What do I know? We hear that alcoholism is a progressive disease, so it makes sense that as the disease progresses, so does the severity of the symptoms—say, starting off drinking white wine spritzers and progressing to a hard liquor drinker after a few years. It also makes sense that each person’s level of emotional pain is different and some need more extreme anesthetics than others. And maybe some addicts just have more balls than others. I drank and drugged to excess but didn’t have the guts to stick a needle in my arm. I feared the consequences of shooting up and yet had a perverse interest in what it would feel like. Maybe I was lucky and my disease hadn’t progressed enough to go there. I didn’t fear other drugs so perhaps my aversion to heroin would have developed into viewing it as not so undesirable the longer I remained in addiction.
However, with all my contemplation and discussion, I still haven’t come up with a more appropriate name for this darn disease that has wreaked havoc on my life. Another friend of mine suggested fear-ism as a good alternative but even though fear of life itself is a huge part of my disease, it still doesn’t encompass all that is involved. Maybe excluding the alcohol part and just leaving the ism might be a good suggestion?
Or maybe I should just leave the word alone and get on with my own recovery.