Is Alcoholism a Disease? A Cry to Ditch the Concept

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Is Alcoholism a Disease? A Cry to Ditch the Concept

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is alcoholism a disease

(This post was originally published in May 2014.)

For 20 years, I uncontrollably drank, snorted uppers, swallowed downers, went to prison, and challenged societal limits while struggling with alcoholism and addiction. After being shunted from recovery homes to mental institutions, I finally reached a breaking point. While struggling to find recovery through Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12 steps alone, I realized that there was something much more elusive about this “brain disease.” In the cunning, baffling phenomenon of alcoholism and addiction, where does science end and spirituality begin?

Concept Creator Questioned

Modern science endorses a dispositional model, in which addiction is considered a disease—an incurable condition that regards addicts and alcoholics as constitutionally different from others. Much of the current research in the treatment of alcoholism and addiction is based upon the disease model. However, the pioneer of the disease model, E.M. Jellinik, was actually criticized by his own peers. Jellinik’s book, The Disease Concept of Alcoholism, provides an unclear scientific classification for alcoholism based on insufficient data and poor experimental design, as detailed in Uppers, Downers, All Arounders. As Mariana Valverde wrote in Diseases of the Will, “A biostatician of Jellinik’s eminence would have been only too well aware of the unscientific status of the dubiously scientific data that had been collected by AA members.”

How could such faulty research become the groundwork for a highly recognized model used to diagnose and treat alcoholism and addiction to this day? Well, the plot thickens. Coincidentally, the most influential woman in Alcoholics Anonymous, Marty Mann, funded Jellinik’s research. Scientists are well aware of the fact that research studies are not cheap. It takes resources to collect data, run experiments, and keep those rat cages clean. Mann sought out a solution for her dangerous drinking problem. Her financial backing gave Jellinik leverage to position his findings at the forefront of science.

The Right Support Doesn’t Mean The Right Answer

Mann’s psychiatrist, Dr. Harry Tiebout, gave her a manuscript of the book Alcoholics Anonymous, and encouraged her to attend meetings. She was inspired to eliminate the perception of alcoholism as a moral failing and accelerated the medicalization movement, further pathologizing alcoholism and deeming it a disease. Hence, Mann’s overwhelming support and sensationalizing of Jellinik’s work. Both the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association jumped on the disease bandwagon several years later, solidifying the power and influence of the disease model.

The bottom line is this: If alcoholism and addiction are chronic, incurable diseases then there is money to be made. Addicts and alcoholics are profitable for pharmaceutical companies and the health care industry. I’m sure the thousands of dollars my parents spent on psychiatrists, therapists, medication, and rehabilitation treatment for my addiction funded several vacations to Bali. But the profiting of addiction produces a stalemate because the drug epidemic still plagues our society causing a range of dysfunctional behaviors that affect the broader community.

A Possible New Way to See Things

The only way to truly elicit progress in recovery rates is to redefine the etiology of addiction and alcoholism. It was this investigation into the true origin of addiction that has allowed me to stay clean and sober for nearing two years now.

I am first generation East Indian. I have a rich background in Vedanta, the origin of Ayurveda, which is the world’s oldest system for the preservation of health and elimination of disease. Ayurveda is a system of healing 3,000-5,000 years old. In her book, Yoga and the Twelve-Step Path, Kyczy Hawk, explained: “The basic principle of ayurveda is that we are all, at core, perfectly ourselves. We have a natural, basic, healthy balance to our mind, body, and spirit.” Essentially, our bodies are governed by three basic elemental energies, or doshas: vata, pitta, and kapha. Vata is the principle of movement and air, pitta is associated with fire, and kapha derives from the elements of earth and water.

Ayurveda’s essential belief is that all ailments are reversible and one of the first and foremost causes of illness is loss of faith in the Divine. This perspective intrigued me because it so closely paralleled the “spiritual malady” described in Alcoholics Anonymous. In Ayurveda, one indication of addictive behavior is the need or desire for immediate gratification resulting in impatience in the mind. The impatience that characterizes drug abuse is also indicative of a vata imbalance. Impatience leads to impulsivity, the tendency to act without thinking, and according to a research study done by UCLA, impulsive behavior has been directly correlated to substance abuse.

It Worked for Me

After learning about Ayurveda’s take on addiction, I stopped pursuing conventional methods of treatment. Instead, I began consulting Ayurvedic practitioners and implemented vata-balancing dietary and lifestyle tools into my daily regimen. I traded in the detox medication for Felicia Tomasko’s Calm Your Fussy Vata Dosha yoga routine. I began meditating and practicing the sudarshan kriya, a powerful breathing technique taught by the Art of Living Foundation, that uses specific rhythms of breath to detoxify and rejuvenate every cell of the body. I ate vata-pacifying foods such as grains, cooked vegetables, legumes, and seeds. Within two weeks, I had successfully weaned off all drugs, including psychotropic medications, which were prescribed for the depression common in early stages of recovery from drug addiction. I was clean and sober, and felt a renewed zeal for life. The hopelessness and despair had diminished. Indeed, a spiritual experience, marked by a “profound alteration in my reaction to life”—as The Big Book describes it—had occurred.

The medical/modern scientific community views addiction as a brain disease—treatable but not curable. The Ayurvedic model sees addiction as nothing more than an imbalance in our doshic constitution—or basic mental, emotional, and spiritual blueprint. Once we return to our natural state, the disease no longer persists. We acquire imbalances in our system but we can also bring the system back into balance and restore our true nature. According to the National Institute of Ayurvedic Medicine, we can “heal the fragmentation and disorder of the mind-body complex and restore wholeness and harmony.”

So I say ditch the disease dogma! We were born into this world whole, perfect, and complete—devoid of addiction, disease, and illness. We can return to our essence. The time has come to shift gears from the contemporary scientific disease concept of addiction to a holistic, mindfulness-based approach. Perhaps the world is in need of a more Rumi-esque vision: “Out beyond ideas of science and spirituality there is a field, I will meet you there.” Meet me there, sober and free.

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4 Comments

  1. Great read. As an addict in recovery, of course I have to ask, can you go back to drinking/using “normally”?

    • Anjali Talcherkar
      Anjali Talcherkar on

      Thanks for your question. When we follow Ayurvedic principles, we change our lifestyle, not just our habits. An adherent of Ayurveda would not ingest toxins or unnatural substances (i.e., drugs, alcohol, tobacco, refined sugar, etc.) in any amount because that undermines our basic physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Striving to be in harmony with our fundamental existence, by embracing the tenets of Ayurveda, allows us to be in harmony with the larger existence, or the universe.

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About Author

Anjali Talcherkar

Anjali Talcherkar is a writer, recovered alcoholic and addict, and avid yogini. She is completing her master’s degree in psychology and addiction studies from Antioch University Los Angeles. Anjali is a yoga-alliance certified instructor and leads yoga and meditation workshops at the Los Angeles Art of Living Foundation Center. She is the author of a forthcoming book: a personal memoir and Ayurvedic/Vedantic interpretation of addiction and the 12 steps.

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