A lot of people well-versed in the 12-step recovery community are familiar with the 1989 critically-acclaimed Hallmark film My Name Is Bill W. which tells the story of Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson. Well, last fall, the movie’s Emmy-nominated screenwriter, William G. Borchert, published a written version of his own story, How I Became My Father…A Drunk (Story Merchant, release date October 19, 2015). Borchert took the time to answer a few questions about the genetic predisposition to alcoholism, whether or not psychiatry can help alcoholics and how to change the public perception of recovery.
There are eerily similar stories in the book involving both you and your father. How big of a role do you think genetics plays in alcoholism? Does it matter?
When I first began to drink back in 1952, science had either not discovered or not yet reported a genetic link when it came to alcoholism. Therefore I had no idea that since my father was a terrible alcoholic, I had a 60% chance of following in his footsteps.
When most people discover they have a genetic exposure to other life-threatening maladies such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes or COPD, they usually follow their doctor’s regimen to build their immune system and do everything they can to stay healthy. I don’t believe the same is true when it comes to addiction because of the baffling and powerful nature of the disease itself. It makes you think it’s not a disease or at least one you can handle with moderation—an impossible goal for an alcoholic to reach once he or she has “crossed the invisible line.”
For some people, perhaps, knowing they are genetically exposed from their parents’ drinking, it may help them practice abstinence, or at least seek help sooner—when their drinking begins to get out of control and cause problems in their lives.
Whether having had that knowledge myself would have kept me from drinking, I kind of doubt it. I do remember thinking that I could never get as bad as my father. I also had no idea that alcoholism was a disease even when it took over my life physically, mentally and spiritually.
When you describe your initial meeting with a psychiatrist in the book, you recall thinking, “I’d rather be diagnosed as crazy than an alcoholic.” Why do you think that is?
I guess I felt that being crazy would give me a great excuse to keep on drinking but if I was an alcoholic, it was obvious I should stop because of all the disaster I was causing.
Also from my early religious education, I was taught that alcoholics are weak-willed, immoral people and that to get drunk was a sin. But if I was crazy I could drink all I wanted without being branded as an immoral outcast.
Even in today’s so-called enlightened society, many people still brand alcoholics that way. A stigma still exists in society despite all the scientific and medical evidence that clearly shows alcoholism is a chronic and deadly disease.
Personally, I believe the stigma will not go away until the world gets to know more “sober alcoholics” living good and successful lives—until those who suffer from alcoholism become less concerned about their anonymity among their family, friends and fellow workers.
Your psychiatrist told you, “Psychiatrists can’t help alcoholics.” Do you think that’s true?
He said the only thing that could help me was a 12-step recovery program. Since my life was completely out of control, I decided to follow his advice.
It wasn’t until a year or so later when I began to recover that I understood what that psychiatrist meant. I had learned that I suffered from a three-fold disease called alcoholism that affected me physically, mentally and spiritually and there was no way he could have helped me spiritually.
I haven’t seen a psychiatrist since I got sober so I don’t know how others may feel about their ability to help alcoholics. But I still believe the psychiatrist I went to see many years ago was right. I needed to find the power to stay sober through a Higher Power and that’s what I found more than 50 years ago in a 12-step recovery program.
“How I Became My Father…A Drunk” was released October 19, 2015 by Story Merchant. Find it on Amazon.