I am an alcoholic. It took more years than I can count and more sad encounters than I care to share for me to have the courage to actually say those words out loud. There’s a hopelessness to being addicted. However, that feeling of hopelessness is significantly stronger just before you are about to admit that you are addicted. Before admitting that I was an alcoholic, I lived in shame, fear and guilt. Despite all of that, I did not want to change.
No court order, no detox plan, no intervention, no amount of pleading or begging, nor even being on the verge of death on numerous occasions, could convince me that I couldn’t live life on my own terms. The only way I could begin the process of changing me was to admit and submit to the fact that I was powerless over my addiction.
So, I repeat, “I am an alcoholic.” Again and again. Every day.
I am quite attuned to people’s reactions to this truth. When I tell them I am an alcoholic, I often get reactions like, “No way, you’re so well put together,” “You’re so clean-cut,” or “You have a job and a beautiful family.” I continuously have to remind people that many, if not most, alcoholics are just like me. We’re functional as we slowly die.
Interestingly, an even more curious reaction is the one I get when I describe my addiction to alcohol as a disease. I first learned to refer to alcoholism as a disease when I started attending Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings. In AA, we refer to alcoholism as a “physical allergy to alcohol combined with a mental obsession to keep drinking.” AA and most alcoholics refer to alcoholism as a disease, but society in general appears to have a much harder time latching onto and accepting this fact.
So, is my addiction a disease, or isn’t it?
In casual conversation, many people confess that they think their drinking habits are just a matter of their will, which implies to me that my drinking habit should be a matter of my will.
Can we addicts just resolve our problems by will and by having better self-control?
God, I wish that were so. Had this been the case, my life would have been so much easier, and I would have spared my loved ones so much pain and suffering.
Unfortunately, the first lesson anyone learns in a recovery program is that they are powerless over their addiction. As an addict, you’re battling an opponent that can’t be beat. In fact, that admission of powerlessness is the foundation of all recovery.
The one thing I know about diseases like diabetes and cancer is that they can’t be willed away. To me, powerlessness and helplessness are exactly the feelings I would have if I discovered I had a chronic or fatal disease. Just as a person wouldn’t choose to have a disease like cancer or diabetes, I would never choose to have a disease like alcoholism.
In ascribing to the disease model of addiction, I believe part of the problem for many addicts is that we ourselves are averse to it. Disease implies a sense of permanence, a defect we cannot control and will carry with us for the rest of our lives.
One of the biggest challenges is that addiction cannot be diagnosed in the same manner in which other diseases are diagnosed. Not only can we not diagnose addiction with a physical test, but there is also no way it can be quantified. We can determine diabetes with a fasting blood sugar test and discover hypertension with a blood pressure monitor, but there is no similar mechanism to determine whether or not you are an addict. A diagnosis of addiction is made as a result of identifying specific behaviors and patterns – methods that most of society views as too subjective for addiction to be considered a “real” disease.
Further complicating the issue is that addiction is often treated with short-term sessions rather than a lifelong commitment. We often talk about someone “going to rehab for a bit.” Even addiction professionals use terms like “graduate” or “completing a program” when an addict is deemed worthy of reintegrating into society. These descriptions lead to viewpoints that accentuate the belief that addiction is a matter of will, and worse yet, that addiction is temporary.
I can tell you from firsthand experience that addiction is very much akin to other chronic diseases. Just like the color of my skin, my addiction is something I live with every day. It’s something that consciously and subconsciously drives every part of my being. This was the case before I discovered I was an addict, and is certainly the case now that I am in recovery.
In our society, both nonaddicts and many addicts treat addiction as a matter of will, choice and perseverance. This viewpoint leads to the treatment of addiction within the prison system and with societal randomness rather than in a structured medical environment that can actually help the addict attain long-term recovery. However, we enable society when we addicts do not encourage people to view addiction for what it is: a deadly disease.