Is Alcoholism Really A Disease?
When I was in my mid-teens, I started drinking. By the time I was in my early twenties, I had a fairly big problem with alcohol. Binges, blackouts, uncontrollable cravings. The whole deal.
A few years into that phase of my life, I was at the doctor one day and he asked about my alcohol intake. I was honest and told him how much I drank, not thinking much about.
“Probably 30 to 50 drinks a week.”
The doctor paused and looked up at me.
“Sounds to me like you’re an alcoholic, son.”
In an instant, I was in a rage.
Who the hell did this guy think he was?
I stormed out of the office and, rather ironically, spent the next few months alternating between bingeing vodka and fighting constant thoughts of the doctor’s comment.
Pretty soon, my stomach lining began to suffer. First came searing pain. Then came extreme weight loss. Before long, I weighed 129 pounds, and it was only then that I looked myself in the mirror and said, ‘No more.’
I summoned all my resolve, quit drinking cold turkey—and, VERY long story short—dove into my post-secondary studies, met a girl, got married, and moved to a different province to start a family.
Many sober years later, I had to give a health history when I signed up with a new family doctor. She was very thorough, and much like the previous doctor, asked about how much I used to drink and how frequently.
I answered her honestly—again, not thinking much about it—and was floored when she said, “So, how are you handling your disease?”
“What disease?” I asked.
“Alcoholism,” she replied.
In an instant, a flood of emotion washed over me. Only this time, it wasn’t anger. It was shock that this seemingly caring, knowledgeable medical professional would immediately jump to classify my experience with alcohol as being the result of a disease.
I mean, if I did have this disease, then what happened to it during the ten years when I hadn’t wanted to drink at all?
Was I in remission?
Had I been teetering on the edge of relapse the entire time?
What about the steps that I’d taken and all the hard work I’d done to address the issue?
What about my strength? My free will? And my ability to fight back and manage my own actions?
Was I really just a powerless pawn in the face of this overwhelming disease?
I wrestled with questions like this for a long time afterward. Eventually I moved into the field of mental health as a career and dove into study of alcoholism and its causes. As I did, I discovered that the prevailing disease theory is not actually a one-size-fits-all model.
Yes, there are those people who are seemingly powerless to fight their alcohol cravings and who, almost from birth, appear to be predisposed to a life of addiction.
But, the more I studied, the more I saw that those people were the exception, not the rule.
What I saw instead were people who through environment, circumstance—and most pointedly, the personality trait of being prone to excess—fall into excessive drinking.
These people have a tendency to throw themselves headlong into anything they do, be it music, food, exercise, social media trends, particle physics, or yes, even alcohol.
Because of their laser focus, their processing style, and their relative difficulty in moderating their interests and reward systems, they are hardwired toward excess.
This is the battle which they are facing when it comes to alcohol overuse.
More personally, I should note that this is the battle which I face.
When people like me fall into alcohol overuse, I believe that the correct course of action is not to label our actions as a disease which we are relatively powerless to combat. Instead, it is more precise to note that we have developed a syndrome—a physical, mental, and emotional dependency sparked by our own actions.
What’s the difference between this diagnosis and simply calling it a disease?
Simply put, syndromes are not only sparked by actions … they can be reversed by actions as well. In other words, when you regard alcohol overuse as a syndrome, you aren’t powerless to a disease. Instead, you are empowered and encouraged to display ownership, strength, and your own free will as you limit your own actions and the outcomes which stem from them.
While this may appear to be a slight difference for some, I have seen literally dozens of clients’ lives changed as a result of this realization. It has not only provided key insight into their personality and processing, it has also offered them the internal drive and hope which a ‘disease’ label could not.
So, all that being said, do some people suffer from the disease of alcoholism? Most definitely.
However, for those who view their addiction journey in a different way, the syndrome model may be the key which ultimately unlocks their health, well-being, and maybe most importantly, their self-determination.