On alcoholism (the addiction, not the disease)

In a casual conversation with a co-worker today, the subject of alcohol came up. Since I quit drinking I have been of the mind that while quitting drinking is a great accomplishment, it is also a personal one, and not one that I really run around telling everyone about. If asked directly, however, I do freely admit to having been an alcoholic. And this was the sticking point in the conversation. Having been an alcoholic.

First and foremost, I would like to say that I don’t think anyone who has never personally had a substance abuse problem is capable of forming an educated opinion on the subject. You can read all you want to about, and know a lot about it, but without living through it you just don’t know what it is like -much in the same way that I don’t know what it is like to fly a rocket to space, even though I have read a great deal about it. Doctors are able to diagnose the substance abuse problem, but all they can really do is recommend detox and/or some form of third-party program to help deal with it.

In the conversation today, the co-worker said that I had a disease, and the fact that I hadn’t drank for a couple years didn’t mean that I wasn’t an alcoholic anymore. This is where I call bullshit. I think the key point I want to make here is that I never claimed that I had a disease. That is an important point for me to make. Calling alcoholism a disease seems (to me at least) to absolve someone of blame. I disagree with that 100%. I had a very serious addiction, but it was entirely self-induced. I don’t think a disease can be self-induced. There may have been factors that made me more susceptible to becoming an alcoholic, but again I had to make the choices to send me down the road to alcoholism. That’s far different than suffering from a disease. You don’t have much of a choice over whether you are going to have Parkinson’s Disease, for instance. I always maintained that what I had was a compulsion; an addiction. Much in the same way that I used to have an almost subconscious compulsion to bite my fingernails. I was able to overcome that as well, and to my knowledge no one has ever referred to nail biting as a disease.

Since I don’t believe that I had a disease, I think that since I quit I am just not an alcoholic anymore. I am not a “recovering alcoholic”. I quit, I am done, end of story.

The co-worker went on to say that quitting without a 12-step program is extremely difficult to do. I agree with that completely: it was hard as fuck. But I did it. He then went on to say that I had completed most of the steps of the program, just that I had done it on my own. I disagree. Here are the original twelve steps, borrowed from the Wikipedia entry for Alcoholics Anonymous:

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His Will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Let’s just start with point one, the argument won’t get past there anyway. “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” I will agree to the latter part of that sentence, my life had become unmanageable. The first part, however, is the polar opposite of what it took for me to quit drinking. I did not admit that I was powerless over alcohol; I forced myself to admit that the alcohol was powerless over me. It was entirely my decision whether or not I would drink it, and I decided not to. That is really skipping past the reality of how difficult it was to maintain the willpower, the weeks I went with literally no sleep as my body waited for me to administer a dose of the depressant, the mornings that I would wake up trembling, knowing that with just one drink my body would relax. But that is what it took to beat this addiction, so that is what I did.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that AA works for a lot of people, and if you are an alcoholic you should use whatever means are necessary to reach the sober end. For me probably the biggest part was that I never said that I was going to “quit drinking forever”. Instead I made a choice each morning to not drink that day. If I needed to, I reasoned, I could go ahead and have a drink the next day. And the next day I would make the same decision. And then a couple of months passed, having decided not to drink each day. That is still the philosophy I use today, though I rarely even think about alcohol anymore. And if I decide to have a beer with my friends one day, I don’t think that will automatically make me an alcoholic relapsing, I think it will just be me having a beer with my friends. The me that was an alcoholic lost the battle a long time ago.

Take this post for what it’s worth to you. I just wanted to get it out there that for some admitting they are powerless over alcohol may not be what it takes to beat the addiction. To admit that you are powerless over something can be really like giving up control completely, and feeling like you have no control is what leads a lot of people to alcohol in the first place.