Alcoholic: Lifelong diagnosis or unfair label?


There are a lot of myths and misconceptions out there about alcoholism and drug addiction – or more inclusively; any form of the disease of addiction (which can be anything done compulsively where the “doer” loses control and choice in their own actions and behaviors).  I will gladly admit now that I did not understand addiction and thought it was a matter of bad choices, moral depravity, and weak will. Thankfully, I have been educated and not only do I view myself in a more positive light and no longer carry the shame associated with admitting my alcoholism; I have a greater understanding of my own family dysfunction and my alcoholic mother who didn’t love me enough to just quit drinking. <— see what I did there? I’ll get back to that in another post but hopefully after you read this one you will understand why my thinking about her was flawed.

After announcing my return from treatment I received a message from a friend and I am including part of it here because it is what prompted me to write this post. I used to share her sentiment, and absolutely refused A.A. as a solution for several reasons; one of them being that I didn’t think I should have to label myself as an Alcoholic for life even when/if I should remain sober. I also thought people who went to A.A. were a bunch of people lacking self control just looking for an excuse for their weaknesses, inability to commit to family and their own promises, and mostly that they are just a bunch of weirdos.

I can’t say that I’m a proponent of AA, because I don’t believe in labeling oneself permanently. We all change with time, and old habits don’t always follow us, and therefore labels aren’t always a good thing.

Now I will get into my story here eventually, and share with you the ways my life had become unmanageable and why I am powerless when it comes to making good decisions when beer is within reach; for now though, I think a basic introduction to the disease of addiction is in order simply because you won’t be able to understand the story unless you understand the power of addiction and the simple fact that it is a lifelong, chronic, progressive, fatal disease. If you get nothing else out of this post please just re-read that a few hundred times.

I can hear the heads shaking right now. “A disease? What a wonderful excuse!” Yeah. I didn’t buy it either until I was shown the science. Until I was taught the brain chemistry. Until I realized that I was in a roomful of people who had all the symptoms I had. We use in different ways, different substances; however our behaviors are all the same. All the same. Kind of how people deal with having the flu; some bitch and whine, some muscle through, some take medications and some don’t but that doesn’t change the fact that they all have the flu.

A.A. is not a cure. There is no cure for addiction at this point in medicine. Like the diabetic, there are only ways to manage the disease to enjoy quality of life and manage symptoms. A.A. is simply a way to manage symptoms and provide tools for alcoholics to use to remain sober. All 12-Step programs are modeled after the A.A. Steps because for many they work. It is however an individual choice to adhere to the steps and principles outlined in the program. The “label” of alcoholic is just as permanent as the “label” of diabetic. Or in other words – a diagnosis. A diabetic may choose to follow the Doctor’s advice and receive insulin, change their diet, and exercise daily – or they may ignore it. The consequences of ignoring that advice ranges from feeling crappy to death. The addict can also choose to ignore a 12 step program or to only work parts of it – but overall and undeniably, they will return to using and will experience the consequences (feeling crappy to death). The difference between the diabetic and the addict is that addicts can self-diagnose and receive treatment without a medical professional. However, anyone who goes into a rehab for treatment will be medically diagnosed as an alcoholic/addict. This diagnosis never goes away.

A few years ago I was diagnosed with Basal Cell Skin cancer. I had two surgeries to remove abnormal and cancerous spots. Technically, I am cancer-free right now. So, I could ignore my skin for a while. I could just choose to go on my merry way, get a nice sun tan, and never look at my skin again. I’m cured! Those familiar with cancer know that if I do that – I will likely get another spot in my lifetime; especially if I go out in the sun without preventative measures like adequate clothing to cover my skin, and sunscreen to protect me from the harmful rays of the sun. This is something I have to be mindful of every day for the rest of my life even if I have no outward symptoms. Waiting until I find a spot in my skin to treat it could be deadly for me. So, everyday when I get out of the shower, I examine my body looking for anything out of the ordinary. I look at my million freckles and moles and note changes. If I see something that looks off, I go to the dermatologist and they take a biopsy. Most of the time it will be nothing to worry about. However, there is always, for the rest of my life, the possibility that it will return and I will need more surgery to remove it (not cure it). This is a lifelong disease, and I must manage it on a daily basis. I must use various resources to keep it in check such as regular doctor visits, sunscreen, self screening, and I also have to ask for help from Stephanie to look at the places I can’t see well.

A.A. is a preventative measure. The 12-Steps are ways for me to “self-screen” everyday to increase my chances at maintaining my sobriety. The other people in those A.A. rooms will watch me and bring to my attention those “relapse behaviors” I may be engaging in because they know what to look for; and I will do the same for them. It is a community. It is a fellowship of people who understand. Like the diabetic who goes to support groups to talk to other diabetics, A.A. is a support group to talk to other people who suffer from addiction. No matter what tools we use, there is no miracle cure. We can only monitor, ask for help, make a decision to commit to self-care, and pray that our disease remains in remission.

I will include here a few links if you would like to read more about the disease of addiction:

Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction – This is from the National Institute of Drug Abuse and will help people understand the different brain chemistry of those with the disease of addiction.

The Doctor’s Opinion (A.A. Blue Book) – The A.A. Blue Book addresses the needs of people to understand the medical difference in addicts/alcoholics. It is written in old timey language, but the opinion remains quite relevant today.

Under the Influence – This should be required reading for any person dealing with addiction; including the family and friends of those who know or love someone who has an addiction. It’s science. Proven. Tested. Confirmed. Replicated. Fact.

I hope this helps dispel some of the misconceptions about the “alcoholic/addict” label. I understand my friends point and her intention. She did not say this to be mean; she simply wants me to be able to move on with my life in a positive way. The fact is though, in order for me to do that I have to manage my disease. I have to acknowledge that I am forever different from those who can drink “normally.” I think of it like an allergy – which is how the Doctor refers to in  “The Doctor’s Opinion.” Think of it like getting stung by a bee; some people get stung and have no reaction; some get stung and develop a welt, some though get stung and need epinephrine and emergency medical care or they will die. Three people, same sting, three very different reactions to the venom. For me, I now understand that when I ingest alcohol I have an abnormal reaction. Many can have one drink and stop. Many are simply abusers who can quit on willpower when they are done (college kids partying for four years then going off to be responsible people who don’t drink like crazy). Many though (about 10% of our population) are like me, and once we start, we can’t stop without serious intervention or death.

If you have questions please send me a message and I will answer to my best ability or direct you to resources you can use to either help yourself or a loved one. Remember, it isn’t a label – it is a lifelong, chronic, progressive, fatal disease


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19 thoughts on “Alcoholic: Lifelong diagnosis or unfair label?”

  1. I remember, back in the 80s when I was involved in addiction counseling, there were studies showing brain wave changes in alcoholics; and there were studies done with twins separated at birth. Addiction is often a genetic predisposition, and I worry for my children (now in their early 40s) who have alcoholics in their family tree on both maternal and paternal sides. There may be newer research studies since then; I’ve been out of the loop on that. But in my rambling way, I’m agreeing that yes, addiction is a disease just as much as diabetes or cancer, and requires treatment. But there is still that stigma attached to some diseases – addiction, lung cancer, AIDS – and I really look forward to the day when people with those diseases are not seen as causing their own illnesses. I’m sorry if this is rambling; my brain doesn’t work as well as it used to right now. I will look at the links you supplied, just to satisfy my own curiosity. I’m happy you’re doing well and sharing your journey.


  2. I will fully admit that 31 days ago I was the person leaving that message. I talked to addicts, my therapist and read everything I could about addiction; despite my strong desire to want to understand addiction I simply could not wrap my head around it being referred to or treated as a disease. I had an especially difficult time being able to grasp the details of why it is a progressive disease and what that even means.
    While attending the family program at Caron I learned the difference between being some who uses, someone who abuses and someone who is an addict. From what I learned, my grasp on addiction is the difference is the gene of addiction. That gene of addiction is what determines how some people can use a substance and be able to stop and someone who uses a substance and from that point on is forever changed.
    It is the same as Diabetes. My mother is diabetic, I knew this and I knew that it meant that it leaves me in a position to contract that disease. Yet I still chose to eat in a very unhealthy way, not exercise on a regular basis and basically not pay any attention to my responsibility in my own health. Which inevitably resulted in me being diagnosed with diabetes June of last year, a diagnosis that I will now carry with me for the rest of my life and that’s ok.
    Almost seven moths after my diagnosis I am still writing down everything that I eat. It’s not because I want to dwell on my disease, it is simply a daily reminder to remain ever mindful of everything I put into my body. Same as AA. A reminder of who I am allows me to control my disease rather than my disease controlling me.

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