Labelling alcoholism as a disease could be helpful step

When we are calling alcoholism, or any addiction, a disease, or more properly a disability, we are inviting it into the medical community and focusing that research onto what is a significant problem. | Getty Images

Q: I do not think that anyone has any illusions other than that my late Uncle Fred was an alcoholic.

There are no options. He drank too much and got into way too much trouble when he was drinking to think anything else.

Actually, he was really disgusting.

I was glad when I grew up and left the home. At least then I did not have to put up with his untimely visits anymore.

But my mother, sweet as she is, sat my sister and me down the other day and tried to explain to us that alcoholism is a disease, just as any addiction is, and that we should be a little more understanding of my uncle.

I understand that she was trying to take the edge off my misgivings about my uncle and I appreciate that there is a whole movement to try to convert our understanding of alcoholism (addiction) into some kind of a health problem but when I look at the problems my uncle caused, and all the hurt and pain that has survived long past his own earthly being, I cannot see it that way.

I think that my uncle was responsible for his own behaviour and I hold him, not his bottle, accountable for his misery.

But I did promise my mom that I would write to you, to get an outside opinion. So, what do you think, Mr. Andrews, is addiction really a disease, or is it just an excuse for misery?

A: Try this on for size. Do you suppose when your uncle was a little guy, around 10 years old, he sat and dreamed of the day when he could become an alcoholic? Or how about drug addicts? Do you suppose that little boys and girls dreamed of the day when they could shoot up a hit of heroin. Or maybe snort cocaine?

No one ever wants to become addicted. That is not how it works. But something happens, and before anyone is fully aware of what is going on, an addiction is fully nurtured and in control of its victim’s well-being.

Despite all of the research, and the plethora of academic articles, the truth is that we still know very little about addictions. By recognizing them as medical problems, like calling alcoholism a disease, we are inviting the medical science community to take a look at what is more of a disability than it is a disease and lead us into the forbidden land where we might find ways of more successfully helping those struggling with their addictions. That makes it worth the while.

Impractical as all of this may seem, we have a moment in history to encourage us. It is found in the story of epilepsy.

At one time, people who struggled with epilepsy, more so even those who were plagued with grand mal epileptic seizures, were thought to have souls that had been tarnished by the devil. Churches exorcised them, communities ostracized them and little children threw rocks and stones at them.

Toward the end of the Renaissance period, some of the more enlightened thinkers of the day began to understand that epilepsy was a medical problem.

Of course epileptics were still isolated, only now they were locked up in mental hospitals.

They no longer harbored the spear of the devil, but they were considered to be insane and needed to be isolated for someone’s sake, either their own or someone else’s, I am not sure which.

At any rate, they were at least on the fringes of a health-care system and over time researchers began to understand that epilepsy is a disorder, not a hit of spiritual dementia, and with time and insight on their side they found the magic in the pharmacy to prescribe those proper medications to peoples struggling with epilepsy.

New life was born and today most people with epilepsy lead pretty normal lives, just monitoring their medication and taking precautions not to overly stress themselves.

The same might become true for alcoholism. When we are calling it, or any addiction, a disease, or more properly a disability, we are inviting it into the medical community and focusing that research onto what is a significant problem. No one is asking you to feel sorry for either the alcoholic or the addict.

Neither is anyone begging you to forgive either of them for their many indiscretions. We are simply asking the scientific community to give us the tools we need to resolve this thing, just as it did with epilepsy.

Jacklin Andrews is a family counsellor from Saskatchewan. Contact: jandrews@producer.com.

About the author

explore

Stories from our other publications