Monday, 30 July 2018

Which Came First, the Drink or the Disease?



SOMETIMES, in speaking to an AA group, I depart from the standard opening, and start with:

"My name is E-- , and I have alcoholism. Putting it this way helps me remember something I must never forget: I have a progressive, incurable, and unless arrested, fatal illness, and I will have it to the day I die. Alcoholism is a sickness which happens to some people through no fault of their own. It happened to me."
And always, I wonder how many of the AA members sitting there, nodding agreement, actually believe it with real conviction.

I was new to AA the first time I heard a speaker say, "I became an alcoholic as the result of drinking too much too long." Even in the chaotic condition of my mind in those early weeks, that struck me as illogical. Was he saying that everyone who drank a considerable amount over an extended period was bound to develop alcoholism? We need only look around us to disprove that.

I could look at my own kin, typical of thousands of American families. Of the twenty-seven assorted parents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, and cousins who made up our clan, I don't know of any who didn't partake of and enjoy alcoholic beverages. On the theory that drinking causes alcoholism, we should have produced twenty-seven alcoholics, but we didn't. We produced three: me and two of my cousins.

I was to hear variations of the drinking-causes-alcoholism theme repeatedly as time went on. The most recent was at an AA conference, almost twenty-four years after my first one. "I drank myself right into alcoholism!" the speaker declared.

In my opinion, that man was getting cause and effect mixed up. He didn't get alcoholism because he drank too much. He drank too much because he had alcoholism.

To attribute our alcoholism to drinking, rather than our drinking to alcoholism, as I see it, is to hold on to one of our old ideas we need to let go of absolutely. It is, in effect, to deny that our compulsive drinking is the result of an illness for which we are in no way to blame.

How patiently and resolutely we try to set straight the mixed-up thinking of the newcomers who say, "I drank because my husband (or wife) nagged me all the time," or "I drank because I had so much stress at work," or "I drank because I was worried sick over my debts."

"No," we tell them. "Those are the excuses you make to justify your excessive drinking, but they were not the reason for it. The reason you drank alcoholically is that you have alcoholism. The world is full of people who have problems just as serious as yours, but their drinking doesn't go out of control. They aren't any better or stronger than we are, but they are different from us. They don't have alcoholism, and we do."

Shouldn't we go on to convince our new members that their drinking didn't cause their alcoholism, any more than their problems did? For if they say, "I developed alcoholism because I drank," they are also saying, "If I had not drunk, I wouldn't have become an alcoholic. So it comes back to being all my fault, after all." Most of us reach AA bowed down under a heavy load of guilt. We don't need any more.
Clinging to the notion that alcoholism is caused by excessive drinking or, worse, that alcoholism is excessive drinking, presents two grave dangers.

First, the general public is slow to give up the belief that alcoholism is an immoral condition, that heavy drinking is a "bad" thing to do, and those who do it must be "bad" people. Still-drinking alcoholics who haven't reached us yet are a part of that general public, and very likely just as misinformed. They find themselves in an impossible situation.

They hear from all sides that they "ought" to stop drinking, and that their failure to do so is the result of their own weakness, depravity, and lack of willpower. And they believe it. Yet they know they literally cannot control their drinking by their own efforts (only God and the alcoholics know how hard they've tried!), and they know that in no other area of their lives are they either weak or depraved. The only way they can see out of the dilemma is to deny that they are alcoholics--and all too many of them do to the day they die, of alcoholism.

We can reach more of these suffering alcoholics if we persuade them to believe the truth--that they have developed an illness the exact cause of which is still unknown--and if we can also convince their spouses, doctors, bartenders, ministers, and all the others in a position to point them in our direction. We can do this more effectively if we believe it ourselves.

The second danger of confusing the symptom, compulsive drinking, with the illness, alcoholism, is that it can hamper new arrivals in their efforts to get a grip on the AA program of recovery. Many times, in AA talks, we hear this:

"I came to AA and stopped drinking. I was on top of the world. I knew I would never drink again. As long as I was sober, there didn't seem to be any reason for taking the Steps, or going to a lot of meetings. So I started to skip meetings. In three months, I was drinking again. And it took two sick, miserable, drunken years before I got back. You were right--it is a progressive illness."

Whenever I hear something like that, I wonder whether it might have been avoided if the speaker's early mentors in AA had talked less about alcohol and more about alcoholism--if they had dinned it into the newcomer that stopping drinking does not constitute recovery but is only the absolutely essential beginning of a recovery process that changes each of us into the kind of person we can live with contentedly, sober. Given the belief that drinking causes alcoholism, it is easy to con ourselves into thinking that stopping drinking is all we need.

It would be impossible to overestimate the importance of getting the drinking stopped. That must come before any real recovery can take place. A still-drinking alcoholic, I firmly believe, can make no progress in taking the Twelve Steps of AA, or in spiritual growth.

But becoming dry is the starting point, not the stopping point. Just as drinking didn't cause our alcoholism, stopping drinking doesn't deal with it. I came into AA as a confused, self-centered, egotistical, defensive person who drank excessively. I then became a confused, self-centered, egotistical, defensive person who didn't drink. I was still sick, but from alcoholism, not from alcohol.

The real difference was that now I could start to recover. I could set out on the difficult, exciting, often discouraging, but always rewarding experience in living that we call the AA program.

E. E.
Tulsa, Oklahoma 
Grapevine May 1983
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