catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 15 :: 2006.07.28 — 2006.09.08


Alcoholism, the disease

It will be two years, this November, since I’ve turned to Al-anon (support group for families and friends of alcoholics) for help. I wanted to learn how to be in relationships with the active alcoholics without being drawn into their craziness. I’ve spent many hours inside those safe rooms, both listening and talking. I’ve gone from tight-lipped at meetings to talking openly afterwards with my new friends. Al-anon has changed my life. I know what hope is again. I’m learning to practice these principles in all my affairs. I’m more aware of what I can and cannot control, and I practice letting go of things outside of my control. I try to focus on progress, not perfection!

My friends, family and co-workers are getting a little sick of me though. I regularly cycle through learning seasons. I share what I’m learning with whomever I’m around. When I was reading books about Harry Potter, fellow H.P. fans were very interested in what I had been learning. Unfortunately, the topic of alcoholism hasn’t endeared me to anyone. I don’t know why. I wonder if it’s partly because we’ve all been affected by alcoholism. I have yet to talk with a single person who doesn’t have their own framework on how they perceive the disease. What I’ve been learning through my time in Al-anon and my reading, is that most of our perceptions on alcoholism are, well…completely wrong.

I was going to write this great article on how alcoholism is misunderstood, break down some of the widely held misconceptions, and outline how to better think about the disease. It would be boring, but I would enjoy writing it. I knew a few of my friends would read it. But there are others who say it much better than I ever can. So instead of my breaking it down for the masses and getting it wrong, here is an excerpt from a revolutionary book. It was written 25 years ago. The distressing fact is that the book, its thesis and principles are still revolutionary today. Most of the people I’ve ever talked with about alcoholism (except for my friends in AA or Al-anon) believe most of the myths about alcoholism debunked in this book. I’m not even going to go there. Instead, here is an excerpt from the first chapter of Under the Influence by James R. Milam and Katherine Ketcham. It’s a great book. Enjoy!

Alcoholism is tragically and fundamentally misunderstood. Every aspect of the disease is confused, distorted by myth and misconception, and colored by opinions, which have no firm basis in fact. The roots of these myths are deeply buried in an ethical code of behavior that stretches back in time thousands of years. The Roman philosopher and lawyer Seneca (4BC-65AD) pronounced an opinion about drinkers and drunkenness that continues to mold public opinion: “Drunkenness is nothing but a condition of insanity purposely assumed.”

Today the alcoholic is generally considered to be a moral degenerate who chooses a life of abasement and, through lack of will power and maturity, allows himself to lose his job, his family, and his self-respect. The typical alcoholic, the myth informs us, is a person who would rather be drunk than sober, who lacks confidence and maturity, who is riddled with guilt and shame over past deeds and misdeeds, yet lacks the strength of character to change his ways, and who has no guiding purpose or motivation in life. This myth is only one of many which rule the way we think about the disease and its victims.

The myths and misconceptions surrounding the disease of alcoholism and its victims must be rooted out and replaced by already established facts. Only then will professionals cease their infighting and come to an agreement about the causes of the disease; only then will an understanding be reached about why alcoholics drink excessively and what must be done to help them overcome their disease. Only when the myths no longer cloud perception and shape opinion can alcoholics and their disease finally be understood.

A substantial body of scientific facts and information about alcoholism already exists—more than enough to guide research, intervention, and effective treatment. The problem is not a lack of knowledge, but the fact that this knowledge is scattered all over the landscape of the various sciences. What is needed is not more isolated facts and information but a truly unifying scientific view of alcoholism. To be successful, such a concept just meet two primary criteria: (1) All hard data and facts must be respected and accommodated; (2) only those theories and beliefs that are compatible with the already established hard data and facts should be accommodated.

It is the primary purpose of this book to present just such a view of alcoholism. Under the Influence is a guide to the myths and realities of alcoholism. It offers—for the alcoholic and those who hope to understand and treat him—a clear explanation of a disease that has, until now, eluded explanation. This book looks at the substance—alcohol—that causes the disease and explains why this combination chemical, drug, and food is relatively harmless for some but addictive for others. It examines the causes of alcoholism and its gradual but inevitable progression from an early, hidden stage through the first noticeable signs of trouble and on to the catastrophic later stages. The alcoholic’s symptoms are described and the question, “Why does he drink when drinking is destroying him,” is clearly answered. The reader learns how to help the alcoholic into treatment and what kind of treatment the alcoholic must receive if he is to break his addiction and achieve permanent, lasting sobriety.

Finally, the fundamental changes that must occur in social programs, government agencies, research, education, and prevention efforts, the medical profession, and Alcoholics Anonymous are carefully outlined and explained. The very workings of our society in all these areas must shift and change focus if alcoholics are ever to receive the kind of help they deserve.

Separating myth from reality is not an easy task. Myth is, in fact, reality for many people; to suggest that another reality exists is to turn their world upside down. But if the truth about alcoholism is ever to be understood, the myths must be attacked and destroyed. Only facts can destroy myths; and facts are the backbone of this book.

MYTH: Alcohol is predominantly a sedative or depressant drug.

REALITY: Alcohol’s pharmacological effects change with the amount drunk. In small quantities, alcohol is a stimulant. In large quantities, alcohol acts as a sedative. In all amounts, however, alcohol provides a rich and potent source of calories and energy. (Chapter 2)

MYTH: Alcohol has the same chemical and physiological effect on everyone who drinks.

REALITY: Alcohol, like every other food we take into our bodies, affects different people in different ways. (Chapter 2)

MYTH: Alcohol is an addictive drug, and anyone who drinks long and hard enough will become addicted.

REALITY: Alcohol is a selectively addictive drug; it is addictive for only a minority of its users, namely, alcoholics. Most people can drink occasionally, daily, even heavily, without becoming addicted to alcohol. Others (alcoholics) will become addicted no matter how much they drink. (Chapter 2)

MYTH: Alcohol is harmful and poisonous to the alcoholic.

REALITY: Alcohol is a normalizing agent and the best medicine for the pain it creates, giving the alcoholic energy, stimulation, and relief from the pain of withdrawal. Its harmful and poisonous aftereffects are most evident when the alcoholic stops drinking. (Chapters 3 and 4)

MYTH: Addiction to alcohol is often psychological.

REALITY: Addiction to alcohol is primarily physiological. Alcoholics become addicted because their bodies are physiologically incapable of processing alcohol normally. (Chapters 3 and 4)

MYTH:  People become alcoholics because they have psychological or emotional problems, which they try to relieve by drinking.

REALITY: Alcoholics have the same psychological and emotional problems as everyone else before they start drinking. These problems are aggravated, however, by their addiction to alcohol. Alcoholism undermines and weakens the alcoholic’s ability to cope with the normal problems of living. Furthermore, the alcoholic’s emotions become inflamed both when he drinks excessively and when he stops drinking. Thus, when he is drinking and when he is abstinent, he will feel angry, fearful, and depressed in exaggerated degrees. (Chapters 3 and 5)

MYTH: All sorts of social problems—marriage problems, a death in the family, job stress—may cause alcoholism.

REALITY: As with psychological and emotional problems, alcoholics experience all the social pressures everyone else does, but their ability to cope is undermined by the disease and the problems get worse. (Chapters 3, 4, and 5)

MYTH: When the alcoholic is drinking, he reveals his true personality.

REALITY: Alcohol’s effect on the brain causes severe psychological and emotional distortions of the normal personality. Sobriety reveals the alcoholic’s true personality. (Chapters 3 and 9)

MYTH: The fact that alcoholics often continue to be depressed, anxious, irritable, and unhappy after they stop drinking is evidence that their disease is caused by psychological problems.

REALITY: Alcoholics who continue to be depressed, anxious, irritable, and unhappy after they stop drinking are actually suffering from a phenomenon called “the protracted withdrawal syndrome.” The physical damage caused by years of excessive drinking has not been completely reversed; they are, in fact, still sick and in need of more effective therapy. (Chapter 5)

MYTH: If people would only drink responsibly, they would not become alcoholics.

REALITY: Many responsible drinkers become alcoholics. Then, because it is the nature of the disease (not the person), they begin to drink irresponsibly. (Chapters 3 and 4)

MYTH: An Alcoholic has to want help to be helped.

REALITY: Most drinking alcoholics do not want to be helped. They are sick, unable to think rationally, and incapable of giving up alcohol by themselves. Most recovered alcoholics were forced into treatment against their will. Self-motivation usually occurs during treatment, not before. (Chapter 8)

MYTH: Some alcoholics can learn to drink normally and can continue to drink with no ill effects as long as they limit the amount.

REALITY: Alcoholics can never safely return to drinking because drinking in any amount will sooner or later reactivate their addiction. (Chapter 9)

MYTH: Psychotherapy can help many alcoholics achieve sobriety through self-understanding.

REALITY: Psychotherapy diverts attention from the physical causes of the disease, compounds the alcoholic’s guilt and shame, and aggravates rather than alleviates his problems. (Chapters 7 and 9)

MYTH: Craving for alcohol can be offset by eating high sugar foods.

REALITY: Foods with high sugar content will increase the alcoholic’s depression, irritability, and tension and intensify his desire for a drink to relieve these symptoms. (Chapter 9)

MYTH: If alcoholics eat three balanced meals a day, their nutritional problems will eventually correct themselves.

REALITY: Alcoholics’ nutritional needs are only partially met by a balanced diet. They also need vitamin and mineral supplements to correct any deficiencies and to maintain nutritional balances. (Chapter 9)

MYTH: Tranquilizers and sedatives are sometimes useful in treating alcoholics.

REALITY: Tranquilizers and sedatives are useful only during the acute withdrawal period. Beyond that, these substitute drugs are destructive and in many cases, deadly for alcoholics. (Chapters 9 and 10)

From Under the Influence: A Guide to the Myths and Realities of Alcoholism by James R. Milam & Katherine Ketcham, Seattle: Madrona Publishers, 1981, pages 10-15.

This is Sarah again. If your interest is peaked and you’d like to learn more about alcoholism, you need to know what you are getting into. Others probably won’t agree with the facts you are learning. You may not be the life of the party for a few months. Feel free to blame me. Learning more about addiction and alcoholism isn’t all bad. There are some perks. Sometimes I learn things in my readings that others do find fascinating. For those of you who have read this excerpt all the way through, here are a few golden nuggets: Did you know that most double or triple-agents were alcoholics? Did you know that Stalin was an alcoholic? Did you know that Senator Joseph McCarthy (McCarthyism) was frequently hospitalized for alcoholism? Did you know that Adolf Hitler was an amphetamine and barbiturate addict? That does explain why he was so excited all the time. Ha!

Addiction Resources

Books to learn more

  • Vessels of Rage, Engines of Power: The Secret History of Alcoholism by James Graham
  • How to Spot Hidden Alcoholics: Using Behavioral Clues to Recognize Addiction in its Early Stages by Doug Thorburn
  • Under the Influence: A Guide to the Myths and Realities of Alcoholism by James R. Milam and Katherine Ketcham
  • Beyond the Influence: Understanding and Defeating Alcholism by Katherine Ketcham
  • Alcoholism Myths and Realities: Removing the Stigma of Society’s Most Destructive Disease by Doug Thorburn
  • The Medical Casebook of Adolf Hitler by Leonard L. Heston

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