I had a comment this morning that questioned the veracity of the line of thought and study that is the disease concept of alcoholism. It’s a rare day that I’m so lucky as to be able to aid in one’s understanding of how people like me tick. Unfortunately, I’m not a doctor. I don’t even play one on TV. I’m just Jim. I have a day job, I ride a bike for fun, and I just happen to have been sober since 1992 – one day at a time. For the math junkies, that’s 286 months, 8,705 days, 208,899 hours, 12,533,940 minutes, or a little more than three-quarters of a billion seconds (752,036,400). Give or take. Put in context, they say you need to practice something for 10,000 hours to master a field… Imagine what one can do with 208,000 hours.
There is a reason for the length of my sobriety, as I’ve been sober for more years than I was alive when I quit. 24 years sober, I was 22 when I quit. The whole entire State of Michigan wanted me to sober up back then, even if I didn’t. It said, right on all of the paperwork, “The People of the State of Michigan” versus me. With that light bit of humor, the idea of Alcoholism being a disease is a tough one to grasp and argue for doctors, let alone simpletons like you or me. Well, technically, it would probably be simpler to accept for us normal people, but let’s not confuse this simple concept. The root of the problem is the fact that it’s damn near impossible to “prove” one way or the other, so we’re left to arguing or debating the issue. The reason for the length of my sobriety is that I don’t want my misery back. I don’t want to hate myself anymore. I don’t want to be a tornado in my friends’ and family’s lives. The simple reason for the length of my abstinence is that it’s the engine that kills me, not the caboose.
The confusion, or at the very least, a good explanation for the confusion, is the act of drinking alcohol itself. The act of drinking alcohol can seem, for the lack of a shorter word, a choice. Most normal people get hung up right there and simply can’t think any further into what happens next. “Choice” doesn’t quite cut it though, after the disease has had a chance to progress, because let me tell you something about when you’re caught in the throws of the disease and you can’t stop shaking uncontrollably once your system runs out of alcohol… unless you take a drink or two to calm your nerves down your pooched; At that point, choice has little to do with it. I digress.
After that first little taste enters the system, what is described as the “phenomena of craving” is touched off in the alcoholic (or aspiring alcoholic). This is where drinking ceases being a choice and becomes a disease. In approximately ten percent of the population (last I checked) the brain processes the molecule of alcohol differently (or any mood or mind-altering chemical). Where most despise the “tipsy” or “high” feeling, the pleasure center in the alcoholic’s brain lights up. Look at this as you would an allergy.
In other words, the disease part of addiction is what happens after that first sip enters the system (and to add a dimension to it, after the drinker progresses to an alcoholic)… Now, as for that first drink being a “choice”, being a recovering alcoholic, I’d like to take a minute to explain how that “choice” works. For me, it started out as an argument in my head. I often like to describe this as a committee in my head that has a debate – think of it as a school board meeting without the violence. I like to call this my “melon committee”. This is a little simplistic, and a little misleading, but for the purposes of this post, “committee” works. So the first thought enters my head, that I want a beer (or twelve – humorously I never craved a twelve-pack of Mountain Dew). This touches off a discussion about whether or not this is wise. The further I progress into the disease, the more feeble my ability to argue against a drink becomes. I cease wanting it, and progress to needing it. The sane, good me will lose the argument and end up slobbering drunk. Read another way, if I allow the argument to begin in my head, I cannot win. Again, it’s the locomotive – the engine – that got me, not the caboose. Once I lost the argument and took that first drink, I was utterly helpless to stop adding more – the phenomenon of craving takes complete control. The problem is that I sucked at winning the argument because drinking made me feel so good in the first place. Back when I was in the height of my alcoholism, it was the only thing that made me feel “okay”. Eventually drinking became my escape from the hell that was my existence as well and that compounded the problem. Now you can call that a “choice” if you want but I’d argue until you’ve experienced what I’ve lived through, you don’t know your ass from a hole in the ground. Just sayin’. Worse, the disease is progressive. It gets worse until we’re down to three options: Death, insanity or quit. Some choice. How do you quit the only thing you know that makes you feel okay**?!
The final part of this post, after all of that about the disease concept, is to explain how to know when you’re hit – and it’s quite simple, really. Taking this way back, for me, to that first drink, my first time drunk at sixteen years-old, that first time I started to feel tipsy, I loved the feeling. I felt alive. For the first time I felt whole, for the first time ever I wasn’t afraid. I didn’t feel “less than” everyone else. This is how you know that you’re in trouble. Most normal people don’t like that tipsy feeling whereas almost all alcoholics (every one that I’ve ever known, and that’s a big number) fall in love with the feeling either instantly or in short order.
If adding alcohol “fixes” what ails you in any way, you’re on a short leash. Be careful. What comes next is hard to live through. Hard enough that many don’t.
Now you can call this a choice if you wish. I respect your right to be wrong. I wish it were that easy – I’d still be drinking if it was.
**Much of this post can be incorrectly taken as though I’d written it from the point of view that I’m some kind of victim, or I was a victim. Read this post… I do not subscribe to the victim mentality.