Alcoholism As a Disease

But It Doesn't Act Like a Disease!

Man drinking whisky and smoking
Image Source/Digital Vision/Getty Images

One of the difficulties in recognizing alcoholism as a disease is it just plain doesn't seem like one. It doesn't look, sound, smell and it certainly doesn't act like a disease. To make matters worse, generally it denies it exists and resists treatment.

Alcoholism has been recognized for many years by professional medical organizations as a primary, chronic, progressive and sometimes fatal disease.

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence offers a detailed and complete definition of alcoholism, but probably the most simple way to describe it is "a mental obsession that causes a physical compulsion to drink."

Mental obsession? Did you ever wake up in the morning with a song playing over and over in your head? It might have been a commercial jingle you heard on television, or a song from the radio, but it kept playing ... and playing and playing.

Mental Obsession

Remember what that was like? No matter what you did, that silly tune kept on playing. You could try to whistle or sing another song or turn on the radio and listen to another tune, but the one in your head just kept on playing. Think about it. There was something going on in your mind that you didn't put there and, no matter how hard you tried, couldn't get out!

That is an example of a simple mental obsession -- a thought process over which you have no control.

Such is the nature of the disease of alcoholism. When the drinking "song" starts playing in the mind of an alcoholic, he is powerless. He didn't put the song there and the only way to get it to stop is to take another drink.

The problem is the alcoholic's mental obsession with alcohol is much more subtle than a song playing in his mind.

In fact, he may not even know it's there. All he knows is he suddenly has an urge to take a drink -- a physical compulsion to drink.

Pursuit of Alcohol Become Pathological

Scientists tells us that what actually happens is alcohol use over the years can slowly change the chemistry in the wiring of the reward system of the brain to the point that the alcoholic continues to drink compulsively even after it ceases to bring pleasure, or even bring relief from stress or anxiety.

When it gets to the point that alcoholics continue to drink in spite of mounting negative consequences and long after drinking ceases to be rewarding, researchers tell us their continued compulsion to drink become pathological.

They have become addicted to alcohol.

Progressive Disease

Compounding the problem is the progressive nature of the disease. In its early stages, taking one or two drinks may be all it takes to get the "song" to stop. But soon it takes six or seven and later maybe ten or twelve. Somewhere down the road the only time the song stops is when he passes out.

The progression of the disease is so subtle and usually takes place over such an extended period of time, that even the alcoholic himself failed to notice the point at which he lost control -- and alcohol took over -- his life.

No wonder denial is an almost universal symptom of the disease. For those who have come to the realization that they do have a problem, help may be as close as the white pages of the telephone directory. But for those who need help and do not want it, intervention may be the only alternative.

Do you have a drinking problem? You may want to take the Alcohol Abuse Screening Quiz to see how you compare.

Continue Reading