Friday, August 27, 2010

Why Can't She Just STOP?

Why won't she stop drinking?  It's ruining her life, why won't she just STOP? 

If you are a loved one - a friend or family member - of an alcoholic, you may ask yourself this question a lot.

If you are drinking and can't stop, if you are drinking without your own permission, you may be asking yourself the same sort of questions:  what is WRONG with me?   Why can't I just stop?

In recent weeks I have had several conversations with people, on both sides of this equation, who are wondering these things.   It's an odd feeling, trying to explain something so complex and so personal for me.   Typically, when asked, I will share some of my own experiences, try to help people understand through the lens of my own addiction and recovery.    But everyone is different - there is no blueprint  for the way alcoholism presents itself, or progresses.    There is, however, one thing that is known by the medical and scientific community to be true.

Alcoholism is a disease.   The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says the following:
Alcoholism is a disease. The craving that an alcoholic feels for alcohol can be as strong as the need for food or water. An alcoholic will continue to drink despite serious family, health, or legal problems.

Like many other diseases, alcoholism is chronic, meaning that it lasts a person's lifetime; it usually follows a predictable course; and it has symptoms. The risk for developing alcoholism is influenced both by a person's genes and by his or her lifestyle. (See also "Publications," Alcohol Alert No. 30: Diagnostic Criteria for Alcohol Abuse and Dependence.)
When I was in treatment, and they were explaining the biological roots of alcoholism to me, it was freeing.   Finally, I was able to understand that I had a disease that I could no more control than I could if my body was fighting cancer, diabetes or asthma.    Will power had nothing to do with it, any more than will power would come into play if my body didn't produce enough insulin, or my cells had turned cancerous.  

I have heard - even in the alcoholic/recovery community - from people who don't agree that it is a disease.   I have heard from loved ones that the disease concept makes them fearful - that it enables someone struggling with alcoholism to throw up their hands and say, "See?  I can't help it!"

I look at it this way:  my disease is organic, it is biologically based like an allergy.   I didn't choose to be an alcoholic, or invite this disease to attack me through weak moral character or a lack of will power.   All I needed to do to awaken the seed of alcoholism that lay dormant in me was to drink alcohol.   Something I hear over and over in recovery meetings, and I identify strongly with, is people describing how drinking felt to them at first - like a light switch clicked on inside of them, that they had found something they had needed all their lives.   

I didn't have any choices once I drank - one drink and I couldn't predict what would happen.   I always drank with the intention of having only one or two.  I never set out to have too much, to ruin my health, my mental and physical well being.    This is why the allergy comparison feels so right to me - my body and mind react differently to alcohol, and it happens the minute I put alcohol in my system.

My disease may be organic, but my recovery is my responsibility.   I relapsed over and over as I struggled to get sober, and I look back at that time and try to figure out what the common denominator was, why for so long I couldn't stop, and then why I did, finally I hope, get sober.

I don't know that I'll ever have one answer for this question, but one fact remains clear to me:  until I understood that I was powerless over alcohol - that one drink triggered all the other stuff - I didn't have a chance.   For me, learning that alcoholism was a disease was the final piece that had to click into place.   Once I understood that will power not only didn't count, but was making things WORSE, I stepped out of the way and asked for help.   The same way I would if a doctor solemnly told me I had diabetes, the only question I needed to ask was "what do I need to do?"  

The treatment plan revolves around staying away from that first drink.    For me, it is recovery meetings, prayer and the comfort of talking with people who understand.    It is a disease that convinces you that you're not sick.  Once you feel physically and mentally better, once the wreckage caused by drinking is repaired, it is easy to believe you're okay now, that you can control it.    I go to recovery meetings and talk to other people in recovery to stay close to the fact that I can't drink in safety, to maintain my defense against that first drink (I go to meetings for so many more reasons than that, but that is a discussion for another time).

The other question that is asked by people struggling with their drinking and their loved ones is:  how do I know if I'm an alcoholic?   My response is always this:  it doesn't matter how much, or how often, it matters what it does to you. 

There are countless quizzes and checklists out there, but I like this one by the NIAA because it is short, to the point:
Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?
Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?

Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?

Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?

One "yes" answer suggests a possible alcohol problem. More than one "yes" answer means it is highly likely that a problem exists.
I like this checklist because it cuts to the chase - 'regular' drinkers don't spend any time worrying about their drinking, or feeling guilty about it.     So many people are diagnosed after their life has become a roiling mess, and it is beyond clear to everyone involved that drinking is at the root of the problem.   This checklist could help people catch their disease in its earliest stages, when the niggling doubts and fears are mostly internal.

If you are struggling with alcohol, if you answered yes to one or more of the questions above, please get help.   A physician is a good place to start if you're not ready to talk with loved ones or walk into a recovery meeting.    

Facing the truth is the biggest hurdle towards getting well.    It takes courage - whether you're struggling yourself or you love someone who is - to tell the truth, to overcome the stigma of alcoholism and cut through denial. 

If someone had any other chronic and fatal illness people wouldn't wonder if they were weak of character or will power.   The stigma of alcoholism keeps people sick.  Denial - on both sides of the equation - prevents the symptoms from being recognized.   

The truth, however, could save a life, because alcoholism always, always progresses.  

Always.

12 comments:

  1. fabulous post! I agree in so many ways. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I just put together my speech for accepting my 1 year AA cake (in 2 weeks...I'm nervous so I already wrote it out), and it was mostly based on what you have said here. It was nice to come over here and read what I've been thinking and writing for the past week. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  3. So well written.
    Thank you for this!

    ReplyDelete
  4. i must echo the lovely corinne, very well written. it's so hard for me to accept the disease without worrying that i'm giving the addiction the fuse to go..oh well i can't help it. However when you wrote "My disease may be organic, but my recovery is my responsibility" that just sums it up beautifully. Thank you, once again, for your strong inspiration.

    ReplyDelete
  5. thank you for writing this out. its a really hard concept to grasp - for me.

    there has been much alcoholism in my family and my son's father is an alcoholic. he complained and complained about how his father was one and he was NOT like his father, would NEVER be like his father and then - he is. due to that and accompanying mental problems for which he refuses to get help, he's never met his son. I get very frustrated as he emails me sometimes and complains that its not fair even though he admits he has a drinking problem (but likes it too much to stop) and depression and on and on and he's not willing to change but I should just accept him as he is. I just can't. not for my or my son's safety and well-being, I just won't.

    the most upsetting time to me was when he says (i have a really difficult time believing anything he says anymore) he called AA and they told him if he could stop for a week, he was not an alcoholic. so he stopped for a week and then went right on back to his liter or more a day of Jack Daniels. he kept telling me "I don't drink when I'm in rehearsal" or "during a show" (he's an actor) and I kept asking "well, then what are those drinks?" (I never saw him stop ever) "well, this time is different." there's always a reason. always something that MAKES it so he HAS to drink. ALWAYS. so frustrating. and sad.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Nina - I'm sorry for your pain. I have a really hard time believing that AA would tell anyone they aren't an alcoholic (indeed, I don't think they would tell anyone they ARE, either - they would simply direct them to meetings). I think the story you tell emphasizes why it's such a baffling disease - and why denial keeps people sick. It's a hard reality that until someone surrenders to the fact that they are powerless over alcohol, there isn't much hope. And all the reasons, excuses, explanations (like "I don't drink during a show", etc.) are all part of the symptomology and the person's determination to be able to control it.

    And, like I said in the post, it's a disease but it's up to the person to own it themselves. It's so hard to watch, because it's like watching someone diagnosed with any other terminal, chronic illness but they decide they aren't sick and refuse treatment.

    Thank you for sharing a bit of your story - I'm sure there are many people who can relate.

    -Ellie

    ReplyDelete
  7. It's so true, when you start to feel better it seems impossible that you have a "real" problem. It's so important to hear from others who went further down the road that we don't have to go that far to recognize the truth, get help, and stop the progression.

    ReplyDelete
  8. TINATUNNELL1972@YAHOO.COMSeptember 2, 2010 at 11:25 AM

    Idea: Maybe have your husband host your blog for a day and allow us to see his side of the story. Many of us are affected by our loved ones and their addiction(s). It would be nice to hear I am not alone and possibly gain some inside information/tips on how to handle it.

    My father is an alcoholic. He has admitted it and worst of all he has "accepted" it. He has no plans to quit. My mother knows he will die this way, yet allows herself to be brought down and kept down not only emotionally but financially as well. She has too "accepted" it. My mother does not drink.
    My brother has washed his hands and has no contact with our father and has little to no contact with our mother. This breaks my heart for I know how this hurts my mother.

    I mean, what would have happened to you if your husband abandoned you? Where would you be, recovery or still afflicted?

    Is there hope for my family? Should I abandon them both? What can I do? I'm interested in hearing the other side's opinion.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Tina -

    You ask really good, and really difficult, questions.

    From a personal standpoint, I'll never know if I would still be drinking (if I were lucky enough to still be alive) if my husband had left with the kids. As it happened, he told me - and meant it - that if I didn't stop he was gone, the kids with him, and thankfully for me that was enough.

    Perhaps more importantly, though, I also believe I would still be drinking if he hadn't drawn that line in the sand -- if he had stayed by me, I wouldn't have had the strength to stop on my own. Of this I am SURE.

    That seems to be the situation you describe with your father - it's so very hard. I don't have any answers, and I'm reluctant to try because I don't know you or your family, of course, but what I've learned is that I can only control myself, and that I have to let other people make their own choices. I hear it over and over, that I can't control people, places, or things, and it's so true. I can only listen to my own heart, get advice from people who are safe, and set my own boundaries.

    My advice would be to talk to people, get advice from people you trust, and listen to what your heart says. Unfortunately, whether or not you stick around or walk away won't change your Dad's drinking, or your Mom's staying with him. Make the decision that protects you the most, that feels right in your heart. Don't decide what to do based on any reaction you hope to provoke in someone else, because you can't predict or control what anyone else does.

    Having said that, I know that people loving me enough to walk away was what finally got me sober. It doesn't always work that way, and it's very painful to walk away and have someone keep drinking or using. Sometimes, weighing pain that you know (staying) with an unknown future(leaving) can help.

    Al-Anon is a great resource, too. There you can find people who have walked this path before you, and who truly understand. ACOA (adult children of alcoholics) is another one. You deserve to have support around you, too.

    I'm sorry for your pain. Truly. Keep talking, and listen with your ears and with your heart.

    -Ellie

    ReplyDelete
  10. It's so true, when you start to feel better it seems impossible that you have a "real" problem. It's so important to hear from others who went further down the road that we don't have to go that far to recognize the truth, get help, and stop the progression.

    ReplyDelete
  11. TINATUNNELL1972@YAHOO.COMNovember 24, 2010 at 3:23 PM

    Idea: Maybe have your husband host your blog for a day and allow us to see his side of the story. Many of us are affected by our loved ones and their addiction(s). It would be nice to hear I am not alone and possibly gain some inside information/tips on how to handle it.

    My father is an alcoholic. He has admitted it and worst of all he has "accepted" it. He has no plans to quit. My mother knows he will die this way, yet allows herself to be brought down and kept down not only emotionally but financially as well. She has too "accepted" it. My mother does not drink.
    My brother has washed his hands and has no contact with our father and has little to no contact with our mother. This breaks my heart for I know how this hurts my mother.

    I mean, what would have happened to you if your husband abandoned you? Where would you be, recovery or still afflicted?

    Is there hope for my family? Should I abandon them both? What can I do? I'm interested in hearing the other side's opinion.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I just put together my speech for accepting my 1 year AA cake (in 2 weeks...I'm nervous so I already wrote it out), and it was mostly based on what you have said here. It was nice to come over here and read what I've been thinking and writing for the past week. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete