What is An Alcoholic?


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"Are you an alcoholic, Andy?"

"I don't know. I don't think I'm an alcoholic. "

"Do you want to quit drinking?"

Andy thought for a moment, and whispered, “Yes. I want to quit. "

"Then the first thing you have to do is admit you're an alcoholic. You can't possibly quit until you do that. "

"I know I drink a lot. But how do I know if I'm an alcoholic? It's not like I'm on skid row or something. "

"It sounds like you're in denial, Andy. Nothing will change until you admit you're an alcoholic. "

Andy had missed several days work after going on a drinking binge, and now his well-meaning boss was trying to help him to quit. The boss - knowing that Andy had problems with alcohol - had taken the time to learn about addictions. Now he was passing on some of the information he had read.

Andy’s boss is well-meaning, but the advice he gave Andy - although widely accepted as gospel - is false and counter-productive.

The word alcoholic often creates more problems than it solves.

Firstly, there is no clear meaning of what it means to be an “alcoholic. " Although Andy recognizes that he drinks to excess, he isn't certain whether or not he's an alcoholic because he doesn't know what an alcoholic is. How much do you have to drink to be an “alcoholic"? Andy doesn't know, and neither does anybody else. Deciding at which point a heavy drinker becomes an “alcoholic" is purely arbitrary.

A second problem with the word “alcoholic" is that it is often seen as a derogatory term. Possibly because there is no clear definition of the word, Andy equates being an alcoholic with being on skid row. Nobody wants to see themselves as being on the very bottom of the social hierarchy so it's no surprise that - along with most other problem-drinkers - Andy is reluctant to label himself as an “alcoholic". And because he doesn't regard himself as an alcoholic, he may not see himself as having a problem. And if he doesn't have a problem, then - as he sees it - he doesn't need to change his behavior.

Thirdly, if Andy sees himself as an “alcoholic, " he may begin to hate himself. Once he sees himself as loathsome, he will drink more to help him forget what a detestable human being he is.

Fourthly, if Andy sees himself as an “alcoholic" he may infer that he will be one for the rest of his life - once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. If he believes this, what incentive is there for him to try and change?

Fifthly, Andy may join many other “alcoholics" and blame his drinking on the “fact" that he is an “alcoholic. " The word alcoholic leads to circular thinking: “I'm an alcoholic. I can't control my drinking because I'm an alcoholic. Because I can't control my drinking, I'm an alcoholic. " Being an alcoholic is caused by drinking uncontrollably. Drinking uncontrollably is caused by being an alcoholic. With that kind of circular reasoning, there is little hope for recovery.

Sixthly, many people who believe they are “alcoholics" also believe that they “need" to drink. In their eyes, they need to drink because they are “alcoholics. " If they stopped labeling themselves as “alcoholics, " they could start to see that drinking is a behavioral choice, not a need.

By insisting that Andy call himself an “alcoholic, " his boss isn't helping Andy to change his self-defeating drinking.

Instead of insisting that Andy label himself an “alcoholic, " Andy's boss might have better helped Andy by getting him to recognize that drinking was causing him more harm than good.

If Andy would “admit" to himself that drinking is hurting his health, interfering with his relationships, jeopardizing his job, and crippling his finances, he will be more likely to recognize that he would benefit from changing his behavior.

Instead of getting into a battle with his boss as to whether or not he is an “alcoholic, " Andy would then see that he has a problem and (hopefully) make the decision to do something about it.

Labeling is just one of the many different types of irrational thinking that exacerbate problem drinking. Learning to think rationally about the causes and effects of alcohol abuse has helped many heavy drinkers to cut down or to quit drinking entirely.

Andy's boss has his heart in the right place, but his methods are not helpful. Instead of getting Andy to admit that he is an “alcoholic, " he would do well to refer Andy to SMART Recovery, a self-help group based on the teachings of Dr. Albert Ellis, creator of rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT). SMART teaches its members how to adopt a rational approach to drinking and other self-defeating behavior. It does not insist that its members call themselves “alcoholics. "

Forcing people to admit that they are “alcoholics" may help some heavy drinkers to alter their behavior, but for many more heavy drinkers, it has the opposite effect.

Contrary to popular belief, getting rid of the label “alcoholic" is the first step in helping many heavy drinkers to see that recovery is possible.

About the author:

Bob Bobson is a social commentator with a passion for the pursuit of an ethical, rewarding, and joyous life. Guided by reason and compassion, he revels in a life without recourse to the airy-fairy and the supernatural. Bob has been inspired by Albert Ellis , creator of rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT).


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