Alcohol Addiction: Mental Disease or Choice?

Decisions, decisions

As I reach for my third water bottle within the hour to cure my killer hangover, I think back to the vague events of the night before. I scroll through my camera roll at the numerous pictures taken to help my memory. Cheeks pressing together with big smiles pass by, live photos capture stumbling dancers. The next photo is one of me by myself, and from the first glance at my eyes, low and red, I get an intrusive thought, one that has haunted me for years: Am I becoming my father’s daughter? After a decade of watching his internal battle with alcohol addiction, I have suppressed numerous lingering questions that have perplexed my subconscious. The one that stumps me the most, may be the most significant one to find an answer to: Is alcohol addiction a choice or a disease?

These reoccurring thoughts have followed me throughout my college career. While I know that my drinking is far less severe than his, it’s the idea that I could become him through genetics or behavioral learning that has paralyzed me with fear the mornings after drinking. I have seen his actions and questioned mine own on more than one occasion. The last four years I have been struggling to balance my disgust with alcohol while still trying to have a “normal” college experience. From what I have seen and grown up around, from a young age I learned that alcohol is not just for social gatherings and footballs games. I was taught through observation that alcohol goes into your first cup of coffee at 6 a.m. for that extra kick, it belongs in the laundry room to pass the time, and it most definitely is deserved after a long night of babysitting your own kids. I watched both sides of my family do this, but no one talked about it. People talk about cancer or leukemia as an unfortunate illness, but alcoholism they do not. So, then it must be a choice, right?

When I would watch my dad’s drinking cycle fluctuate, from binging every night to taking a couple of weeks off, I decided that it was his choice. I would think he was choosing to stay sober for a few weeks, and then got bored of an ordinary life so he started up again. I told myself that he chose to continue to blur the thin edges of reality, and swim down to his fantasy world that was waiting for him at the last sip of a pilsner glass. I did not believe that he was this big, strong man that he physically appeared to be. Instead, I saw someone beaten down by his pride and insecurities, but that was someone I couldn’t reach soberly.

To this day, I’ll never know exactly he was looking for at the bottom of those bottles, but I do know even behind blurry eyes and heavy eyelids he could see the dangerous game he was playing. This reality came crashing down on him my sophomore year of college. My parents separated for eight months, and during that time I saw that weak man, not as pathetic as I once had, but sick. My dad was still swimming down, down, down, but this time not to the bottom of a bottle, but reality. He did not know how to function without someone by his side, my mom played both roles for so long that when he had to play his own, he stumbled. He promised my family that he had stopped drinking, he begged me to come home from school and see him as a changed man. When I finally decided to see him, he had the shakes, he was irritable, and he was looking for God. In 20 years, I had never seen my dad pray. During this time away from his family, he prayed every day for help. I heard his pleas for a cure and a second chance. Seeing the physical effects and how dejected he was, the word “disease” crossed my mind for the first time.

I did some research online and found that America alone has a serious drinking problem. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) shows that 32 million Americans, every one in seven adults, have battled with a serious alcohol problem in the last year alone. It has also been found that when people drink, they tend to drink more commonly and intensely than any other decade before. Binge drinking has become a nationwide epidemic. George Koob, director of the NIAAA, said that the study also found that for those who have had a diagnosis in the past year, under 8% of people have received treatment to get help. Koob believes the stigma attached to seeking treatment and denial are heavy factors to why the treatment numbers are so low (Main, 2015).

Alcohol has been a problem in this country for centuries, in the 19th century there were meek attempts of banning sales due to religious reasons and the beliefs of alcohol being a destructive force in the family home. Many of these laws were repealed within a couple of years. In the 20th century, there was again another attempt to ban the manufacturing, transportation, and sales during Prohibition Era in the 1920-1930’s (History.com). The reoccurring effort to outlaw alcohol shows strong supporting evidence of the issue of individuals abusing alcohol. For a lucky few, this act was a blessing in disguise. The gangsters were all for this act, they would gain money, respect, and notoriety. From the first day of the Prohibition, gangsters saw a business opportunity they could not refuse. In major cities like New York and Chicago, gangs had been stocking up on alcohol and supplies for weeks prior. For almost 14 years’ gang violence and crime rates skyrocketed, the mafia, notoriously run by New York native, Al Capone, brought in $100 million a year through speakeasies and bootleggers. Speakeasies were illegal bars or night clubs which a secret handshake or knock was needed to enter. Once inside, the bootleggers were the ones who supplied the alcohol illegally (Sandbrook, 2012). Eventually, politicians came to the consensus that enforcing sobriety was going to fail and was costing the nation billions of dollars. In 1933, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution was passed and ratified, ending national Prohibition (History.com).

Although I would not be a thought for another 70 years after the Prohibition Era, I feel like I lived through it by watching my family and their habits. The haunting question of when the next time they could get a drink to settle their anxious nerves, the watchful eyes for their superiors walking by, the debating between morality and self-indulgence all play a role during the Prohibition Era and in my bloodline. The secrecy that was held within the speakeasies is also applied to the infamous bar downtown in my hometown. Enclosed beyond the doors painted as the Irish flag, is two generations of secrets, shame, and attempts of escapism.

When we were young, this bar used to hold Christmas parties for the member’s kids. Santa would come in and give us all toys and the fathers would hold up their beers in unison during “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Only Irish Americans were allowed, and their parent’s families had to be originally from my town. I went to elementary school with majority of the children there, all the way up to high school, there was never a moment in all those years where any of us spoke of this bar or Christmas parties outside of it. It was like being part of a modern-day mafia where only certain people were included and specific people were rewarded for staying away. Seeing their friends that they grew up with continue the habits their parents had, it is no wonder my dad, his siblings, and their close friends never saw anything wrong or shameful of this place.

After coming to this realization, it dawned on me that this delusion might be the reason why the other 92% of people with an alcohol addiction do not receive treatment. There are many stigmas that people with alcohol addiction face, the number one being that they get called alcoholics. Facing a stigma is one of the most challenging aspects because it makes it harder for the individual and their families to get the help they need. Society tends to believe that addicts and their families are weak, or flawed people who cannot cope without a vice. Aside from just stigmas, they can face discrimination as well. Some of these stigmas are that alcoholics are lazy, unmotivated, uneducated, have a moral weakness, dangerous, and abusive. While there definitely are some individuals who fall under these categories, majority of people do not. There are plenty of people who go about their day as business people, good family people, and even politicians and then drink later or in secret. Alcohol dependency can happen to anyone, and to any family regardless of race, religion, or economic status.

Surprisingly enough, there are even stigmas for people who do not drink, or for recovering alcoholics that stop drinking altogether. I have experienced this first hand while out at some bars, on multiple occasions. There have been some nights where I want to go out to be sociable, but do not feel the need to drink. When I ask for a water, or a soda, it feels like the whole bar crowd hears you have the audacity not to order an alcoholic drink. People look at you differently, like they want to see why you think you’re above everyone else there that is drinking. Or they think that you used to have a drinking problem and judge you on that. Either way it seems to be a lose-lose situation. Experiencing both sides of the stigma is interesting, it puts it into perspective how much society likes to put their two cents into other people’s business.

One night, a couple of summers ago, I was out to eat with my family. I ordered a water with my meal, and the waiter looked at me weirdly. There was that ironic stigma again. When he brought my water to the table, all I remember is staring into my glass of water and wondering if my dad was ever one of those guys who judged those who came in and did not drink. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to believe that wasn’t who he was. I wanted to believe that he knew he had the choice to say no too. I wanted him to understand that it took strength to not give in to peer pressure, judging eyes, and addiction. I wanted to tell him that I found my strength within these situations from him and his decisions. But I never did. There are those damn secrets again.

People tell me that my dad and I are similar people, and I used to despise it because I once hated who he was. I admit that I always have seen a lot of myself in my dad, and it took me a very long time to accept some of these characteristics. For so long I was so angry and in defense mode with him that I couldn’t see past these emotions. He was the same way, he was angry at the world for reasons I still do not know all the answers to. We were both so blinded by anger over different situations that we could not communicate with each other with love or understanding. It took two full years of hell, with my family falling apart and coming back together to be able to express compassion and sympathy with each other. There are still some things we don’t talk about, either out of fear or denial, but we are working on it as a family. My fear of becoming him comes from a part of me that is still healing, and I’m hoping over time this wound heals completely.

In time I believe I will find a real answer to all of my lingering questions, no matter how much research I do I cannot be fully convinced either way. I still am not sure if I believe alcoholism is a full disease. The chemical imbalance it creates comes after years of deciding to drink more, people with depression or bipolar are born with that already in their brains. As for it being a choice or addiction, yes, I believe in that till the wheels fall off. I make my choices and he makes his. But at the end of the day, choices are what get any of us anywhere. I would not be who I am today if I had not grown up with a parent of addiction. My perspective, decisions, and outlook on alcohol would be completely altered. Who knows, maybe if I had not grown up and watched him, it would have been my decision to become addicted.

Works Cited

Douglas Main. 30 PERCENT OF AMERICANS HAVE HAD AN ALCOHOL-USE DISORDER. NewsWeek. June 3, 2015. Web. http://www.newsweek.com/30-percent-americans-have-had-alcohol-use-disorder-339085

History.com Staff Writer. Prohibition. 2009. Web. http://www.history.com/topics/prohibition

History.com Staff Writer. Prohibition Ends. History.com. 2010. Web. http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/prohibition-ends

Sandbrook, Dominick. How Prohibition Backfired and Gave America an Era of Gangsters and Speakeasies. The Guardian. August 25, 2012. Web. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2012/aug/26/lawless-prohibition-gangsters-speakeasies

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Alcohol Addiction: Mental Disease or Choice?