The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence offers a detailed and complete definition of alcoholism, but probably the simplest way to describe it is as "a mental obsession that causes a physical compulsion to drink."
Alcoholism has been recognized by most professional medical organizations as a disease. These organizations subsequently have successfully lobbied many states’ insurance regulators (including the New York insurance regulators) to view alcoholism as a chronic and progressive disease. These state insurance regulators then use their authority to mandate that all heath care insurance policies sold within their borders must include coverage to allow the medical and treatment community to be compensated for treating alcoholics – just as treatment for most other health issues be treated and paid for by the insurance companies.
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.
“Why” skeptics ask, “is addiction to alcohol considered a ‘disease’ when not even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider addiction to tobacco products to be a disease? What’s the difference?” (Both addictions are recognized as causes of other diseases, but alcoholism is itself defined as a disease yet addiction to tobacco products is not a disease onto itself.)
There is general agreement that one-time practicing alcoholics who are now clean & sober quit drinking only after becoming motivated enough to stop - that the motivation to stop is the greatest tool in the battle to live a healthy and sober lifestyle.
“Seriously”, the skeptics continue, “since when can simply the motivation to be healthy be the only requirement to become cured? One can not cure cancer or heart disease by simply being motivated to be cancer free and healthy.”
“How does an alcoholic who has finally stopped abusing alcohol after numerous trips to various treatment centers finally beat his / her addiction? Are we to believe that the counselors didn’t heal the addict during the first, second or even the third time around, but wow, the counselors at the fourth treatment center were the only ones who were competent? Of course that’s nonsense! Sixty or seventy percent of the other patients who also entered the now ‘cured’ alcoholic’s very first treatment program were themselves ‘cured’, while our guy didn’t stop his substance abuse. Why? It’s very simple, it’s because our guy wasn’t motivated enough at first to quit!”
These skeptics continue: “People can and do ‘quit’ drinking. Diseases can not be ‘quit’.”
“Alcoholism” one of these cynics asserts, “wasn’t even considered a disease by Bill Wilson, the founder of “Alcoholics Anonymous” nor is it ever referred to as a disease in the Alcoholics Anonymous ‘Big Book’. “It’s a disease because state insurance regulators say that it’s a disease.”
“I was an alcoholic.” wrote another skeptic “I have recovered from alcoholism in the same way that I would recover from a superficial self inflicted gunshot wound - I do not suffer from alcoholism anymore, not since I stopped drinking. Alcoholism is as much a disease as is a bullet wound; you can die from either but once the patient becomes healthy again, the he / she’s healed - one won't die from that particular wound again. Just don't shoot yourself again – or drink again.”
“Here’s another example.” another cynic chimed in. “Some say that a person who drank to excess years ago but hasn’t consumed alcohol for many years is still an alcoholic – that he’s ‘in remission’. Well, I had the measles when I was a youngster but after a week or so, time and the antibodies in my immune system cured me of the disease. To say that I'm still an alcoholic even though I haven’t had a drink in a decade is the same as saying I still have the measles, that both are just ‘in remission’.”
Alcoholism is a Mental Obsession
Did you ever wake up in the morning with a song playing over and over in your head? I remember what that was like, no matter what I did, that silly tune kept on playing; I could whistle or sing another song or turn on the radio and listen to another tune, but the one in my head just kept on playing. Think about that, there was something going on in my mind that I didn't put there and, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get out!
That is an example of a simple mental obsession - a thought process over which we have no control. Such is the nature of alcoholism. When the drinking ‘song’ starts playing in the mind of an alcoholic, we are powerless. We 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 is a song playing in his mind; in fact, we may not even know it's there. All we know is that we suddenly have an urge to take a drink - a physical compulsion to drink.
The Progressive Nature of Alcoholism
Compounding the problem is the progressive nature of alcoholism. In the 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 we pass out.
The progression of alcoholism is 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 Google. But for those who need help and do not want it, intervention may seem to be the only alternative.
Intervention Only Works When the Alcoholic is Motivated to Stop Drinking
As was stated above, the alcohol will only stop drinking when he, himself or herself, is motivated to stop drinking. Intervention and other threats from spouses, other family members or employers and ‘forced’ enrollment in a treatment center may – in some instances - be the motivating factor, but no alcoholic will stop drinking until he /she has his /herself the motivation to become clean & sober.