Sadly, many people in the general public believe that it is, and the word ‘alcoholic’ is used as a stigma, with the deliberate intention of expressing extreme disapproval – to make that person feel shame and humiliation. If you label someone an alcoholic, it’s generally felt by that person to be an insult, as a stigma designed to cause them humiliation, and guilt.
One definition of ‘stigma’ is:
“Three out of four people with a mental illness report that they have experienced stigma. Stigma is a mark of disgrace that sets a person apart. When a person is labeled by their illness, they are seen as part of a stereotyped group. Negative attitudes create prejudice, which leads to negative actions and discrimination”.
The label alcoholic, has similar negative associations as the word addict. Therefore it’s understandable and completely normal for anyone with an alcohol addiction to avoid thinking of themselves as an alcoholic, even when they know in their hearts that they are. It’s too shameful for them to admit, even to themselves, that they are in the grip of cravings that they have become powerless to control.
All addictions are defined by this fact:
Everyone afflicted with an addiction, has lost control over the overwhelming desire to consume a drug, or to continue to gamble, or any of the other activities of addiction that people can suffer from.
And they do suffer.
No one ever enjoys having an addiction
Developing any addiction is a nightmare –a nightmare where you cannot wake up without help.
Research now clearly shows that when someone has developed an addiction to alcohol, or any other drug or uncontrollable behavior, they have a mental disorder – a disorder of brain function.
You can actually see it on a scan of the brain. It isn’t weakness or a lack of willpower – it really isn’t. Their brain has changed how it works – they have developed a mental disorder – a medical condition, not a moral weakness.
In the public mind, the amount of stigma felt by someone with an addiction is often a matter of degree: a smoking addiction might cause your friends to be sympathetic, but members of the public and friends will usually condemn you if you have an alcohol or gambling addiction that is obviously damaging your family.
Apart from damaging the person themselves, the harmful effects of an addiction nearly always affect the surrounding people as well. Therefore society has very negative views about people with addictions, and to show their disapproval, they might call someone an alcoholic, or an addict.
When used like this, these words are chosen to deliberately humiliate and shame that person.
Why do people do this? Because it’s obvious to everyone that people with addictions are damaging those around them, and it seems to on lookers, that they never even try to change.
It’s a human reaction to want to use these words to shame someone, but not a fair or accurate reaction. It’s not helpful, and it cannot be justified.
The whole problem with an addiction is that the person’s behaviour has grown beyond their control. Even if they truly do want to stop being controlled by their addiction, they find that they cannot.
That is the defining feature of an addiction. The drives have become too strong, and these abnormally strong cravings result from disordered brain function, not a lack of morals or willpower. It’s a mental health problem – an illness that addicts are powerless to overcome without outside help.
So use of the word ‘alcoholic’ is similar to the use of the word, ‘addict’ – it can be used to humiliate and shame someone, but, when used by someone with an addiction to alcohol to label themselves, it can be the first difficult, and courageous, step to recovery.
That is why one of the first steps in Alcoholics Anonymous is to be able to say out-loud, and in public, “My name is……., and I’m an alcoholic”. This is an extremely difficult step to take for someone with an alcohol addiction.
For years and years, they will have been inventing ‘reasons’ to justify to themselves why they need a drink today, in fact, right now. In their hearts they know they have a problem, but their heads are putting up a string of barricades and defenses so they can live with their ‘need’ to drink, and the act of continuing to do it.
It’s not just, “I think I’d like a beer tonight”. In truth, one part of their brain is saying, “I really know I shouldn’t be doing this”. But there’s an invisible war raging in their heads: a much more powerful and persuasive part of their brain is telling them, “I don’t have a problem. I can stop drinking anytime I want to……and anyway, one drink won’t hurt, will it?”
I will sometimes use the word Alcoholic on this site because it’s convenient, but I will never, ever, be using it in a pejorative, or in a negative way, as a term of abuse.
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