It has long been accepted by the medical and counselling professions that alcoholism is a primary, progressive, chronic and sometimes fatal disease. Alcoholism is found in every walk of life, from the rich to the poor, from the educated to the uneducated. It knows no social or economic barriers. Without help, many alcoholics die alone and miserable.

Many patterns of drinking

There are many patterns of drinking and no single pattern determines whether someone is an alcoholic or not. Some people drink socially. They may have a drink or two at a party or they may not. Either way, alcohol does not create any problems for them.

Another group of people drinks heavily. Each has a great capacity for large amounts of alcohol and can drink without negative consequences. If they are asked to stop drinking for any reason, they can do so easily, and therefore would not be considered an alcoholic either.

Some alcoholics drink daily, some only on the weekends, some only once a month or every few months. Some drink beer, some drink hard liquor and some drink only wine. It is not the quantity of alcohol consumed or the frequency of consumption but the underlying emotional and physical reasons why someone drinks that determines the presence of this illness.

A well-defined purpose

The alcoholic drinks with a well-defined purpose: to drown out their problems and pain. They drink to bring relief and as a way of coping. They drink to avoid everyday problems, and for a while it works. But eventually their drinking begins to cause trouble at home and at work. They may start lying about their drinking, their personality starts to change, and they become moody, irritable and angry. They may start missing work, lose jobs, stay out all night, drive drunk, miss special family occasions or show up drunk, and always they have an excuse that has nothing to do with drinking. Their drinking takes on a new purpose because now they drink to avoid the problems caused by their drinking. It is a vicious downward spiral.

The more an alcoholic drinks, the more problems they have; the more problems they have, the more they drink. Tolerance develops and now the alcoholic needs larger quantities of alcohol to get the same emotional relief. They begin to experience alcohol-related illnesses such as cirrhosis of the liver, withdrawal symptoms and depression. They suffer major hangovers that cause them to miss work and may experience blackouts, retaining no memory of both significant and minor events.

Denial

All along the way, alcoholics deny that their drinking has anything to do with the mess their life is in. In their denial, an alcoholic refuses to acknowledge that alcohol is the culprit and offers an endless list of rationalizations, such as, "I can quit whenever I want," "drinking relaxes me," and "I think better and more creative after a few." In fact, alcoholics often believe that drinking is their only comfort amidst all their troubles and often blame a lack of understanding from friends and family as a reason for their drinking. So they keep drinking.

An alcoholic may stop for a time – several days, months or even years – to prove they can control their drinking, but eventually they start up again with a vengeance. The problem is not stopping drinking but staying stopped. The problem doesn’t start after the fifth or fifteenth drink; the problem starts after the first drink. Once an alcoholic takes that first drink, a mental and physical obsession to drink is triggered and the power to choose is lost. This mental and physical obsession, coupled with denial, is so strong that willpower alone cannot beat it.

Michele Langmead was a registered counsellor with Focus on the Family Canada at the time of publication. .

© 2010 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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