Sunday, January 09, 2011

Alcohol Problems Are Not Shameful

I've written some on this over at my Swedish language blog, and I suppose it was just a matter of time before the topic made its way over here as well.

An old Independent article caught my eye today when someone I follow tweeted it. In it Simon Carr explains how he has gone from 30 bottles a day to one bottle a day, but even though the amount the drinks classes him as a person with an alcohol problem, he refuses to call himself an alcoholic or even think about whether or not he does, in fact, have an alcohol problem. Although his drinking would be classified at least as risk behaviour for becoming an alcoholic, I am not interested in discussing whether or not he drinks too much, should cut down, or should keep on going the way he is. If he has an alcohol problem, it is on him to first realise it and then admit it, because if the person who allegedly has an alcohol problem refuses to do something about it, nothing can be done about it. A general rule is, though, that if someone in your close vicinity thinks that your drinking is a problem, then it is a problem. To you it might not be, but to someone else it is, and therefore it should be taken seriously and discussed.

What really upset me about this article is how Carr makes it out to be something shameful to have an alcohol problem. Alcoholism is a disease, it is classified as such - both a physical and mental as it affects both - and what is more is that it is a very cruel disease that not only affects the person who is an alcoholic, but friends and family who are usually caught up in an enabling position, made possible through the hiding and keeping quiet so as to avoid the ugliness that is attached to being an alcoholic.

Media have discussed over the past five years, or even more, about the alcohol behaviour in Europe, that alcohol consumption has risen pretty much all over Europe, and in Scotland, my current home country, new laws were passed just last year to curb binge drinking and lower the overall alcohol consumption. That we are consuming too much alcohol as a society is no news, and that it would be beneficial to all of society (apart from perhaps the companies profiting from the increased alcohol consumption) health-wise, economically and socially, if overall drinking would be lowered is something I am going to hazard to guess most people would agree with. Not all people have a problem, and if it is not a problem, then, by all means, go ahead and continue your alcohol habits. I am not proposing a complete ban on alcohol here - it would not be possible in our society today. Besides, adults should enjoy the responsibility of choosing how and when they consume alcohol.

What needs to be done is to stop this hushing of drug addiction, both alcohol and other drugs. When a person is stuck in an addiction, their behaviour alters radically. Did you know, for instance, that liver cirrhosis affects your brain when the liver cannot break down the chemicals it would if it were healthy? The tissue dies and scars and becomes hard and because of the decrease in healthy liver cells that would normally digest and take care of different toxins, it cannot, and so these toxins rise to the affected person's brain and physically affects the behaviour of the person. Liver cirrhosis is a fairly common disease in people with long-term alcohol problems, and the only cure for it is to stop drinking period. (Of course, there are other ways than drinking that can result in liver cirrhosis, Hepatitis C is one such example, but alcoholism is by far the most common cause.) Addiction also leads to a lot of lying, manipulating and aggression, which can be unrelated to liver cirrhosis as that disease comes from a long abuse of alcohol substances and the manipulation and lying often starts early on in an addiction (the hiding of bottles, lying about amounts of alcohol consumed etc.). When in an addiction, nothing matters more than the next hit (of alcohol, of other drugs), including family and friends. It is sad, but it is truth. A person with an alcohol addiction might want to change their habits, but they literally cannot. It is a brutal and cruel disease to all people involved.

Lying and hiding another person's addiction only enables that person to continue on with their habits. Often it is done out of love, because the person hiding and lying wants people to see the addict for the person that they really are, not the addiction. Sadly, this is a problem in society, where alcohol and other drug addiction is associated with something dirty, weak and ugly. There is nothing weak about the person becoming an alcoholic, anyone can become one, although genetical predisposition and environment contributes to people getting caught in an addiction. There are alcoholics that function perfectly in their work environments (one of the most common myths, that if you can manage our job, you're not an alcoholic), who are intelligent, charming, powerful - all in all, great people. Where it often shows is the social sphere, and not necessarily only with friends or acquaintances, but family and close friends. That is where an addiction becomes the most clear. The first people to realise there is a problem will be the close people, and the first one to deny it will be the addict. Even if the family and close friends will hide the problem from the outside world, there will be a problem, and it will be very present and real to some people.

The greatest service you can do to anyone who is an addict is to be honest about it - to them, to yourself, to all people. You do not have to tell anyone if you do not want to, but don't make excuses for the addict's behaviour. There is nothing shameful about someone being an addict. That person is a person with a problem, but the key thing to remember is that it is a person. It is a person who might not behave the way that they do if they had a different option, and often to an addict, it seems that they don't, or they might do, but they do not want to change or they cannot. The fact still remains that there is a person in there, hidden behind manipulative behaviour, lies and all other sorts of crazy things addicts get up to. This person needs to be seen, needs to be heard, and needs to get the opportunity to break free from the addiction in order to take control over their own life. Because when an addict, there is no control, there is only being controlled by the substance abused.

The best way to achieve this is not to continue hiding alcohol problems or to be offended when someone might indicate that you have a problem. If someone thinks you have a problem, you should seriously listen and consider if you do, because if someone tells you you do, there is a great possibility that you might have an alcohol problem.

News flash to Simon Carr: Dying from liver failure is not quick and painless. It is a painful process in which both you and everybody surrounding you will suffer. It affects your entire body and it costs the health care system lots and lots of money. You might get diabetic, requiring insulin on a daily basis. Often, because of the scar tissue in your liver squeezing your main blood vessels, the blood is trying to squeeze itself through your smaller vessels which inevitably become more fragile and these bursting is one of the main causes of death for people with liver cirrhosis. These are called varices, and if your bleeding is caught early enough you can be saved through a massive blood transfusion and surgery, both of which cost the health care system. Apart from that, there is the severe organ failure. When your liver can't digest the toxins you put in your own body, these toxins will travel to other organs and affect them as well, leading to a complete organ failure. Other unpleasant symptoms include vomiting blood, itchiness, loss of sex drive, insomnia, breathlessness and memory loss and confusion. These are just some of the things that might happen when contracting liver cirrhosis, most of which can be treated to some degree by drugs and continued medical check-ups.

Alcoholism is no disease to dismiss offhand and take as an offensive accusation. It is a serious and real disease and it affects so many people around the world (relatives and friends included). It is a cruel and brutal disease and it should be taken seriously. It should not be hidden and lied about. And above all, former, current and future addicts should not be stigmatised. The stigmatisation of alcohol addicts only lead to less people seeking help for this brutal disease and that is a tragedy to all people affected.

More on liver cirrhosis and alcohol problems: NHS - alcoholic liver disease, NHS - cirrhosis, NHS - cirrhosis symptoms, Alcoholic Anonymous for more information on alcoholism, Al-Anon for families and others whose lives are affected by someone with an addiction, Down Your Drink - a UCL based informational site on alcohol consumption.


  1. Agreed. This is also very similar to the stigma surrounding depression and other mental illnesses. I was depressed for many years and my family encouraged me to hide it from everyone I met, meaning that nobody understood what was wrong and encouraged me to seek treatment. I can only imagine it's worse with alcoholism, which people perceive as being the victim's fault even more so than they do with depression.

  2. Thanks for your comment!

    I'm sorry to hear that you have also suffered from a similar stigma. It's a shame that people should be prevented from seeking help they need to get better. What seems to me is that when people also think that it is a sign of weakness to seek help ("no, you should be able to beat this on your own etc. etc.") is that they do not realise it takes a tremendous amount of strength to seek help for something in a society where you will be perceived as weak for "letting" something like this get to you in the first place. I don't know about depression and I imagine it is a bit different, but for an alcoholic, I've been told, seeking help is the worst thing imaginable because it will deprive you from what you love the most.

    I don't know much about depression at all, I don't have any personal experience as I do with alcoholism (not being one, but living with them, both sober and using), but I think you are right in what you are saying. I think the problem with any illness or disease, self-induced (as is the case with alcoholism) or not, is that you become the illness or disease, people see you as that illness or disease and that is how you will be defined. Because people can't see further than the illness/disease they will completely or partly forget the person beneath it. It's a shame that society cannot be more open about things like these, because there isn't anything to be ashamed of from suffering from a mental illness or an addiction, but because so few people are talking about it, all aspects of it are hidden, including diagnoses and how to seek help.

    Also, I want to say to anyone who might be reading the comments that I'm not clarifying that I have not had alcohol problems because I want to avoid a stigma attached to it, I am clarifying because all the experiences of being an alcohol addict has been told to me from a today sober alcoholic, and from observing other alcohol addicts in my immediate circle of family and friends. This is important to clarify because everyone might experience drug abuse differently and someone who is (using or not) a drug/alcohol addict might experience different things from what I have been told and read. Also, the lives of alcohol addicts may look different from each other.