What is alcoholism? Is it a choice? Is it an addiction? Or is it a disease? These are questions that people try to determine when their lives are affected either directly by a family member or indirectly by someone close to them. My curiosity has been aroused after reading Habits of the Heart and having the pain of alcoholism touch my family and others close to me. As a teenager I lost a very close teenage cousin and a good high school friend due to drunken drivers. My husband’s uncle died from cirrhosis of the liver. Just a few weeks ago, I attended a funeral of two teens killed by their drunk-driving friend. I saw the driver in anguish as he sat before the coffins of his two closest friends. I couldn’t help but ask “Why? How come? What lead these people to their premature deaths?”
Through personal interviews, I put together some questions to ask people that would lead to various outlooks and perspectives on this topic. I wanted to know what they thought was the underlying cause and motivation of those that cannot, or will not, control their consumption of alcohol. Why did they start drinking? Why do they continue to drink?
Those that were interviewed consisted of a Pastor, a Licensed Marriage and Family Counselor, a Medical Doctor, a Substance Abuse Specialist for the State of California, and an Alcoholic. They each had differing views and perspectives even though they all had very similar thoughts as to the primary beginnings of alcoholism. While the questions seemed simple — the answers were not.
The list of survey questions started out as very simple straightforward questions as stated in the title of this paper:
? Do you believe alcoholism is a choice?
? Do you believe alcoholism is an addiction?
? Do you believe alcoholism is a disease?
The interviews then often developed into a wider range of questions and thoughts that included ideas such as:
? Are alcoholics pursuing their own individualism?
? Are alcoholics happy with what they have become?
? Are alcoholics pursuing their own interest at the cost of the relationships of those around them?
The American Medical Association gives the following definition for alcoholism; “Alcoholism is an illness characterized by preoccupation with alcohol and loss of control over its consumption, such as to lead, usually, to intoxication if drinking; by chronically, by progression and by a tendency toward relapse. It is typically associated with physical disability and impaired emotional, occupational andor social adjustments as a direct consequence of persistent excessive use.”
The people interviewed felt that the alcoholic started out with no intentions of letting alcohol become the controlling force in his or her life. It was an experience that started out usually to be accepted by those around them. It was only after an amount of time that the alcoholic continued to drink because of other underlying reasons.
Many of these underlying reasons centered on relationships, individualism and from their own life’s experiences. From reading the book Habits of the Heart, I felt these were the topics of interest to me. For a person to find meaning, Bellah states, “Everybody needs to belong to a group” because “everybody needs to have an identity” (pg.135). The importance of relationships with family and friends is stated by Ellen Schneider, “People feel less depressed if they can maintain friendships and be with people” (pg.134). “For a person to find one’s self means, among other things finding the story or narrative in terms of which one’s life makes sense,” according to Bellah (pg.81). “Being good” becomes “feeling good” (pg.77). Oster suggests the need to “try everything at least once” (pg.78). If the self is defined by its ability to choose it own basic values, on what grounds are those choices themselves based (pg.75)?
Those that were interviewed believed that most people have a confused idea of alcoholism as a disease that invades or attacks your good health. These values and attitudes shape society towards alcoholics. A major implication of the disease concept is that what is labeled a “disease” is held too justifiable because it is involuntary. I do not believe this to be so. Problem drinking is a habit in which the alcoholic simply has decided that the benefits of drinking outweigh the liabilities; it is all a matter of personal choice. An alcoholic participates in or causes many of their own problems by their behavior and the decisions they make. Alcoholism should not be viewed as a disease, but as an addiction brought about by the alcoholic’s personal choices. It was interesting to note how those interviewed were split on the idea of alcoholism as a disease. The Licensed Marriage and Family Counselor and Substance Abuse Specialist believed that it was a disease that causes people to lose control over the consumption of alcohol. The Doctor stated that, “What started out as a choice turns into a disease as the alcohol degrades the organs of the body, like the liver and neurological function.” The Pastor and the alcoholic agreed that the individual had their own free will. While the alcohol clouded judgement, it did not negate the fact that the amount of alcohol consumed and if it is consumed at all, is completely up to the drinker, not an inevitable disease that overpowers your free will.
The alcoholic went on to say that at the time he started drinking he wanted to express his own individualism and at the same time fit into a group — “to please those around him.” He believed it was better to be an individual and that he often sacrificed relationships in pursuing what he thought was happiness.
Habits of the Heart has caused me to take a close look within myself, and to evaluate my commitment in life. Bellah pushes us on to consider our purpose as we take part in the American life. He makes us question our motives and attitudes. Yet, at the same time, Bellah shows us how our society is so diverse.
The main purpose of the book is to deepen my understanding and enable me to think about the kinds of moral problems we face as Americans (pg.21). I see alcoholism as a definite moral problem that we face. As Toulamin’s argument reflects, “Human beings and their society are deeply interrelated, and the actions we take have enormous ramifications for the lives of others” (pg.284).
In the book, Habits of the Heart, Bellah refers to a second language. “Direct reliance on the Bible provides a second language with which to resist the temptations of the world” (pg.232). As one person in the book said, “It’s not religion or the Church you go to that’s going to save you, rather it is your personal relationship with God. Christ will come into your heart if you ask.” (pg.234).
The Bible gives several passages relating to the temptation of alcohol. James 1:12-15, “God blesses the people who patiently endure testing. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. And remember, no one who wants to do wrong should ever say, “God is tempting me.” God is never tempted to do wrong, and he never tempts anyone else either. Temptation comes from the lure of our own evil desires. These evil desires lead to evil actions, and evil actions lead to death.” 1 Peter 4:3,4 “You have had enough in the past of the evil things that godless people enjoy — their immorality and lust, their feasting and drunkenness and wild parties, and their terrible worship of idols. Of course, your former friends are very surprised when you no longer join them in the wicked things they do, and they say evil things about you.”
Ephesians 5:15-20, “So be careful how you live, not as fools but as those who are wise. Make the most of every opportunity for doing good in these evil days. Don’t act thoughtlessly, but try to understand what the Lord wants you to do. Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, let the Holy Spirit fill and control you. Then you will sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, making music to the Lord in your hearts. And you will always give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Proverbs 23:29-30, ” Who has anguish? Who has sorrow? Who is always fighting? Who is always complaining? Who has unnecessary bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes? It is the one who spends long hours in the taverns, trying out new drinks.”
To summarize the thoughts of those interviewed, society and alcoholics have both been misled by the erroneous classification of alcoholism as a disease. It is not right to let alcoholics believe they are helpless and dependent on others, that they have an inevitable disease. It is not right to excuse them legally or morally from their actions. It is not right to let society keep viewing them as helpless victims, to keep paying for their treatments, and to keep losing thousands of lives each year to drunks behind a wheel or women who drink while pregnant. Alcoholics are not powerless; their choices led them to the life they live and until they realize that, only they can take responsibility for their actions. It is time we start viewing alcoholism for what it is — an addiction brought about by personal choices.
In conclusion, individualism is at the core of our society. Individuals have differences in their understanding of alcoholism. Hopefully, we will be willing to learn to appreciate other peoples’ differences. Let us make choices that will promote right thinking, good judgment, and positive decision making in our society, the world and those we care about, including the individual.
Bellah, Robert N., et. al. Habits of the Heart, California: University of California Press, 1996
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright 1996 by Tyndale Charitable Trust.
Michael League, Licensed Marriage and Family Counselor.
Stephen Tucker, Substance Abuse Specialist, State of California, Department of Corrections.
Dr. Ronald Smith, M.D.
Reverend Dennis Sunderland, Pastor, Bethel Assembly of God Church, Tulare, California.
An unnamed friend still struggling with the consequences of alcohol.