What Does An Alcoholic Look Like?

Close your eyes and try to imagine what an alcoholic looks like. Do you see a skid row bum wearing a raggedy old trench coat? Maybe he has a scraggily beard, sitting on the sidewalk with a bottle in a brown paper bag?  That’s what many people envision.  The truth is an alcoholic could look like your doctor, attorney, teacher, a celebrity, or your next door neighbor.  Alcoholism does not care who you are and cares less about your industry or profession. It doesn’t care if you are a mom, a dad, a teenager, or someone’s grandpa or grandma.

Alcoholism is a disease recognized by the American Medical Association since 1957. It’s the only known disease to man that will tell you you’re all right when you are not. It’s progressive and patient.  Alcoholism is a chronic, many times relapsing disease of the brain that causes a compulsive obsession to drink alcohol, in spite of the harmful consequences.

Lots of people don’t understand alcoholism.  They believe the alcoholic lacks the willpower to stop drinking.  The truth is it has nothing to do with willpower. For those people that believe an illness can be cured with willpower I suggest they use willpower to cure their next dose of diarrhea.

Alcoholism is a disease of the body and the mind. It can be caused by genetics and/or environment.  Some agree that “Genetics load the gun and environment pulls the trigger” while others will say "Genetics loads the gun AND pulls the trigger; environment only determines when the trigger is pulled and how many "shots" are released at any one period of time." How much does your environment affect the outcome of your disease? It’s unclear.  My family has a history of alcoholism and my parents divorced when I was 11 years old. Both of my parents owned bars in separate neighborhoods on the south side of Chicago so I grew up in bars as a teenager. I have no doubt that if my parents didn’t own bars I still would have become alcoholic, only it would possibly have happened at a later age.

No one knows when they cross the imaginary line into alcoholism but once you cross it you can never drink like a regular person again. Usually you’re the last one to know you have the disease. Your family, friends, and employer know you have a drinking problem but the alcoholic is in denial.

I had emotional problems long before I ever picked up a drink.  Alcohol wasn’t my problem; it was my solution.  From a very early age I felt like I didn’t fit in. I was a shy kid who never knew the right thing to say. At 13, when I had my first drink I thought I had found the magic cure to my personality disorder.  That cure worked for a lot of years but by my early twenties I found myself drinking in the morning before work, during lunch, and going to the bar directly after work. At 24 I was hospitalized for stomach ulcers and at 25 I entered my first rehab for alcoholism.

It took me a long time, and multiple rehabs, to discover there was a real solution. The solution was ‘Change’. I had to change everything. I had to admit my faults, work on correcting them, and get honest with myself. I had to let go of resentments and realize I was powerless over people, places, and things.  The bottom line is I had to learn to accept life on life’s terms and come to the realization that no one was doing anything to me; they were just doing it.

It doesn’t matter if you get sober using the 12-Steps, your church, addiction therapy, alcoholism rehabs, anti-depressant/anxiety  medications, or all of the above as long as you understand you can’t do it by yourself. Most of us had problems from an early age and we just never fully developed. Once we start to zone in on ‘why we are what we are’ only then do we begin to get better. 

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