An honest discussion about the A-Word (Alcoholism)

Following the recent death of Charles Kennedy, the former leader of the LibDem political party, two remarkable things happened.

Firstly, all the tributes that I’ve read were nothing less than complimentary about him. It’s often necessary to ‘read between the lines’ of such political accolades to discover what the writer really thought of the subject; but this just doesn’t apply here. Gerry Lynch referred to him on Slugger, here, and mentioned Alistair Campbell’s blog piece (here). Now, I’ve never been much of a fan of Campbell’s, Tony Blair’s spin doctor in chief, yet his tribute is quite remarkably genuine and sincere. And Campbell pulls no punches about Kennedy’s demon, one that they both shared.

Secondly, it was reported today (here) that Charles Kennedy died of a ‘haemorrhage’ caused directly by his alcoholism, the demon that Alistair Campbell referred to. There was no attempt to disguise what had happened, to ‘put a gloss’ on it, to try to present it as something that it wasn’t; it was a straightforward, courageous and honest statement.

What sort of disease is alcoholism? Is it a physical illness, a mental illness, some sort of a social problem? It’s really all of these. Alcohol causes a physical addiction, originating perhaps in a mental illness with a major social problem component. Exactly what it is an academic discussion, and a better understanding may well help in the future. But we are in the here and now.

For the present, surely it’s much better to realise it for what it is; a destructive illness that even the best help and support can’t always overcome. What we need now is an honest discussion about alcohol, the problems for individuals and for society in general. And what we certainly don’t need is a load of sanctimonious moralising from the usual suspects.

If you think that someone you know might be an alcoholic, you should seek advice and help:

The Samaritans are on:  08457 909090 (UK) and 116 123 (Ireland)

Alcoholics Anonymous are on: 0845 769 7555   The Irish group is here.

Al-Anon (support for those affected by another’s problem):  020 7403 0888   In Ireland, (01) 873 2699

  • Pickle Schmickle

    I feel one of the most useful things we could do is to stop using the term ‘alcoholism’ and the label ‘alcoholic’, which have no specific definition and encourages and allows people to think of an ‘alcoholic’ as someone whose drinking is just worse than theirs. The NHS policies and treatment strategies do not use this term, they talk about the level of risk, either physical and/or psychological, that an individual is at because of their drinking behaviour. The image many people have of someone who drinks problematically is often very far removed from the reality, and will use the word ‘alcoholic’ judgementally, which in turn, I believe, deters people from recognising, awknowledging and coming forward for support with their drinking.

  • tmitch57

    Alcoholism may be a disease, but like lung cancer and heart disease it has a large contribution from the sufferer. Alcoholism is a hereditary affliction, although anyone can develop an alcohol habit with enough use. Those with a family history of alcoholism should simply avoid drinking so as not to risk becoming addicted. I suspect that most alcoholics like most other substance abusers for whatever reason feel that they are immune to the known addictive properties of alcohol and so gradually become addicted. Some, like addicts of other drugs, simply have their brains wired differently from the majority of the population so that they are more susceptible to addiction at a much earlier stage.

  • Zeno

    “What sort of disease is alcoholism? Is it a physical illness, a mental illness, some sort of a social problem? It’s really all of these.”

    I’m not so sure. For about 10 years I drank heavily almost everyday. Friday was normally 4 or 5 bottles of Wine, Beers ,Shots and shorts. A quiet day was 2 bottles of wine and a few beers. I was pretty sure I was an alcoholic, but then my business life changed and I wasn’t entertaining clients. I dreaded the change, but, it turned out I had no real craving for drink and didn’t need to drink at all. After a few months I had my liver function checked and it was fine. I was astonished. So I think you are probably born with the problem or you are not.

  • tmitch57

    American Indians aka Native Americans suffer from a high rate of alcoholism. I believe that this is probably because unlike Europeans who used beer and other alcoholic drinks as a source of sanitary drink for centuries and thus most Europeans became immunized against the addictive effects of alcohol in normal quantities, Indians never developed an immunity to alcohol. Alcoholics Anonymous claims that about two percent of the American population cannot stop drinking at will when they are satiated. When I was 17 I was an exchange student in Italy and drank about a beer mug of wine everyday at lunch. As soon as I left Italy I stopped drinking. You may have a genetic high tolerance for alcohol that is higher than normal. Clearly alcohol is much less addictive than either nicotine or cocaine, but probably more addictive than caffeine. But even if caffeine is more addictive, it is a much more benign drug that in low quantities has beneficial health effects for nearly everyone.

  • Jag

    I am shocked by what a nation of boozers we are, north and south of the Border.

    The Irish advice on weekly alcohol consumption for an adult male is 17 units (not 21 as in the UK). 17 units is (just under) two bottles of standard wine.

    The standard advice as far as I can tell is, if you tend to drink every day, you should give your body two clear days a week of not drinking.

    The death of Charles Kennedy this week is a tragedy; just in his fifties and having been a high achiever, his death is stark. However, as a nation, we seem to be building up a timebomb of liver and other alcohol-related conditions which our health service cannot hope to deal with. I don’t even think you can call this alcoholism, it’s just excessive drinking which is even more maddening because of the free-willed contribution by the individual to the problem.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    I hope alcoholism is a generational thing, similar to smoking. Most of the males in my family from my fathers side are alcoholics and a lot of their issues related to growing up in the 60’s, but never really “growing up” as men. The world changed for these alpha males over their lifetimes and they could just never cope – feminism, sexual equality, a hug for their kids……Its very sad to see these men for the dried up, shuffling husks they now are, just waiting for the grave. Their immaturity never allowed them to admit “they had a problem” and no amount of family pressure ever made a difference. Although I like a drink, I do realise I have a genetic predisposition for alcoholism, so at least can perceive the issue. I hate to say it but the government should consider demonising alcohol in the same way it succeeded with cigarettes. We all know in our hearts it’s unhealthy to drink and the social issues it causes are far more significant than any other drug.

    On Charles Kennedy, I always perceived him as a bit of a drunken buffoon, but from the obits, I was clearly wrong. May he rest in peace.

  • Great post! I believe that alcoholism is an addiction, not a disease. I posted on this on my blog if you are interested in reading more, or have your own issues with alcohol.

  • Bedhead1157

    Coming from a family where quite a few have been victims of the demon drink, and having been part of a social circle where heavy drinking was normal, I have a rather unsympathetic view of alcoholics. The family members who were alcoholics drank because they wanted to, once the money ran out they would stop, become normal, no apparent physical effects, then once they got a few quid, cheerfully start up again, eventually both of them had the money to drink themselves to death.

    When I started drinking, in common with the vast majority of my peers, it didn’t get much beyond a few illicit cans of beer, when we were old enough to buy legally most of us only had a few drinks on a night out, this was when the TV was full of ads for drink.

    I started work in a career that had a payday drinking culture, coupled to a weekend social scene where passing out drunk was considered perfectly normal and a litre of Smirnoff was the usual Saturday night tipple, it was no wonder other family members worried about how much I was necking. But I changed jobs and stopped going out at weekends, no cravings, no desire for a drink.

    I worry about the kids I see these days with industrial quantities of alcopops, they seem to drink for the sake of getting pissed, not for fun, just for something to do, that is more tragic to me than selfish adults who only care about their own self proclaimed illness.

  • nilehenri

    since the signing of the gfa alcohol related illness has claimed more victims than the troubles.

    perhaps we should adapt our approach to the past and move towards tackling the very real problem that we have now, today, and which is within our power to resolve.