Within the medical profession the idea that alcoholism is a disease is controversial. Advocates argue that although the use of alcohol is initially voluntary, in some individuals it flicks a switch in the brain which means they no longer have control over how much they drink. This theory has never been proven in spite of extensive scientific research. Brain scan studies have also investigated the possibility that the addiction can be passed down through the genes but again there is no certain evidence. NHS Psychiatrist Max Pemberton rejects the disease diagnosis, insisting that “alcohol addiction represents an inappropriate coping strategy for intense emotional pain and psychological distress”. Therefore, to call it a disease is counter-productive.
The plain truth is people choose to drink – an element of choice not afforded to those tens of thousands who die every year from genuine illnesses.
Calling alcoholism a disease evokes our compassion and an assurance that we have empathy with the sufferer’s struggle. However, it also removes any sense of their own responsibility. It implies they are powerless to conquer their dependency, when actually they are the only ones who can change their behaviour. To drink is an active decision they make daily and assuming otherwise is to repudiate their ability to take a different path.
Of course alcoholics need treatment and our understanding but we must offer support without compromising their sense of personal liability.
Alcoholism is devastating. It destroys lives, homes, relationships and frequently brings loved ones, caught up in the addict’s chaos, to the brink of despair but maybe, in our eagerness to be non-judgemental, and possibly to feel better about ourselves, we should take a step back and not pretend alcoholism is a disease, when all the scientific evidence advises it is not.