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Alcoholism is an Illness, Not a Moral Issue

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Is it an illness or a choice?

drunk  woman in a bar holding her head

Jennifer Ginsberg: In the aftermath of the horrific tragedy that resulted in Diane Schuler crashing her car into another vehicle head-on and killing eight people, an age-old question regarding the malady of alcoholism has resurfaced: is it an illness or a choice?

People on one side of the fence are quick to condemn alcoholics as weak, immoral, sub-humans who not only lack self-control but are incapable of feeling empathy for others. On the other side, there are those who view alcoholism as a disease, not unlike diabetes or cancer, which requires vigilant treatment in order for the illness to be arrested.

My view as a therapist with more than 15 years of experience in the fields of alcoholism, addiction, and recovery is that alcoholism and addiction are illnesses, but this does not expunge the alcoholic/addict from the obligation to work her ass off to get and stay sober. This also does not excuse the alcoholic's behavior when they are under the influence. Recovering alcoholics are required to make amends for their behavior, and are taught that while having the malady of alcoholism is not their fault, they are indeed responsible for their actions.

While there is a large measure of free will when it comes to initially picking up that first drink or drug, there is no question that one's judgment is impaired while under the influence. It is medically proven that the body of an alcoholic becomes physically dependent on alcohol, and getting sober is the result of an elusive combination of desperation, followed by the willingness to change, and a hell of a lot of grace. Furthermore, alcoholism and addiction are often characterized by relapse, and maintaining sobriety is hard work.

Alcoholism is an illness of denial. It is a malady that tells the sufferer that they don't have it, even in light of total chaos and destruction, which is often obvious to everyone else in the sufferer's life. Rather than dehumanize those that are afflicted, we should stop enabling their alcoholism by denying the gravity of their problems. Instead of resorting to extremes of either demonizing the alcoholic or absolving them of their actions, we can recognize that they are sick individuals who need to take responsibility for their behavior. We have an obligation to help them by squarely confronting their alcoholism, rather than denying it.

How many of us have known and loved an alcoholic or addict, but have inadvertently helped exacerbate the situation by cleaning up their messes or flat-out denying that the problem exists? We only have to look at Daniel Schuler, Diane's husband, who now is begrudgingly admitting that his wife "occasionally smoked pot and drank," to witness the potentially tragic and deadly result of enabling an alcoholic.

I am certain that many of the women reading this article have struggled, or are struggling, with alcoholism and addiction. It is easy to demonize Diane Schuler, one sick woman, whose disastrous judgment was partly influenced by the cocktail of substances she imbibed on that fateful day of inconceivable destruction. How about shifting the focus off the question of her morality by taking this opportunity to examine our own behavior? It is incongruent to condemn one woman whose conduct under the influence resulted in a dramatic and horrific outcome, while rationalizing those times we get behind the wheel after having one too many, or we pop a pill to "take the edge off" before we pick up our kids at school.

If this does not reflect your experience, than perhaps you can breathe a sigh of relief and feel empathy for those who fight to stay sober one day at a time. If you struggle with alcoholism and addiction in your own life, if you look at Diane Schuler and know, "There but for the grace of God go I," do everything in your power to confront your illness head-on and get sober.

Whatever it takes.


next: Real Life Chatty Cathy WON'T Stop Talking
14 comments so far | Post a comment now
john August 20, 2009, 3:43 PM

Call it whatever you want, but its a clear moral choice to be sober, then get in a car with all those kids and then start drinking and smoking. before that 1st drink, she had to be of clear enough head to weigh getting arrested and/or committing mass murder. Hell, i am alcholic and a drug addict too, but i am smart enough wait the 2 hours till i get home to partake in controlled circumstances. if she was so good at hiding it and able to hold a job, obviously she had some self control and grasp on reality. disease or not its a crime and she made a clear choice. no human being should be given the leeway to act so selfishly under any circumstances, i don’t care if you are alcholic, diabetic, or just plain stupid.

IB Bill August 20, 2009, 6:12 PM

There but for the grace of God go I. I’ve been in recovery for more than 20 years. The thing that scared me was in February 1988, I ran a red light and nearly causing a head-on collision in Las Vegas. Fortunately, and thank God, I was stopped by a cop and arrested and placed in the drunk tank before I could hurt someone.

The same night, a family of five was killed by a head-on collision from a drunk driver. It wasn’t me, but I realized there was no moral difference between me and the driver who killed the family. Then, a few months later, I drove drunk again. Four beers — that was all, but I realized I couldn’t control it anymore. (I was also stopped by a cop, which I took, as a sign from the universe, that I was really really pushing my luck.) I had sworn to myself never to drive again after two beers. So I decided — either the alcohol or the driver’s license had to go. I chose my driver’s license, and have been sober ever since.

I guess not everyone gets as lucky as I did.

FriendOfBill August 20, 2009, 7:12 PM

I’m with IB Bill - there but for the grace of God go I. If you are a REAL alcoholic (addict), ANYTHING can happen once alcohol enters the system. John - you may not have done that but if you were out there drinking that could be a “yet”. The disease drives people to do things they’d never dream of doing. I drank and drive. I did it with my kids in the car. I’m horrified about it but I did it, and I’m what I consider an intelligent and responsible parent (now). Alcohol took away my power to make good decisions. Not an excuse. I made the choice to start drinking. I made the choice to do the things I did, but after a point, I no longer had a choice. - The baffling nature of addiction is so hard to understand, but it’s real, and it’s sheer hell.

David August 20, 2009, 8:34 PM

Alcohol represents the epitome of stupidity. It’s not, “a disease,” it’s just stupid people putting intelligent people in danger with their stupid and destructive habits. Alcoholics should not be given any sympathy for their actions, and to say that it’s “not their fault” that they’re an alcoholic is categorically incorrect. It’s entirely their fault. They are partaking in activities that they know full well will render them incapable of basic common sense, yet they go out driving drunk anyway. To tell them that it’s not their fault is just an attempt to avoid self responsibility. Is alcoholism a disease? No, it’s just plain stupidity.

Mamimi August 21, 2009, 9:42 AM

Alcoholism may be a disease once it’s in full swing, but it’s a disease that is ENTIRELY SELF-AFFLICTED. Cancer is a disease. Feel badly for the people with cancer. Alcoholics and drug addicts get that way because they asked for it, plain and simple.

Ridiculous August 24, 2009, 8:58 AM

Wrong again Ginsberg - I believe you write this such crap just to get a rise out of people.

I grew up with a family of alcoholics. And it is 100% choice. My dad was a raging alcoholic who woke up one day and decided to quit - end of story. And he will tell you all this “disease” stuff if BS - people drink because they want to.

As someone else stated Cancer is a disease. MS is a disease. Please don’t insult people with REAL illness by calling aloholism a disease. People with cancer, MS, alzheimer’s, etc. cannot chose just to stop having it. They can’t go to “counseling” or join some AA club to make it go away.

You may like to absolve people of their responsibility but I on the other hand like to speak truth. Alcoholism, drug addiction is not a disease.

Ridiculous August 24, 2009, 8:59 AM

Wrong again Ginsberg - I believe you write this such crap just to get a rise out of people.

I grew up with a family of alcoholics. And it is 100% choice. My dad was a raging alcoholic who woke up one day and decided to quit - end of story. And he will tell you all this “disease” stuff if BS - people drink because they want to.

As someone else stated Cancer is a disease. MS is a disease. Please don’t insult people with REAL illness by calling aloholism a disease. People with cancer, MS, alzheimer’s, etc. cannot chose just to stop having it. They can’t go to “counseling” or join some AA club to make it go away.

You may like to absolve people of their responsibility but I on the other hand like to speak truth. Alcoholism, drug addiction is not a disease.

Howard August 25, 2009, 5:26 PM

Claiming that your addiction (alcohol, drugs, shoplifting, you name it) is a disease allows you to shift blame for your egregious behavior from yourself onto external influences. How convenient.

Martha August 27, 2009, 1:53 AM

Alcoholism and addiction are not external. It’s an internal issue. That’s why you’re not getting it. One must learn to be honest and honor their internal reality. Compassion, impathy and an open mind are choices. Your opinion is your choice also but that doesn’t make it reality.

Anonymous August 28, 2009, 11:11 AM

I grew up in a family of alcoholics. My father was one of them and yes, he drove with me in the car. I have never been anything but cold sober when I’m behind the wheel or in charge of children, and I’m 67 now. It’s my experience that blaming so-called enablers for the alcoholic’s drinking is another way of blaming the victim. My father drank whether he was enabled or not. In other words, withdrawing the so-called enabling behavior did not cause him to stop drinking.

Dr. in Silicon Valey October 2, 2009, 10:28 AM

Hello, I am also a health professional, as is Ginsberg, and I do respect her opinion. I have 22 yrs of daily experience with addictions as I lived with an addict husband (now ex-husband). My previous interest in caring for my ex did not include enabling behavior, but one of putting it all out on the line in love… and hanging in there for all the ups and downs of abstinence and use, mostly with many years between addictions. Consequently I have been very interested in reading a professional’s opinion and explanation of why addiction is NOT an illness (there is a lot online that it is an illness) as I believe both sides are very compelling and deserve our intelligent look at them. Jennifer, please pass the best of this information on as I am sure you have looked at it… or others reading this who have. Personal opinions are not what I am looking for. I would like studies.
Thank you so much.

Anonymous November 29, 2009, 4:16 PM

I would like to speak with Dr. in Silicon Valley about facts, research and such, rather than speculation, Please contact me. madgethedog@yahoo.com

Gina December 8, 2009, 7:57 PM

I do believe it is both and illness and a moral issue. The behaviours related 2 his drinking are a choice. I have seen him work recycling 2 by his beer that he likes and I have seen him stealing the alcohol to continue his problem. I believe that as long as he continues to separate himnself from a higher power aka Jesus, Aba, Buddha or whatever you want to call it.He will continue on his path to self destruction qand the destruction of his familyl and the future of his children and family.

gina December 8, 2009, 7:59 PM

Thank you John. I agree whole heartedly.


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