"Whether such a person can quit upon a nonspiritual basis depends upon the extent to which he has already lost the power to choose whether he will drink or not."
Alcoholics Anonymous, page 34, More About Alcoholism
Of the many internal rearrangements I experienced as a result of the steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, the most profound was in how I understood the disease. This shift was a direct result of being able to align the experience and pain of my repeated relapses with the explanation of the disease in the first 63 pages of the Alcoholics Anonymous text book (with the help of a terrific teacher). Ideas and concepts I had held for decades about the nature of alcoholism were rendered embarassingly inaccurate. Many of the AA sayings I had chanted effortlessly for years (just don't pick up the first drink!) suddenly felt like codependent sloganeering.
Had you asked me several years ago what the difference was between a drinking problem and alcoholism, I would have likely responded "not much." Try to explain it to me? I'd have politely nodded but dismissed you as someone with way too much time on their hands. I simply was not there-- I had double digit sobriety, a good life and the assurance that by keeping my memory green about where alcohol had taken me, I'd never drink again. I've since learned that alcoholism is cunning and baffling; it can also masquerade as sobriety. In retrospect, I was unaware that the very proclamations I valued as manifestations of my sobriety were really untreated alcoholism. And it was biding its time, trying to find another way in.
But back to the point of the post-- what's the difference? I see it this way: the person with a drinking problem should stop, and usually can. The person with alcoholism must stop and cannot.
For the person with a drinking problem (let's call them a hard drinker), there is usually some aspect of their lives-- husband, wife, kids, job, health, threat of jail-- that provides the necessary incentive to stop. The hard drinker is able to cognitively reassess their priorities and values and exert willpower to change. For them, their problem is largely a physical and behavioral one. After they dry out and snuff the physical compulsion, they can usually change their habits to reflect the rearrangement of priorities. New behaviors may include exercise, eating better, spending more time with the family, and for many, AA meetings.
The alcoholic's situation is much more cut and dry. They are stuck in an astonishing cycle of commitment, relapse and regret that has them questioning their very sanity. Like the hard drinker, they can cognitively reassess their priorities and see how they must change or lose everything. Unlike the hard drinker, the commitment lacks traction. The alcoholic returns from the doctor who's told her she has spots on her liver to find her husband packing his bags and her children crying and knows in her heart that she's reached her bottom and this is it, yes this is it! She is compelling and convincing, because she means every promise she makes. If you gave her a lie-detector test, she would pass with flying colors. It is this stark absoluteness, this undeniable turning point, that sets her and everyone up for the agonizing disappointment and despair when she gets drunk again. She begin to question her moral fiber, her basic deceny, her sanity, and it's an internal dialogue so lonely and harrowing it must be anesthetized.
For the hard drinker, willpower is the answer; for the alcoholic, it's the problem.
Cross posted at