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Last Updated: 16 January 2019

Alcoholism and Alcoholics

Not too long ago, alcoholism was viewed as a moral problem. Today, many regard it primarily as a health problem. To each problem drinker, it will always remain an intensely personal matter. Alcoholics who approach A.A. frequently ask questions that apply to their own experience, their own fears, and their own hopes for a better way of life.

What is alcoholism?

There are many different ideas about what alcoholism really is.

The explanation that seems to make sense to most A.A. members is that alcoholism is an illness, a progressive illness, which can never be cured but which, like some other diseases, can be arrested. Going one step further, many A.A.s feel that the illness represents the combination of a physical sensitivity to alcohol and a mental obsession with drinking, which, regardless of consequences, cannot be broken by willpower alone.

Before they are exposed to A.A., many alcoholics who are unable to stop drinking think of themselves as morally weak or, possibly, mentally unbalanced. The A.A. concept is that alcoholics are sick people who can recover if they will follow a simple program that has proved successful for more than one and a half million men and women.

Once alcoholism has set in, there is nothing morally wrong about being ill. At this stage, free will is not involved, because the sufferer has lost the power of choice over alcohol. The important thing is to face the facts of one's illness and to take advantage of the help that is available. There must also be a desire to get well. Experience shows that the A.A. program will work for all alcoholics who are sincere in their efforts to stop drinking; it usually will not work for those not absolutely certain that they want to stop.

How can I tell if I am really an alcoholic?

Only you can make that decision. Many who are now in A.A. have previously been told that they were not alcoholics, that all they needed was more willpower, a change of scenery, more rest, or a few new hobbies in order to straighten out. These same people finally turned to A.A. because they felt, deep down inside, that alcohol had them licked and that they were ready to try anything that would free them from the compulsion to drink.

Some of these men and women went through terrifying experiences with alcohol before they were ready to admit that alcohol was not for them. They became derelicts, stole, lied, cheated, and even killed while they were drinking. They took advantage of their employers and abused their families. They were completely unreliable in their relations with others. They wasted their material, mental, and spiritual assets.

Many others with far less tragic records have turned to A.A., too. They have never been jailed or hospitalized. Their too-heavy drinking may not have been noticed by their closest relatives and friends. But they knew enough about alcoholism as a progressive illness to scare them. They joined A.A. before they had paid too heavy a price.

There is a saying in A.A. that there is no such thing as being a little bit alcoholic. Either you are, or you are not. And only the individual involved can say whether or not alcohol has become an unmanageable problem.

Can an alcoholic ever drink 'normally' again?

So far as can be determined, no one who has become an alcoholic has ever ceased to be an alcoholic. The mere fact of abstaining from alcohol for months or even years has never qualified an alcoholic to drink "normally" or socially. Once the individual has crossed the borderline from heavy drinking to irresponsible alcoholic drinking, there seems to be no retreat. Few alcoholics deliberately try to drink themselves into trouble, but trouble seems to be the inevitable consequence of an alcoholic's drinking. After quitting for a period, the alcoholic may feel it is safe to try a few beers or a few glasses of light wine. This can mislead the person into drinking only with meals. But it is not too long before the alcoholic is back in the old pattern of too-heavy drinking — in spite of all efforts to set limits for only moderate, social drinking.

The answer, based on A.A. experience, is that if you are an alcoholic, you will never be able to control your drinking for any length of time. That leaves two paths open: to let your drinking become worse and worse with all the damaging results that follow, or to quit completely and to develop a new pattern of sober, constructive living.

Can't an A.A. member drink even beer?

There are, of course, no musts in A.A., and no one checks up on members to determine whether or not they are drinking anything. The answer to this question is that if a person is an alcoholic, touching alcohol in any form cannot be risked. Alcohol is alcohol whether it is found in a martini, a Scotch and soda, a bourbon and branch water, a glass of champagne — or a short beer. For the alcoholic, one drink of alcohol in any form is likely to be too much, and twenty drinks are not enough.

To be sure of sobriety, alcoholics simply have to stay away from alcohol, regardless of the quantity, mixture, or concentration they may think they can control.

Obviously, few persons are going to get drunk on one or two bottles of beer. The alcoholic knows this as well as the next person. But alcoholics may convince themselves that they are simply going to take two or three beers and then quit for the day. Occasionally, they may actually follow this program for a number of days or weeks, Eventually, they decide that as long as they are drinking, they may as well "do a good job." So they increase their consumption of beer or wine. Or they switch to hard liquor. And again, they are back where they started.

I can stay sober quite a while between binges; how can I tell whether I need A.A.?

Most A.A.s will say that it's how you drink, not how often, that determines whether or not you are an alcoholic. Many problem drinkers can go weeks, months, and occasionally years between their bouts with liquor. During their periods of sobriety, they may not give alcohol a second thought. Without mental or emotional effort, they are able to take it or leave it alone, and they prefer to leave it alone.

Then, for some unaccountable reason, or for no reason at all, they go off on a first-class binge. They neglect job, family, and other civic and social responsibilities. The spree may last a single night, or it may be prolonged for days or weeks. When it is over, the drinker is usually weak and remorseful, determined never to let it happen again. But it does happen again.

This type of "periodic" drinking is baffling, not only to those around the drinker, but also to the person still drinking. He or she cannot understand why there should be so little interest in alcohol during the periods between binges, or so little control over it once the drinking starts.

The periodic drinker may or may not be an alcoholic. But if drinking has become unmanageable and if the periods between binges are becoming shorter, chances are the time has come to face up to the problem. If the person is ready to admit to being an alcoholic, then the first step has been taken toward the continuing sobriety enjoyed by thousands upon thousands of A.A.s.

Others say I am not an alcoholic. But my drinking seems to be getting worse. Should I join A.A.?

Many members of A.A., during their drinking days, were assured by relatives, friends, and doctors that they were not alcoholics. The alcoholic usually adds to the problem by an unwillingness to realistically face the facts of drinking. By not being completely honest, the problem drinker makes it difficult for a doctor to provide any help. The amazing thing, in fact, is that so many doctors have been able to penetrate the typical problem drinker's deceptions and diagnose the problem correctly.

It cannot be emphasized too often that the important decision — am I an alcoholic? — has to be made by the drinker. Only he or she — not the doctor, the family, or friends — can make it. But once it is made, half the battle for sobriety is won. If the question is left to others to decide, the alcoholic may be dragging out needlessly the dangers and misery of uncontrollable drinking.

Can a person achieve sobriety all alone by reading A.A. literature?

A few people have stopped drinking after reading Alcoholics Anonymous, the A.A. "Big Book," which sets forth the basic principles of the recovery program. But nearly all of those who were in a position to do so promptly sought out other alcoholics with whom to share their experience and sobriety.

The A.A. program works best for the individual when it is recognized and accepted as a program involving other people. Working with other alcoholics in the local A.A. group, problem drinkers seem to learn more about their problem and how to handle it. The find themselves surrounded by others who share their past experiences, their present problems, and their hopes. They shed the feelings of loneliness that may have been an important factor in their compulsion to drink.

Won't everyone know I am an alcoholic if I come into A.A.?

Anonymity is and always has been the basis of the A.A. program. Most members, after they have been in A.A. awhile, have no particular objection if the word gets around that they have joined a fellowship that enables them to stay sober. Traditionally, A.A.s never disclose their association with the movement in print, on the air, or through any other public media. And no one has the right to break the anonymity of another member.

This means that the newcomer can turn to A.A. with the assurance that no newfound friends will violate confidences relating to his or her drinking problem. The older members of the group appreciate how the newcomer feels. They can remember their own fears about being identified publicly with what seems to be a terrifying word - "alcoholic."

Once in A.A., newcomers may be slightly amused at those past worries about its becoming generally known that they have stopped drinking. When alcoholics drink, news of their escapades travels with remarkable speed. Most alcoholics have made names for themselves as full-fledged drunks by the time they turn to A.A. Their drinking, with rare exceptions, is not likely to be a well-kept secret. Under these circumstances, it would be unusual indeed if the good news of the alcoholic's continuing sobriety did not also cause comment.

Whatever the circumstances, no disclosure of the newcomer's, affiliation with A.A. can rightfully be made by anyone but the newcomer, and then only in such a way that the Fellowship will not be harmed.

How can I get along in business, where I have to make a lot of social contacts, if I don't drink?

Social drinking has become an accepted part of business enterprise in many fields these days. Many contacts with customers and prospective customers are timed to coincide with occasions when cocktails, highballs, or cordials seem the appropriate order of the day or night. Many now in A.A. would be the first to concede that they had often transacted important business in bars, cocktail lounges, or hotel rooms or even during parties in private homes.

It is surprising, however, how much of the world's work is accomplished without the benefit of alcohol. It is equally surprising to many alcoholics to discover how many recognized leaders in business, industry, professional life, and the arts have attained success without dependence on alcohol.

In fact, many who are now sober in A.A. admit that they used "business contacts" as one of several excuses for drinking. Now that they no longer drink, they find that they can actually accomplish more than they used to. Sobriety has proved no hindrance to their ability to win friends and influence people who might contribute to their economic success.

This does not mean that all A.A.s suddenly avoid their friends or business associates who drink. If a friend wants a cocktail or two before lunch, the A.A. will usually take a soft drink, coffee, or one of the popular juices. If the A.A. is invited to a cocktail party being given for business reasons, there will generally be no hesitation about attending. The alcoholic knows from experience that most of the other guests are concerned with their own drinks, and are not likely to care particularly what anyone else happens to be drinking.

While beginning to take pride in the quality and quantity of work on the job, the newcomer to A.A. is likely to find that the payoff in most lines of business is still based on performance. This was not always apparent in the drinking days. The alcoholic may then have been convinced that charm, ingenuity, and conviviality were the chief keys to business success. While these qualities are undoubtedly helpful to the person who drinks in a controlled manner, they are not enough for the alcoholic, if only because the latter, while drinking, is inclined to assign to them far more importance than they deserve.

Will A.A. work for the person who has really 'hit bottom'?

The record shows that A.A. will work for almost anyone who really wants to stop drinking, no matter what the person's economic or social background may be. A.A. today includes among its members many who have been on skid row, in jails, and in other public institutions.

The down-and-outer is at no disadvantage in coming to A.A. His or her basic problem, the thing that has made life unmanageable, is identical with the central problem of every other member of A.A. The worth of a member in A.A. is not judged on the basis of the clothes worn, the handling of language, or the size (or existence) of the bank balance. The only thing that counts in A.A. is whether or not the newcomer really wants to stop drinking. If the desire is there, the person will be welcomed. Chances are, the most rugged drinking story the new member could tell will be topped by an amazing number of people in the group, with similar backgrounds and experiences.

Do alcoholics who are already sober ever join A.A.?

Most men and women turn to A.A. when they hit the low point in their drinking careers. But this is not always the case. A number of persons have joined the Fellowship long after they have had what they hoped was their last drink. One person, recognizing that alcohol could not be controlled, had been dry for six or seven years before becoming a member. Self-enforced sobriety had not been a happy experience. Rising tension and a series of upsets over minor problems of daily living were about to lead to further experiments with alcohol, when a friend suggested that A.A. should be investigated. Since then, this person has been a member for many years, and says there is no comparison between the happy sobriety of today and the self-pitying sobriety of yesterday.

Others report similar experiences. While they know that it is possible to stay grimly sober for considerable periods of time, they say that it is much easier for them to enjoy and strengthen their sobriety when they meet and work with other alcoholics in A.A. Like most members of the human race, they see little point in deliberately doing things the hard way. Given the choice of sobriety with or without A.A., they deliberately choose A.A.

Why is A.A. interested in problem drinkers?

Members of A.A. have a selfish interest in offering a helping hand to other alcoholics who have not yet achieved sobriety. First, they know from experience that this type of activity, usually referred to as "Twelfth Step work," helps them to stay sober. Their lives now have a great and compelling interest. Very likely, reminders of their own previous experience with alcohol help them to avoid the overconfidence that could lead to a relapse. Whatever the explanation, A.A.s who give freely of their time and effort to help other alcoholics seldom have trouble preserving their own sobriety.

A.A.s are anxious to help problem drinkers for a second reason: It gives them an opportunity to square their debt to those who helped them. It is the only practical way in which the individual's debt to A.A. can ever be repaid. The A.A. member knows that sobriety cannot be bought and that there is no long-term lease on it. The A.A. does know, however, that a new way of life without alcohol may be had simply for the asking, if it is honestly wanted and willingly shared with those who follow.

Traditionally, A.A. never "recruits" members, never urges that anyone should become a member, and never solicits or accepts outside funds.



44 Questions

This is A.A. General Service Conference-approved literature.

The following excerpts are from the A.A. Pamphlet "44 Questions":

Questions and Answers About Alcoholics Anonymous

Alcoholism and Alcoholics

The Fellowship of A.A.

Group Meetings

The Recovery Program

Newcomer's Questions

A New Way of Life


Reprinted from the A.A. Pamphlet "44 Questions" with permission of A.A. World Services, Inc.

Copyright © 1952 by Works Publishing, Inc. (Now known as A.A. World Services, Inc.)
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