I don’t like the word ‘alcoholic’. I don’t think many people do. It has many negative connotations, but then there are many words that have negative connotations, like murder, torture rape, etc. Words are just labels we use to refer to things, there is a difference between disliking a word and disliking the object or phenomenon that the word is used to describe. However with ‘Alcoholic’ it is the actual word I dislike, for two reasons. Defination of alcoholism.
Firstly, for me at least, it is not a good word to use because it still has connotations of a very outdated 1930’s view of addiction and alcohol. It is linked with the defunct idea that there is a genetic cause, that it is something that is incurable, and that it is something that cannot be understood or properly cured.
Secondly and far more importantly for me however is the word itself as a label. If you have read Alcohol Explained and follow this blog you will no doubt already know that I like things to be clearly defined, explained and understood. Being a solicitor I know the importance of using clearly defined terms. Contractual disputes are often caused because words are not clearly defined and there is ambiguity over their meaning. The word ‘alcoholic’ is one of the most ambiguous words you can come across.
I mean how exactly how do you define an ‘alcoholic’? You can introduce all kinds of tests, like amount drunk, speed of drinking, drinking alone, drinking at certain times or certain occasions. But these are all entirely subjective. Drinking in the morning for example could be a good test, but so many people drink in the morning when they are going on holiday and have an early flight, or they will have a drink with breakfast or in the morning on Christmas. You could say regular morning drinking but then this would exclude the many people who drink only in the evenings, but drink to excess in the evenings and struggle to give up their evening drinks, people who clearly have a drink problem and struggle to do anything about it.
Definition of alcoholism according to who
A test comprising of an actual amount or occasion cannot give a definitive answer. If you drill into the question of what ‘alcoholic’ actually means, the more seemingly sensible answers usually revolve around addiction, reliance or dependency on alcohol. But even when you get to this stage you are really no better off than you were before. What is ‘addiction’, ‘dependency’ or ‘reliance’? To my mind if your definition of ‘alcoholic’ is someone who is reliant on alcohol then every single drinker on the planet is alcoholic. Even the very earliest stage drinkers often rely on alcohol to carry them through certain social situations, in fact this is how many people start drinking in the first place. So they are reliant on alcohol in some situations. You could say that the definition should be that the person is reliant on alcohol to get through life generally, but again then we have gone from too wide to too narrow. This would mean the person is drinking all the time, and the definition would then exclude all those who clearly have a serious problem but are not drinking all the time. The word ‘dependency’ is much the same, if the definition is that you need to be dependent on alcohol to get through certain situations then virtually every drinker is alcoholic. However if your definition is that you have to be dependent on alcohol to get you through life generally then the definition is too restrictive.
So we end up with the definition being an addiction to alcohol. But then the definition of addiction is, in itself, ridiculously vague. One definition for addiction that I just came across is “…the fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance or activity.” It is hard to imagine a more useless definition. Other, slightly more useful, definitions refer to a physical withdrawal. That is all well and good but then for alcohol it is far too wide. Every drinker suffers from alcohol withdrawal, not just the chronic ‘alcoholic’, it is purely a matter of degree. After all if you accept that a long term heavy drinker will suffer alcohol withdrawal, why would a lighter drinker not suffer from a lighter withdrawal? After all it is ridiculous to suppose that there is a specific line you cross into withdrawal, on the one hand nothing, on the other hand the screaming heebee jeebies of the classic Hollywood portrayal of the withdrawing alcoholic. It is simply not viable to suggest that you suffer no withdrawal at all but you then take that one half of lager too many and start hallucinating ants crawling all over your skin.
You could of course use the word ‘addiction’ to refer to a psychological addiction, that there is some kind of compulsion to take the drug, but again you run into the same issue. If the compulsion is to take the drug all day everyday then the definition is too restrictive, if the compulsion is to take a drink on certain specified circumstances (like a weekly visit to the pub with your friends) then again the definition is too wide.
It is also the case that stopping drinking is linked to ‘alcoholism’. We tend to drink and then try to stop if we decide we are ‘alcoholic’, but we shouldn’t even be thinking along those lines. The question is not ‘Do I have a problem?’ but ‘Am I getting more out of this than I am putting in?’. It is absolutely the case that the longer term and heavier drinkers will be paying a far higher price for their drinking, but there is not a single drinker on the planet that makes a gain overall. Whether you are ‘alcoholic’ or a ‘problem drinker’ or ‘alcohol dependant’ simply means that you are paying a higher price for your drinking, that it is hurting you more than it is hurting other lighter drinkers. But no one is better off for drinking, and that is the only consideration that counts.
Have you ever heard of the term dipsomania? It basically means alcoholism (whatever that means!) but it is an historic word that has been left behind as it is linked to outdated ideas about the subject. I think it is time we left the word ‘alcoholic’ behind for the same reason. The word ‘,alcoholic’, suggests that there is a clear line between ‘,normal drinkers’, and the so-called ‘,alcoholic’,, that the ‘,normal drinkers’, are in control, that they can take it or leave it, that they are not alcoholic and never can be. It also suggests that the alcoholic is an alcoholic and always will be, that they cannot change their nature. And these are views that we really need to change. In particular the ‘,normal drinkers’, need to understand that the only thing separating them from the ‘,alcoholic’, is just a few more years, a few more hangovers, a few more drinks, …,