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Dr. Steve Frisch, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in
Chicago, Illinois and Northfield, Illinois.

You can contact Dr. Frisch, Psy.D. at
(847) 498-5611.

Learn how to prevent and recover from chemical dependency as well as the aftereffects of chemical dependency on you and your family. Read Dr. Frisch’s, Psy.D. series of Recovery books.


Is Alcoholism a Disease or the End Result of a Lack of Willpower, Weak Character, Moral Depravity, or a Personality Trait?


Dear Dr. Steve:

I have just returned from my local library. There was a speaker there who talked about alcoholism. I went because I wanted to learn more about alcoholism because I believe my father has a drinking problem. But I left the lecture more confused than ever. The thing that I just don’t get is when this speaker kept referring to alcoholism as a disease. How is it possible that alcoholism is a disease? My father doesn’t look sick. I for one believe that anybody can quit drinking anytime they want if they really put their mind to it. Isn’t referring to alcoholism as a disease really just making an excuse for somebody who should know better but just keeps drinking anyway?

I understand your confusion! Many people believe that the abuse of and/or the dependency on alcohol and other drugs can best be explained by a deficit in one’s conscious self-will or self-control rather than being a symptom of a disease. To these people, the abuse of and/or the dependency on alcohol and other drugs is a function of someone not exerting their will strongly enough or not using enough self-control in order to cut down on the frequency and/or amount that they drink and drug.

Still others believe that the abuse of and/or the dependency on alcohol and other drugs is caused by one’s moral depravity. To these people, one’s moral fiber is the determinant cause for the abuse of and/or the dependency on drugs and alcohol. Therefore people abuse and/or are dependent on alcohol and other drugs because they are fundamentally a morally depraved or bad person.

Yet other people believe that the abuse of and/or the dependency on alcohol and other  drugs is caused by the diminished quality of and/or the deficiencies in one’s character. To these people, the abuse of and/or the dependency on alcohol and other drugs occurs because the person is weak, lacking in the right stuff. Because one’s character is fundamentally weak, they lack the backbone or intestinal fortitude to just say no to one more drink.

Finally, there’s a school of thought that subscribes to the idea that people abuse and/or are dependent on alcohol and other drugs because they have an addictive personality. This theory is just what it sounds like—a type of personality exists that is the root cause as to why a person with that type of personality abuses and/or is dependent on drugs and alcohol.

None of these adequately explain nor describe what alcoholism or drug addiction is. So let me explain to you what is meant by the fact that alcoholism and drug addiction are a disease. For the purposes of this discussion I will use the phrase chemical dependency to refer to both alcoholism and drug addiction.

People abuse and/or are dependent on alcohol and other drugs because they have a disease. There are identifiable symptoms of this disease. At least four of the symptoms of the disease of chemical dependency explain why an individual abuses and/or becomes dependent on drugs and alcohol:

1.) Craving—A strong need or compulsion to ingest a mood altering substance

2.) Impaired control—The inability to limit one's ingestion of a mood altering substance on any given occasion

3.) Physical dependence—Withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, shakiness, and anxiety, when their drug(s) of choice are stopped after a period of heavy using

4.) Tolerance—The need for increasing amounts of one’s drug of choice in order to feel its effects

When I say that chemical dependency is a disease, I mean that chemical dependency is a primary, progressive, chronic, relapsing, and potentially fatal disease of the mind, body, and soul.

When I say that chemical dependency is a primary disease I mean that chemical dependency is not caused by any other: 1.) Disease or condition, 2.) Physical or psychological condition, 3.) Deficiency of character, 4.) Lack of willpower and/or self-control, 5.) Type of personality, and/or 6.) Moral depravity. Chemical dependency is simply a disease in and of itself.

When I say that chemical dependency is a progressive disease, I mean that chemical dependency gets worse over time if it goes untreated and unmanaged. Even if an individual maintains long-term abstinence from their drug of choice, because chemical dependency is a progressive disease, if an individual were to relapse, they would quickly start consuming alcohol and drugs in the same amount and frequency as if they had been drinking and drugging all along.

When I say that chemical dependency is a chronic disease, I mean that chemical dependency is long-term by nature. Once an individual is chemically dependent, that individual will always be chemically dependent—it never goes away.

When I say that chemical dependency is a relapsing disease, I mean that this disease is characterized by a vulnerability to relapse. Because it is chronic in nature, no matter the period of time that the disease of chemical dependency is treated and managed, the chemically dependent individual will always be vulnerable to relapse—that is returning to drinking and drugging in an out of control manner.

When I say that chemical dependency is a fatal disease, I mean that chemical dependency can be and is often times deadly. Chemical dependency can cause death by causing damage to one’s vital organs such as heart, kidneys, and liver. Chemical dependency can also be fatal when it is associated with overdose, suicide, and accidental deaths.

To say that an individual who is chemically dependent has a disease is NOT making excuses for them. An individual who is chemically dependent is no more to blame or to be held responsible for having their disease than is an individual who has diabetes or asthma.

Having said that no one should be blamed or held responsible for having developed the disease of chemical dependency, let me be perfectly clear, every person who has the disease of chemical dependency, should be held accountable for the treatment and long-term management of their disease!

You know the old saying, “Knowledge is power.” Don’t let your confusion discourage you from learning as much as you can about alcoholism and drug addiction. The more information you have, the more able you will be to take care of yourself! Don’t be intimidated by what you don’t understand. Do your best to have your questions clarified as you have done so here. Finally, don’t feel compelled to believe everything that you are told. Your independent thinking is the most important quality you have going for you!


Learn how to prevent and recover from chemical dependency as well as the aftereffects of chemical dependency on you and your family. Read Dr. Frisch’s, Psy.D. series of Recovery books—From Insanity to Serenity.

Pathfinder’s Checklist

1.) Alcoholism and drug addiction is a disease.
2.) The disease is primary, chronic, progressive, chronic, and potentially fatal.
3.) No one should be blamed, judged, or held responsible for the fact that they have the disease.
4.) Because the disease is treatable and manageable, every person should be held accountable for the treatment and management of their disease.
5.) There are professionals in your community trained to evaluate the seriousness of one’s drug and alcohol problem.
6.) There are professionals in your community trained to evaluate the impact of drug and alcohol use on the family members of the user.
7.) There are support groups in your area for both people who use and abuse alcohol and drugs as well as support groups for people who are impacted by other people who use and abuse drugs and alcohol.

G.B.U.

Steve



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