‘This Is An Alcoholic’ by Beth Burgess

london recovery coach.jpgAnother little gem from Beth Burgess.

A piece I wrote before I was in recovery. A bit of a rant at the current addiction treatments too. Do you identify as an alcoholic or addict?

No-one these days seems to understand what an alcoholic is. Middle-class winos, binge-drinking teenagers, hard-drinking journalists or Wall Street party-boys. These people are all labelled as alcoholics of some description. And yet most of them are probably not alcoholics at all.

Can I describe to you what happens when I drink alcohol – and maybe then you will understand what an alcoholic is. I drink alcohol compulsively. Not for fun. Not for stress relief. Not because I have had a hard day or my partner doesn’t love me. Not for any particular reason, but for any reason at all.

In my alcoholic mind, my drinking is always justified – whether I have suffered a bereavement or broken a fingernail. Whether I have lost my lover or lost my keys. And every time before I drink, I tell myself I will only have a little – and I truly believe that at the time. I could take a lie detector test to prove my sincerity that this time will be different. I honestly could.

And yet again, as much as it breaks my heart to say it, I will always end up binging for a week and in hospital again when I can not physically take any more.

I have a strange phenomenon that I call my ‘elastic arm’. Every time I put the bottle down, my arm compulsively reaches up to have one more. It is completely outside of my control to stop drinking once I have started. It sounds quite funny, but it is frustrating, confusing and terrifying. And it has got worse and worse over time.

If I ever try to do anything as sensible as pouring my alcohol into a glass, I can not refrain from simultaneously giving myself three times as much out of the bottle. It is crazy – but that’s what alcoholism is. I can not moderate or learn to control it. I can’t – I’m an alcoholic.

I can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t stop obsessing about it. If I am not drinking it I am planning all sorts of ways to get it. I’m planning on sneaking some into the house, drinking yours and anyone else’s. I will raise all hell if I can’t have it. I will start a row to run away and have it. I will beg and cry and demean my own dignity to get it. I am trapped in a prison that looks like a glass. This is alcoholism.

It can happen to anybody. I happen to be a well-educated young female with a loving family and a lot to live for. My alcoholism started when I was only 18 years old. Alcoholism knows no rules, restrictions or social boundaries – it is an illness.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I am tired of the media, I am tired of the misunderstanding. I am tired of the confusion. I am tired of health care professionals mislabelling and mistreating.

Why don’t you differentiate the real alcoholics from the people who have other drink problems? Most people who are labelled as alcoholics probably have do problems – but they are not the same as mine.

Why does it matter? Because we need to acknowledge the difference properly. We need to understand so that the stigmatisation of alcoholics does not continue. We can not just stop – it takes a lot of work, because we do not have a choice. Stop tutting at me in public and sighing, as if I were just irresponsible. I’m not. I’m an alcoholic. I’m ill.

Not only that but it matters greatly in terms of treatments. An alcohol worker of mine once insisted I complete a drink diary each week to see what my ‘triggers’ were and see if I could cut down. I could have cried – as if I could control it. As if I even had enough gumption to write out every unit I drank. I didn’t have a clue.

They are always talking about modifying the diagnostic criteria to include other addictions, to account for people overshopping, overeating and watching too much TV. I am sure that there are proper addicts among you, too. I am sure that there are some people who are as ill as me and are slaves to other behaviours and substances. But not all of you.

Some of you can control it if you want to, but indulge because it’s more enjoyable than facing reality. Some of you may be flippantly calling yourself addicts, but before using that word, spare a thought for those who live in a world of compulsion and pain and can not get out. You have your pain too, but do not call yourself an addict unless you are sure, because it leads to the dilution of the understanding of true addiction.

I ask the government and the healthcare professionals to understand what it is I am facing. I ask the hospital staff not to look at me with disdain and judgmental eyes. I ask for understanding and care for my condition.

I am an alcoholic. I am an addict. Treat me like a patient, not a leper. Treat me like the scared, ill human being I am. Understand my illness. Understand how it works, how it feels. Understand I did not choose this life. Understand me. Help me. Diagnose me properly. Treat me effectively. And care for me with humanity and with empathy in your heart.

Please share this addiction awareness piece if you want to break addiction stigma.’