I have learned much about the disease of ALCOHOLISM from many people and sources over the years. Early on I considered it the "A" word, a bad word, something I sure as heck didn't want to be. Acceptance took time and can still be a challenge, but understanding that alcoholism is about much more than drinking was a good start.
When I was 19, I went to see a substance abuse counselor after my college friends shared concerns with me. That being after I woke up on the floor of my dorm room after passing out there the night before. The counselor had me take the MAST (Michigan Alcoholism Screening Test) and the first question was "Do you feel you are a normal drinker?"
Nope. Never. When I drank, something happened. I couldn't stop, even with the best of intentions. That is a key to the disease. Lack of control. Inevitably, consequences come-physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, legally, relationally. And the list could go on. It took all of that to show me I needed help. The help continues.
Daily I strive to come to some personal acceptance of my disease. Sadly, there is still plenty of misunderstanding about alcoholism and other forms of addiction in our society today. As both an alcoholic and a cancer patient, I found a new voice. The piece below speaks to the similarities between the two, and the differences. It was published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on August 7, 2011.
Addiction and Cancer Both Need Headlines
What if we saw addiction more like we see cancer? Both deadly diseases, they are worlds apart in how they are perceived. It would sound heartless to tell a cancer patient to “get over it,” yet alcoholics and addicts are judged harshly for their malady. Cancer cells don’t announce their presence until enough have amassed to be felt, detected by tests, or cause pain. Likewise, addiction often has someone in its steel grips before they realize it.
Addiction and cancer have common ground beyond their lethal potential. Research has made headway regarding causes and treatment of both, but unanswered questions remain and cures are elusive. Personal habits can be contributing factors. Genetic predisposition seems prominent. Many forms of treatment can help put each in remission. But they continue to exact a huge toll in our country on a daily basis. People don’t ask for or deserve either. I didn’t ask for either, but I am facing both. I am an alcoholic in recovery since 1989 and a breast cancer survivor since 2008. Very grateful to be alive, I don’t have to face either disease alone. I wish that for everyone.
Amy Winehouse’s death made headlines this summer and generated abundant comments and coverage. (Toxicology reports are pending on Winehouse, but regardless of what killed her, addiction impacted her life.) It is disconcerting that a celebrity death puts the calamity of addiction in the news for a mere few days before it flits quietly away again. We need to keep addiction in the headlines. Not individual tragedies, but the collective devastation. It’s not every day a famed singer dies, but it is every day that lives are lost to alcohol and other drugs. Just your average alcoholic or addict. Gone. Leaving behind loved ones, lost dreams, and heartache. Their stories are no less tragic than Winehouse’s, but it is too easy to detach when the victim is someone we don’t personally know, too easy to remove ourselves from the urgency.
Bring it closer to home. We all know people struggling with addiction. It may be someone in the office next door, the house down the street, or the bedroom across the hall. Some are alive, but not well. Others make headlines in the local paper when they crash cars, drown, commit murder/suicide or have obituaries that simply say “died unexpectedly.” Maybe if we stated openly that addiction killed them, more people would take notice and stigma would fall away. Cancer’s victims get a nice line in their obituary about “losing a long battle.” Addicts are in a fight for their lives too.
Addiction is non-discriminating, touching all classes and races. Those afflicted need help from outside themselves. We wouldn’t expect a cancer patient to treat themselves. Why do we think addicts can? The bitter judgment is obvious. Weak-willed. Created their own troubles. Why don’t they just quit? Instead, let’s ask ourselves if there is someone in our own lives who needs support and if we are the ones who can offer it.
Both illnesses impact an entire family. Yet, families dealing with cancer get support and sympathy while families with addiction get discussed in hushed tones. Secrets are perpetuated by the rampant denial, guilt, and shame in these families. The proverbial elephant in the living room needs to get kicked out, but it takes a concerted effort. If making a meal for a chemo patient and her family is helpful, so is not enabling an addict to continue putting themselves and others in danger.
Each studied for centuries, people accept cancer as a disease but debate addiction as one. Alcoholism has been recognized as a disease since 1956 by the American Medical Association. Addiction as a disease is an ongoing discussion; but it has clear symptoms, is chronic in nature, and terminal if left untreated. All debates aside, addiction is headline-worthy. Cancer makes the news regularly, helping advance awareness, prevention, treatment, research funding, and people’s willingness to talk about it. We can strive for the same with addiction. We can even hope for lives saved and families restored.