Alcoholism is not a choice. Recovery is.
Alcoholics are not bad people or moral failures. They do not choose to become alcoholics, but they are responsible for their behaviors. While they do deserve empathy and compassion, it is up to them to choose abstinence and, ideally, to seek recovery.
I usually write about the effects of growing up in an alcoholic family; I don’t generally write about the alcoholic’s own struggles. The two are actually very similar. An alcoholic is almost always the product of an alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional family. Those who become alcoholics try to cope with the stresses of their upbringing by drinking. Ironically, an alcoholic drinks to gain some control over her life, only to lose that control to alcohol.
When I worked at Chrysalis House, a residential treatment program for alcoholic and/or drug addicted women, one of the first things a resident did as part of her therapy was to write a goodbye letter to drugs and alcohol. The letters were written as if to abusive boyfriends.
This is quite accurate. Alcohol and other drugs do become an alcoholic or addict’s primary relationship, shutting out sober friends and loved ones. Like relationships with abusive boyfriends, the relationships with alcohol and drugs start out well, but gradually deteriorate into abuse. At that point it becomes very difficult for the abused person to leave because the abuser has such a strong hold on her.
It is difficult to choose sobriety. It is hard to give up that “friend,” that coping mechanism. It’s hard to overcome the habit of drinking. But it can be done, and only the alcoholic can make the choice to do it.
If you suspect you may be an alcoholic, you have a choice of recovery possibilities. Some people just stop drinking and never drink again, although this is often ineffective, in part because it doesn’t address issues that underlie the alcoholism.
A popular choice is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), a 12-step program that helps people to become and remain sober. AA meetings can be found anywhere, and at pretty much any time, so it’s not hard to take advantage of this option. For more information on AA and a list of meetings in your area, visit www.AA.org. For those who object to the spiritual aspects of AA, there are other programs such as SMART recovery (www.smartrecovery.org).
Some people may seek individual or group counseling, either as an adjunct to a recovery fellowship or on their own. Both kinds of counseling can help you to identify underlying issues and triggers for drinking. There are advantages to each. With individual counseling, the entire session is focused on you and your particular issues. The advantage to group therapy is that you will be validated by a group of people who have similar thoughts, feelings, and experiences to yours.
If AA and/or individual or group counseling are not enough to help you to keep sober, there are more intensive types of therapies you might explore. One is intensive outpatient treatment (IOP). In an IOP, you attend group sessions several times a week, each session lasting at least a couple of hours, either during the day or in the evening. IOP, as with the group therapy I already mentioned, can help you to see that you’re not alone in your struggles. IOP also offers education about alcoholism and addiction.
The most intensive therapy for alcoholism is inpatient treatment, which involves spending a couple of weeks to a month or more in a residential treatment setting. This, of course, requires time off from work and other daily activities. It can be extremely helpful, though, because the longer you are away from alcohol, the better it is for your recovery. During inpatient treatment, you attend groups (educational and therapeutic), AA meetings, and individual counseling. Depending upon the program, you might also receive acupuncture and/or other adjunctive treatments.
If you are an alcoholic, try not to judge yourself too harshly. Remember that you are a person with a problem, not a person who is a problem. You did not choose to become an alcoholic, but you need to take responsibility for yourself and your actions and choose sobriety.
Why not make that choice today?
Jennifer Beall is a psychotherapist and drug and alcohol counselor in private practice near Annapolis, Maryland. She is the author of “Me” Time: Finding the Balance Between Taking Care of Others and Taking Care of Yourself, available on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com in print editions, and as an e-book for Kindle, Nook, and all other major e-readers.