When a person is admitted to a rehab, one of the first things that they and their family will be told, both directly and indirectly is that alcoholism is an illness, and that an alcoholic as such, is a person who is suffering from that illness.
Some people and literature refer to alcoholism as a disease rather than an illness, however the early members of Alcoholics Anonymous have always referred to it as an illness.
There are differences, medically, between the concept of an illness and a disease, and important though they are they are not really relevant to this issue.
The nature of alcoholism as an illness has been important for a number of reasons, not least of all as an attempt to try and remove some of the stigma surrounding the person being an alcoholic.
This in part is because the nature of alcoholism is often very public, both in terms of actual drunkenness, but also in terms of other behaviours when drunk and sober.
The premise behind alcoholism being an illness is that the alcoholic is effectively a sick person as opposed to a bad person.
This may be somewhat of a mute distinction, but is an important one nevertheless.
The question of alcoholism being an illness or not has to an extent died down, but from the point of view of the alcoholic and the family it is still a very important issue.
Part of the reason for this is a need both by the alcoholic and their family to be able to make sense of the alcoholics drinking and the chaos that ensues from it.
One of the questions that inevitably arises once someone is in a rehab is a questioning of why nothing was done about the person’s drinking beforehand.
A rehab will inevitably be a focal point for what the illness is, what it means and what symptoms if any are displayed by the alcoholic.
Most illnesses/diseases in a traditional medical model are likely to have symptoms that can be picked up on either by a doctor or other health professional. Alcoholism is not necessarily like that.
It is certainly true to say that if someone is an alcoholic they will reach a point where their drinking is out of control. An alcoholic is likely to have alcoholic blackouts at some point in the drinking, but this is not true of all alcoholics.
There is also quite a fine line between a heavy drinker and an alcoholic. As such, there is no way to define or classify an alcoholic based on the reality of what their drinking is.
A rehab/treatment center will be a safe place where someone can begin the process of recovery, and it is through the nature of the recovery that they will realise they were ill in the first place.
One of the dangers of trying to categorise alcoholics, is that to some extent people’s patterns of drinking will vary hugely, and there is no standard diagnosis that anyone could apply that would make any sense in terms of being able to spot an alcoholic.
This may be of little or no comfort to the family of an alcoholic, but in truth anyone who lives with an alcoholic at any level of intimacy is likely to get sucked into their illness, and lose much of their own life emotionally.