Breaking Myths About Alcoholism

With so many misconceptions about alcoholism, it's important that we determine what the facts are.

There are many misconceptions about alcoholism. It was classified as an illness by the AMA (American Medical Association) in 1956. In 1991, it found a place in both the psychiatric and medical sections of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD); the classification used to code and classify mortality data from death certificates. And yet, myths persist. Five of the most prevalent are explored here:

Myth: An Alcoholic is Best Described as a Man in Tattered Clothes, Under a Bridge, Drinking From a Paper Bag

Howard B. Moss, M.D., NIAAA Associate Director for Clinical and Translational Research, says, "We find that young adults comprise the largest group of alcoholics in this country, and nearly 20 percent of alcoholics are highly functional and well-educated with good incomes. More than half of the alcoholics in the United States have no multigenerational family history of the disease, suggesting that their form of alcoholism was unlikely to have genetic causes."

Myth: Alcoholism is a Moral Dilemma That Alcoholics Bring on Themselves

Historically, alcoholism has long been embroiled in a battle of 'vice vs. disease'. Although declared a disease by the AMA, the idea of alcoholism as a disease still has some dispute. Depending on the viewpoint and the time in history, alcoholics have been treated as everything from sick patients to criminals. Being overweight may help bring on a heart attack. Yet, we never say an overweight person deliberate inflicted a heart attack on him/herself.

Myth: The Cause of Alcoholism is Alcohol

No one, specific cause has yet been determined. However, there are several risk factors for alcoholism:

Genetic Predisposition
If your parents or grandparents were addicted to alcohol, the chances are strong that you will be vulnerable to the disease.

People suffering from depression or low self-esteem are more likely to try to 'fit in' with their friends, who 'enable' the problem to continue.

Emotional Makeup
Alcohol is used as a coping device, and certain stress hormones may contribute to the disease's progression.

Alcohol is both readily available and legal, and drinking is socially acceptable. There is often peer pressure to drink, to be a part of the crowd.

Young people are at greater risk of developing alcoholism, especially if they start drinking by age 16 or sooner. The probability drops dramatically is one doesn't drink until the age of 21.

Frequency of Drinking
Over time, people who drink regularly may be at risk of developing a physical dependence on alcohol. Studies show that if one/two drinks a day for the average person (15 per week for men, 12 per week for women) is within safe limits, then it follows that going beyond that limit can produce problems. The probability is that one in nine will develop the disease.

Men are more likely to develop the disease than women.

Myth: Alcoholics Will be Drunks Forever—They Are Hopeless Cases

While there is no known, single cure, alcoholism can be arrested with proper treatment. The businessman and the doctor who founded Alcoholics Anonymous were once considered by their friends to be 'hopeless drunks'. However, they demonstrated that alcoholics can live sober, productive lives a day at a time. Because Alcoholics Anonymous has never kept formal membership lists, it is extremely difficult to obtain completely accurate figures on total membership. Reports to the organization’s General Service Office—as of 1/1/11—showed a total, worldwide membership slightly over 2 million.

Myth: Will Power is the Key—If Alcoholics Had Any, They Could Stop Drinking

People do not recover from illnesses by simply resolving that they will stop being sick! As it happens, many alcoholics do have a great deal of will power. For example, in some cases, they can hold down jobs long after they should. Saddled with a massive hangover, their sheer will to carry out a 'normal day' will get them to work when with any other illness would keep them home. However, just one drink—for an alcoholic—can result in an endless, downward spiral.

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