Unlike normal afflictions such as diabetes, there is no test either for alcoholism or for a predisposition to it. Unfortunately, abnormal behavior and bad results such as physical deterioration, financial hardship, broken relationships and entanglements with the law often happen before it is clear that someone has the disease. Yes, it is a disease according to the American Medical Association. That doesn't mean we can use the disease concept as an excuse. As alcoholics we remain responsible for the awful things we did when we were in the throes of our active alcoholism. And we're also responsible now that we're sober for making reasonable amends and restitution where possible.
But the disease concept does explain why we're different, why we react abnormally to ethyl alcohol. We have a "thing" in us. Whether it's genetic or acquired by environmental experience is of no importance to the result. This "thing" makes some of us allergic to alcohol and, at the same time, with just one drink, produces an inexplicable craving for more. This abnormal reaction has been reported by many alcoholics, even when they don't like the taste of the stuff!
Alcoholism has been called the disease of denial. With me it was more like delusion. The mental image I had of an alcoholic was a skid-row bum, homeless, unwashed, drinking cheap wine out of a paper bag. That picture could not have been more wrong for me. I was gainfully employed making good money, had a beautiful family and a comfortable suburban lifestyle. I was a model citizen, even president of our church council. There was no way I could be an alcoholic, right?
Wrong. It took several years of sobriety for me to understand that skid-row for me was a "yet-to-be" had I continued to drink long enough. I know now that you can find on skid row all types of individuals, all levels of education and experience from janitor to CEO, "from Yale to Jail" as some of my friends say.
My own experience was just like that of many other alcoholics, firmly locked on a path characterized by a progressive, fatal disease. In my case the progression was slow, more than 35 years. I didn't see the gradual change for the worse that occurred over time.
It's like aging. You look in the mirror every day but the changes are so slight and so slow you don't notice how drastic the overall change has been until you pull out the photo albums and look back 20 years. Then you have the rude awakening; what happened to the Adonis or starlet you used to be?
I didn't recognize my alcoholic progression until I joined Alcoholics Anonymous. When my head cleared, a friend suggested I look over old photo albums. What I saw astonished me.
In my teens, when I had a more moderate connection with alcohol, the pictures showed a healthy, smiling, excited young dude.
Then in my twenties there was this more subdued guy, still confident but often depicted with a drink in his hands.
In my thirties and forties, the pictures were almost always of parties, almost always with a drink in hand. I also noticed the drinks had gradually gone from beer to hard stuff as I became more affluent. By then, the happy contented look on my face had changed to a more stunned expression. It was the deer in the headlights look, the red eyes shining like an Easter bunny.
So, after some time in AA, I started to see how my thinking and behavior was affected by the progression of this disease. Man, how I had changed.
I had stopped going to, or even considering, restaurants that did not serve "adult" beverages, no matter how good the food was. My predilection for venues offering alcohol carried over to public events as well. I was comforted by the fact that our church had an excellent Family Center equipped with a full bar that was well used at almost every function. As President of our Parish Council, I helped design that center for maximum enjoyment.
As a Yuppie in the seventies, I traveled at least 50% of the time on business. My company's liberal expense account enabled me to drink profusely and I cooperated fully, often closing the hotel bar at 1 AM or later. The first three hours of any business meeting the next day were often lost to recovery from hangover. I thought this was normal.
We lived in Europe for several years. There we could and did buy good wines in the neighborhood supermarket at bargain prices. We also had a wine peddler visit our house where we conducted neighborhood tasting sessions, sort of the French equivalent of a Tupperware party. Within ten years of moving back to the states, I had gone from 25 ounce bottles of expensive Bordeaux's to 4-liter bottles of Chateau Yesterday at $9 a clip. I didn't notice that change happening.
I sank deeper and deeper into ever more frequent depressive cycles. On one Saturday, I found myself in the back yard riding my mower on a hot, sunny day. What shocked me was I couldn't feel or hear anything, not the birds or wind, not even the mower and, even though the temperature was probably in the high eighties, I was cold. I came to only when my brother-in-law, on an unexpected visit, shook me awake. Of course we celebrated with a few drinks.
I didn't understand that alcohol, as a chemical, is a serious depressant when consumed in the quantities I favored.
Trained as an engineer, I actually designed a bulk delivery system for white wine for the home. It included a 200 gallon epoxy-lined fiberglass tank, a 45 psi nitrogen pressurization system and a Tygon tube distribution system with taps in five rooms: family, kitchen, dining, master bedroom and back porch. I put this project on hold when it became apparent that state regulations were going to prevent me from receiving shipments from the local winery. I formed a major resentment towards the State of Pennsylvania, blaming big government for stunting my creativity.
So there were signs all along the way that something was wrong with my drinking (and thinking), but I was blind to the signals. Since I had never experienced the worse results of alcoholism such as repetitive job loss, multiple marriages, financial destruction or serious trouble with the law, I thought I was normal. I was just an enthusiastic social drinker, very enthusiastic.
It took a very embarrassing experience at a neighbor's house one night to understand that I had a problem. In short, I got plastered, blacked out, fell off their front stoop, rolled down the hill and spread-eagled in the street. I didn't (and still don't) remember any of it. The details were reported to me by my wife weeks later. After that, I was fortunate to go to an AA meeting at the suggestion of my doctor. By the grace of God and the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous, I came to understand that I was indeed one of "them". Today, I view that awakening as a miracle.