Alcoholics don't have a disease, they just lack strong character


Have you noticed all those flattering articles and remarks about Barbara Bush? All of a sudden the media seem to have gone weak over wrinkles.

"She speaks for today's woman who's not afraid of being her age," said one absolutely wrinkle-free female commentator on NBC.

Well, I thought to myself, as I massaged my Dior Capture Complex Liposomes into my own skin, I believe in fighting back against mortality.

It did occur to me though, that life was being a little unfair.

All those nasty articles, as British columnist Linda Lee Potter remarked, about Nancy Reagan just because she had the discipline to keep a 24-inch waist and protected her husband through thick and thin.

I wonder if all the people extolling the virtues of blue rinse hair and wrinkled necks are going to throw away their own jars of cream and abandon all hope.

Now the newspapers are also filled with sympathetic stories about the fate of Kitty Dukakis, who is in a clinic for alcoholism having also been under care some years ago for drug abuse. The extraordinary strain of being a campaign wife is blamed and there is much clucking about the exposure, the press surveillance and so on.

ONE WOULD NOT LIKE to see a belligerent press biting away at Kitty Dukakis. It's always unfortunate when people crack up, whether under strain or not, and the last thing I would have wanted at various sticky moments in my life would be newspaper columnists telling me how to set myself straight.

But there's a vast difference, isn't there, between leaving people alone to sort themselves out on one hand and misrepresenting what has happened to them on the other?

By now we've all become conditioned to the idea that alcoholism is a disease. Implicit in that statement is the idea that it is not the fault of the person who has it. You can't be blamed for measles or flu, after all, how can you be blamed for the disease of alcoholism? My copy of Prof. Fingarette's book has not arrived yet, but I'm looking forward to reading it.

Prof. Fingarette is the author of Heavy Drinking: The Myth of Alcoholism as a Disease, and it is causing a lot of trouble among the excuse-makers. Even before reading it, though, some things seem obvious. The profession I belong to is no stranger to alcoholism and I've watched people succumb to it or overcome it. I've known one or two people who succumbed to addiction to tranquilizers as well and in New York I can remember talking to Dr. Judith Denser-Gerber when she was running Odyssey House to help heroin addicts.

THOSE ARE MY BONA fides, as it were, and one thing was clear. You needed character and guts to stop and it was sheer weakness that kept people addicted.

Alcoholics and drug addicts were well when off drugs and drink and very unwell under them. They did not need alcohol to cure a chemical imbalance in their blood - it only created toxins in their livers. If the argument was that some people were more susceptible to alcohol because of some sort of genetic makeup, well, the minute they found out they had an allergy to alcohol they could stay off it, just as do people with allergies to milk or chocolate.

Now, none of this goes against the idea of helpful agencies like Alcoholics Anonymous, which seem to me to do a splendid job.

A realistic approach to alcoholism shouldn't mean the community stops trying to help people overcome destructive weaknesses. That, surely, is what community is all about.

If calling addiction "a disease" would help cure it, I wouldn't mind. I like to think my inability to budget and live within my means is a sickness rather than the sheer lack of character it is.

BUT IT SEEMS TO me that all this fawning over people like Kitty Dukakis and Betty Ford and Elizabeth Taylor, this stuff that they were driven to it and so on, is really not doing anyone much good.

If calling something a disease makes people feel the situation is not their fault, I can't see it helping them to try and resist it. It's all out of their hands, you see.

The drunks I've known could have stopped if everyone hadn't been running around making excuses for them.

Poor old Nancy Reagan. She never got drunk, seems to have kept her figure without diet pills, managed to handle an assassination attempt on her husband as well as his bout of cancer, kept her composure while her step-children published nasty anecdotes about her, and got pilloried for going to something as harmless as an astrologer.

If only she had understood. She should have let her stomach out and her wrinkles down and checked into an alcoholic abuse clinic.

Then she would probably have got the sort of press that she really deserves.