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What is an Alcoholic?

Posted on January 31, 2012 at 2:35 PM

What is an Alcoholic?

The word “Alcoholic” and “Alcoholism” are slippery words. They do not mean the same thing to everyone. For starters, let’s look at how the dictionary defines it.

The Oxford Dictionary (which I was taught is the foremost authority on the English Language while in high school) defines Alcoholic as:

“2suffering from alcoholism: his alcoholic daughter was the cause of his anxiety”.

That really doesn’t tell us a whole lot. Let’s look up “Alcoholism” in the dictionary:

“Addiction to the consumption of alcoholic drink; alcohol dependency:”


That is pretty straight forward and probably what the majority of English speaking people mean when they say someone is an “Alcoholic”. I have asked non-AA friends what “Alcoholic” means to them and generally they answer “somebody who gets drunk a lot or somebody who is habitually drunk”. So far so good.

However, I can tell you from personal experience that is not what most members of Alcoholics Anonymous and most treatment professionals believe and teach. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services puts out a pamphlet called “This is AA—An Introduction to the AA Recovery Program”.

This is what the pamphlet says:

“While there is no formal AA definition, most of us agree, for us, it could be described as a physical compulsion, coupled with a mental obsession.”

Further on, in the same pamphlet, it says:

“We understand now that once a person has crossed the invisible borderline from heavy drinking to compulsive alcoholic drinking, that person will always remain an alcoholic. So far as we know, there can never be any turning back to “normal” social drinking. “Once and alcoholic, always an alcoholic” is a simple fact we have to live with.”

My experience with Alcoholics Anonymous is that most AA’s would agree with that. It is something that is repeated over and over at meetings in various forms and becomes an article of faith to them. In addition, most AA’s will state that alcoholics are “physically different”, and they advance different theories as to why.

So the average English speaking person uses “Alcoholic” to mean someone who gets drunk a lot while an AA member has their own unique definition.

Where else might we look? Perhaps the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders which says:

Alcohol Alert From NIAAA

The DSM Criteria

Researchers and clinicians in the United States usually rely on the DSM diagnostic criteria. The evolution of diagnostic criteria for behavioral disorders involving alcohol reached a turning point in 1980 with the publication of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Third Edition (14). In DSM-III, for the first time, the term "alcoholism" was dropped in favor of two distinct categories labeled "alcohol abuse" and "alcohol dependence" (1, 2,12,and 15)

So apparently researchers and clinicians have stopped trying to define the word.

Alcoholics Anonymous teaches that “Alcoholics” are different than other type of heavy drinkers although there is no consensus even among AA’s on how they are different. Some would say they have an allergy, others perhaps not. There have been various theories advanced at various times, some of them disproven by later scientific evidence. The gist of all of them is that alcoholics are physically different and can never drink again in moderation. If by some chance one is able to do that, then that is considered proof positive that they were never an “alcoholic.” Of course, there are experts such as Professor Herbert Fingarette, author of “Heavy Drinking-The Myth of Alcoholism as a Disease”. In his book Professor Fingarette cites studies to prove the proposition that “Alcoholics” can drink moderately. As you might expect, he is not too popular with AA’s.

In my book “Up From Down” I do devote some time about the true nature of alcoholism and my decade’s long experience with Alcoholics Anonymous.


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