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Myths and truths on alcoholism

I debated over writing this for the longest time but I really felt like I had to. I am so sick of the way alcoholism is talked about: in the media, within personal conversations, overheard snippets and social media output. Everything really.

Most people seem to have no idea about addiction. For that I am jealous in a way, but it also really troubles me - hearing the flippant remarks people make.

Then the ones that do know (of which there are many) keep quiet - perhaps on fearing judgement based on what they hear others say.

The whole public perception of alcoholism is pretty two-dimensional. There seem to be three types of alcoholic that are openly talked about.

Firstly, the homeless drunk swigging cheap, strong cider on the streets (though not always alcoholic, that is the presumption). Then, the high-functioning alcoholic - ie the professor in Educating Rita swigging spirits in between class, a little pathetic and a little romantic. Lastly, the celebrity. We hear stories of their struggles or success, rehab perhaps, but not of the day to day.

I'm not undermining the experiences of these people, it's just worrying when people think alcoholism is limited to "types" of people.

So when people make jokes it's clear they can't view alcoholism as something real and tangible - instead, something either dramatic or pathetic that happens to other people. Mostly the latter. But never to the people around them.

In the past few years there's been such positive movements within mental health awareness, moving away from stigma and into understanding. People post on social media - messages of support for campaigns, or "coming out" about their own problems. There have been some great documentaries covering a range of mental illnesses - depression, eating disorders, anxiety, OCD...but rarely addiction.

This omission from the campaigns seems odd - it's such a huge problem and no one seems to be talking about it. And it really is huge - you only need to look up the number of AA/Al-Anon meetings within a city to discover the scale of the problem, and that's just supporting the ones that get help.

Perhaps there's something in the secrecy that aids recovery - to battle through, trying to stay sober without the anxiety caused by other people's judgement. However, it feels problematic to have such little honest discussion about alcohol addiction via a public platform.

For people to have some understanding would help: to recognise when you have a problem before it's too late, to recognise it in someone else, or to be able to provide better support - to those suffering and to their families. To make these people feel less alone.

Perhaps secrecy breeds stigma, but really it's up to people how they handle their own problems. Still, if the adverse is that understanding breeds support and empathy then perhaps I can try to shed a little light on things by looking at a few misconceptions.

Myth: He isn't the type to be an alcoholic. Alcoholics are a certain kind of lowly person.

Truth: Nope. Anyone can be an alcoholic. There isn't a "type". Plenty of people with addictions do cross into your life everyday. You just don't know it.

Your doctor, manager or friend could be an alcoholic. It doesn't mean you should be scared or mistrusting. Everyone is fighting their own battle and that is often a private rather than public one.

Alcoholics can be charming, intelligent, good people. Good managers, husbands and dads - like my Dad. Being his friend or working alongside him you wouldn't know unless he chose to share that with you. Alcoholics are not necessarily constantly drunk.

Myth: It's their own fault. They just shouldn't drink.

Truth: I think this is where a lot of the stigma comes from - the element of choice. They put the drink to their lips. They drink it. They continue to drink when they know they shouldn't.

As much as the situation has caused me pain and anger in the past, I do know that no one would choose to be an alcoholic. It's something that happens to you, and it escalates. Yes, they take the first steps by drinking but then so do most of us.

The media talks about the potential of liver damage from long-term drinking, but never that you could end up addicted. If someone talked about doing cocaine once you might freak out. If someone was drinking most days after work at home, you probably wouldn't bat an eyelid.

So yes, they shouldn't drink once they know they have a problem but it's not as simple as that. The mind plays tricks on them, it's a deep and at times irrepressible need. Logic goes out of the equation.

I still can't get my head around it really, so many times asking "but why didn't you talk to someone? Put the drink back? Walk out of the shop?" but all I really know is, to do that is not easy. It's really, really hard.

Myth: "I know this ex-alcoholic."

Truth: There's no such thing as someone who "used to be" an alcoholic. If you're addicted, you always will be. Whether you drink or not is a different matter. More likely, what you mean is a recovering alcoholic.

Even if someone has been sober for 20 years, they are still an alcoholic. They still cannot drink. I can't speak for the level of difficulty or daily struggle in that but I will give an analogy that may or may not help.

Someone with a nut allergy, even with abstaining from nuts for 20 years - they still can't have nuts, as they are still a person with a nut allergy.

[Update: that doesn't mean they're judged or it clouds their life. It's just an awareness of the potential permanence of the problem. The word alcoholic is loaded and if you find it unhelpful then that's ok too. It's the ignorance that's an issue. After a few months of not drinking my Dad's GP shook his hand and congratulated him on not being an alcoholic anymore. He was still struggling, and this showed a real lack of understanding.]

Myth: "But they could have one drink, right? They're doing really well."

Truth: Alcoholics can't have just the one drink. That's the whole problem. One glass of champagne at a wedding and it's all down hill from there: not just that night but the weeks after. The drinking and lying starts back up and it's harder to stop again. It's not worth it.

Myth: "Real alcoholics only drink seriously strong cider, or whiskey."

Truth: Most likely alcoholics will drink whatever would be their usual drink, but a heck of a lot more. Someone isn't less of an alcoholic because they drink cider or beer over spirits.

Equally, there isn't one "rule" for how alcoholics behave. Some may drink first thing in the morning but many won't - being more likely to drink after work. Not everyone will, when trying to be sober, have a problem with going to a pub with their family. For my Dad, he would drink at home - so being home alone when struggling would be much more difficult than being in a pub with company. Not everyone will count their sober days.

Basically, don't ever doubt how much of an alcoholic someone is (or, how well they're coping) based on a behaviour you've heard about alcoholics doing. It varies.

Myth: "If they're not physically abusive, it can't be that bad."

Truth: It can. It really, really can. Even if the individual doesn't get angry or physically abusive, it can be much more insidious than that. It's the lying and the deception of it all.

The wanting to help them only to be met with more lies. The denial of drinking, even in the face of them being blind drunk. The hiding places and the tricks they play. The dragged out mind games. You can't have a normal conversation. You're the bad one for asking if they've been drinking. It's turned round on you. The taking risks with their own and others' lives: the drink driving.

But more than all that, it's a loss. In the grips of this illness, my Dad couldn't be my Dad. It's an illness that changes the person and makes them selfish.

They can only be an alcoholic - wanting their next drink and lying so they can keep drinking with the least amount of hassle. Even if it means hurting those around them - over and over again. When they're gone, it's easy to lose hope of ever getting them back.

Well if it's that bad, why don't you leave? They don't deserve your help.

Because it's not that simple. Because there is hope. Because it's not about "deserving".

As I said, no one chooses to be an alcoholic. They hate hurting the people they love, and yet they keep doing it - stuck in a self, and outwardly, destructive cycle. That must feel pretty awful.

Equally, if we're talking about choice, I doubt anyone would choose to be with an alcoholic from the off-set. You don't go into it knowing that's the case - it's progressive. Though if you've chosen to be with that person, you'd want to help them - to hopefully get back to being the person that you know and love.

Saying that, I wouldn't judge anyone for leaving. It's so hard to deal with, and without the right support (for you or them) you could lose it, and it could become your life. There's no right way to handle things. It's just such a hard, horrible situation to be in.

I didn't have hope for a long time, but am (hopefully) now being proved wrong. Relapses may occur, and that will be inevitably difficult to deal with, but hopefully they will get fewer and further between.

This was a hard post to write, and I had serious doubts about sharing it. Whether it was my story tell, whether I wanted to make another personal trouble public, whether I could write this with truth but without causing damage.

In the end it was more important (with my family's blessing) to get this message out there.

That to live with and love someone with an addiction is an overwhelmingly difficult experience, but that alcoholics are not inherently bad people. They are troubled, and were unfortunate enough to be susceptible to addiction. They're also unfortunate that the substance they're addicted to is so readily-available and enjoyed.

In Britain, there's no stigma around drinking alcohol (if anything you're deemed odd not to) but there is about alcoholism. That's a little strange. Perhaps a sense of "if I can drink happily and sensibly, why can't you?" Well, because we're all different. Some have asthma or diabetes, others (many, many others) have an addiction.

With this post, I didn't want to get all personal memoirs on you - dragging up particularly painful memories or images that stay with me. Yes, we've had some awful times but (and this is hard to remember when living it) - that is the addiction, not him. He isn't defined by his addiction. That's the point.

I just wanted to talk about the overall experience that people don't seem to understand - largely out of ignorance rather than malice.

If you're supporting someone with an addiction, please don't be afraid to talk to someone about it. You need support too. That can be hard with so much shame kicking around but good friends will listen without judgement - and it will help them understand.

Click here for some really helpful information on alcoholism and alcohol abuse including signs and symptoms, effects of alcoholism, getting help, and advice for when a loved one has a drinking problem.

Read about how I moved from anger to acceptance here.