Is Alcoholism a Mental Illness?

In the first few weeks of sobriety, I attended A.A. meetings. I had no problem believing that I’d become powerless over alcohol or placing my faith in a higher power. If submission was the prerequisite for freedom, I was ready to hand over my keys. Whatever it takes. I’m done. But when I read that problem drinkers must “endure the suggestion that they are in fact mentally ill,” I bristled with denial. Nope. No can do.

The stigma around mental illness is strong, despite the increased awareness surrounding mental health. Physical ailments are less complicated. Fighting cancer makes you a hero. Reversing diabetes is badass. Conquering alcoholism warrants props too–but simply battling it?–not so much. Mental illness, however, translates to crazy–not in touch with reality–a few pieces short of a puzzle. Granted, I drank too much. But I can stop drinking. The cure for crazy isn’t as clear.

I’m not really into labels, but I’ll use one for the purpose of keeping it simple: I was a high functioning alcoholic. To all outward appearances, I was a productive, positive person. I looked and acted healthy. My kids were taken care of, my dog was walked, and dinner was on the table. I was helpful, reliable and kind. Drama was something I avoided. I wasn’t sick on the outside. But inside, my mental health was deteriorating.

Every morning, the shrill voice of an unrelenting inner critic pierced my consciousness before I even opened my eyes. Some days, I’d cover my ears and beg, “Can I get a cup of coffee before we start the beat-down?” The voice did not have a sense of humor and the request was usually denied. I knew deep down that my efforts to balance my alcohol intake with a whole food plant-based diet, daily exercise, and copious amounts of water and supplements weren’t enough. What I didn’t realize (until after I quit) was that my bad habit wasn’t even a habit anymore. It was a full-blown addiction.

Alcoholism produces an internal state of dis-ease that is death by 1000 cuts. Ethanol is a sedative. Your brain counters the depressive effects with stimulants and stress hormones. Once the alcohol wears off, there is a bio-chemical imbalance that lasts well into the next day (or longer), leaving you hypersensitive and anxious. Even if you didn’t drink enough to suffer the standard hangover symptoms, you feel at least mildly annoyed by life in general. Relationships and responsibilities are more pain-in-the-ass than purposeful. Negative thinking permeates your psyche. Moods may be manageable for high functioning folks, but the slogan on the struggle bus is “fake it till you make it.”

It just so happens that alcohol calms the stress that alcohol creates. A drink will take off the edge left by the last drink. That’s why we call it “happy” hour. Welcome to addiction.

But Is Alcoholism a Mental Illness?

Indeed, alcoholism is a mental illness. However, like most chronic disorders, it’s reversible. The anxiety, depression, negative thinking and other psychological symptoms are the effects of heavy alcohol use, not the cause. The good news is that it’s not you. It’s the booze goggles. Alcohol blocks or destroys the natural chemicals that maintain emotional stability. But when you stop drinking, you can regain your mental health if you make the effort. Seven months sober, I am a new and very improved version of myself. I’m not pretending that I’m all good. I am all good—even on the tough days. I trust myself to take care of myself. Don’t misunderstand. I didn’t wake up like this on day one. It’s been a long haul and very hard work. Anyone willing to peel the onion is going to shed some tears. I’ve attended countless recovery meetings, worked with a therapist and a coach, read every single Quit-Lit book I can find, and immersed myself in sobriety podcasts. And I’m not finished. But for the first time in my life, I’m taking responsibility for my own needs. I’m healing. Every day gets better. I’m free. And I’m never going back.

 

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