About Alcoholism

“We alcoholics are men and women who lost the ability to control our drinking. We know that no real alcoholic ever recovers control. All of us felt at times that we were regaining control, but such intervals—usually brief— were inevitably followed by still less control, which led in time to pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization.” Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 30

As A.A. sees it, alcoholism is an illness. Alcoholics cannot control their drinking, because they are ill in their bodies and in their minds (or emotions), A.A. believes. If they do not stop drinking, their alcoholism almost always gets worse and worse. Both the American Medical Association and the British Medical Association, chief organizations of doctors in those countries, also have said that alcoholism is an illness.

The definition of alcoholism as defined by the American Society of Addiction Medicine and the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence: “Alcoholism is a primary, chronic disease with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations. The disease is often progressive and fatal. It is characterized by impaired control over drinking, preoccupation with the drug alcohol, use of alcohol despite adverse consequences, and distortions in thinking, most notably denial. Each of these symptoms may be continuous or periodic.” (1992)

The explanation that seems to make sense to most A.A. members is that alcoholism is an illness, a progressive illness, which can never be cured but which, like some other diseases, can be arrested. Going one step further, many A.A. members feel that the illness represents a combination of a physical sensitivity to alcohol and a mental obsession with drinking, which, regardless of consequences, cannot be broken by willpower alone.

What are the symptoms?

Not all alcoholics have the same symptoms, but many — at different stages in the illness — show these signs:


  • find that only alcohol can make them feel self-confident and at ease with other people;
  • often want “just one more” at the end of a party; look forward to drinking occasions and
  • think about them a lot; get drunk when they had not planned to;
  • try to control their drinking by changing types of liquor, going on the wagon, or taking pledges;
  • sneak drinks;
  • lie about their drinking;
  • hide bottles;
  • drink at work (or in school);
  • drink alone;
  • have blackouts (that is, cannot remember the next day what they said or did the night before);
  • drink in the morning, to relieve severe hangovers, guilty feelings and fears;
  • fail to eat and become malnourished;
  • get cirrhosis of the liver;
  • shake violently, hallucinate, or have convulsions when withdrawn from liquor.

What can the families of alcoholics do?

A.A. is just for the alcoholics, but two other fellowships can help their families and friends. One is Al-Anon Family Groups. The other is Alateen, for teenagers who have alcoholic parents.

Impacts of Alcoholism

Alcoholism is recognized as a major health problem. In the U.S., it is the third greatest killer, after heart disease and cancer — and it does not damage alcoholics alone. Others are hurt by its effects — in the home, on the job, on the highway. Alcoholism costs the community millions of dollars every year. So whether or not you ever become an alcoholic yourself, alcoholism still can have an impact on your life.

We have learned a great deal about how to identify and arrest alcoholism. But so far no one has discovered a way to prevent it, because nobody knows exactly why some drinkers turn into alcoholics. Doctors and scientists in the field have not agreed on the cause (or causes) of alcoholism. For that reason, A.A. concentrates on helping those who are already alcoholics, so that they can stop drinking and learn how to live a normal, happy life without alcohol.