Today the talk is of the opiate epidemic and how it is killing thousands of people a month. The conversations surround the legalization of marijuana and how, as the gateway drug, it is leading to harder drugs and drug addiction. What we rarely hear discussed is alcohol addiction. The deaths related to alcohol consumption through physical health issues. And make no mistake, alcohol is the gateway drug.
As teens, we are often introduced to alcohol as a rite of passage in our adolescent maturation process. We see it on TV, on billboards, in magazines. We watch our family members consuming alcohol. We learn quickly that alcohol is a part of the fabric of our society. It is the social lubricant that helps lower inhibitions and makes human interaction easier, less uncomfortable. It helps us to have FUN. You cannot attend a sporting event, concert, party, business event, family function, funeral or just about any other gathering of people without alcohol being present. Most importantly, it is legal. And has been since the dawn of time.
Because we view alcohol in this manner as a society, there is not the focus on the many problems caused by the consumption of alcohol by those suffering from the disease of addiction. “That guy just can’t handle his liquor” is often the mantra of those witnessing an alcoholic in his cups. More often than not, we do not want to focus on alcohol as a problem because it leads to other uncomfortable discussions. Discussions about family, the business of alcohol, the legal aspects of alcohol among others. Most people who consume alcohol will NEVER have a problem with it or having their behavior and lives affected by it. And that is often where the disconnect or misunderstanding comes into play with how they view those who do have a problem. For those who suffer from the disease of addiction, alcohol is an insidious substance, not a social nicety.
The deep integration of alcohol in our society, combined with the horrible negative stigma of alcoholism often precludes those who need help from getting it. We want to be ‘normal’ and drink like those who do not suffer from the disease of addiction. We don’t want to be embarrassed at public events by turning down the offer of alcohol and worrying about how we will respond to the question of why we are not drinking. The relapse rate amongst those who consume alcohol as their primary, or only, mind-altering substance is astronomical. It is also the very first substance that most people who are in recovery from drugs as their primary, or only mind-altering substance, will relapse with before sliding back into drug use. 65% of our clients report that alcohol, not drugs, are their problem. Most of those who report drugs as their problem also report drinking as a major issue and alcohol as the substance that introduced them to drugs in the first place.
The challenge of remaining in recovery is not initially going back to drugs, it is staying away from alcohol that will eventually lead back to drugs. We hear it over and over. “I stopped working my program and thought it would be ok to have a drink with my friends. And now I am shooting heroin again.” And for the alcoholic, it is learning that social situations are navigable without alcohol.
While alcohol is acceptable for 90% of the population to consume, it is important for those of us in recovery from the disease of addiction (and the families, friends and employers who support them) to remember that alcohol is still king. We cannot be ‘normal’ and that requires that we overcome the stigma and resist the societal pressures to drink. Because if we do not, in the end, the king will rule…
Paul L. Scudo is the Executive Director of Step Denver and is in recovery from the disease of addiction.