This morning while I did a quick workout on the exercise bike I perused Facebook. I saw a status update from a friend dealing with a chronic illness that said he was insulted by people calling addiction to alcohol and other drugs an illness. I knew right away, at 6:55 a.m., that I was going to have to write a post about it because I wholeheartedly disagree. I have two immediate family members suffering from serious and debilitating chronic illnesses. I understand chronic illness. It’s close to my heart. I know how the trials they face each and everyday and I have written about them on my blog. Each one inspires me to be a better person everyday.
But I also know the chronic illness called alcoholism all too well. It killed my father less than a year and a half ago. For 38 1/2 years I watched him fight this disease in different ways. I watched it ravage his body in ways I wouldn’t want my worst enemy to experience. I saw it slowly try to take away every quality that made him my father and every single thing I loved and admired about him.
I’ve told you before my dad was not a conventional ‘drunk.’ I have 40 years of his journals sitting next to me as I write this and I am sure I could pinpoint the exact moment he became an alcoholic. Some may debate whether alcoholism is a disease because the alcoholic makes the choice to drink. Lung cancer from smoking is still an illness even though you made the choice to smoke. Sunbathing clearly causes melanoma but some people still choose to do it. Some smokers smoke for decades without getting lung cancer. Some sun worshippers never get melanoma. I believe it is our bodies reaction to the alcohol, cigarettes, sun or any other adverse stimulus that causes the disease. I am not downplaying the stats – in most cases smokers get lung cancer and sunburns cause melanoma – I am just mentioning that there are other diseases caused by lifestyle choices. The problem is the stigma that an alcoholic carries.
Each and every time my dad was in ICU I was reminded by a nurse or doctor that his illness was caused by his drinking. Unfortunately, he battled chronic leukemia and depression as well making his situation impossible to deal with. I was reminded that he had alcoholic cirrhosis in a condescending tone. It was clear that many of the medical professionals felt his sickness was his own fault and because he had a history of alcoholism he was less worthy of treatment. When Georgetown University was considering him for a liver transplant as he sat in his room strapped to a hospital bed not knowing where or who he was, they looked at studies to see if the transplant drugs would make the leukemia more active and some of the doctors thought they could keep the leukemia at bay but the majority of the doctors were not convinced my dad would be able to fight the urge to drink. So he was denied a liver transplant and the only chance he had to watch his grandchildren grow up. All of his diseases were deemed untreatable or unworthy of treatment.
The alcoholism made them treat him differently too. He wasn’t an intelligent lawyer, he was a drunk. When they couldn’t understand his speech it was because he was speaking in Latin not jibberish. Unbeknownst to them, he was even quoting Don Quixote. Compassion left the room for many of them with that one word on his medical chart. A neighbor, who is a nurse, suggested taking pictures of us and pictures from the kids so it would remind the medical staff that he was more than what they read on his chart. We did that but most of them were lost as he was transferred to other hospitals and other rooms.
Yes, my dad did choose to have a drink. His body and brain took those drinks and turned them into a sickness. Someone else’s body may have allowed them to stop drinking. My dad’s didn’t. But my dad was dealt a tough genetic hand with a propensity for alcoholism and depression. He was also dealt some hard blows that would increase anybody’s chance for becoming an alcoholic. His mom, my grandmother, died from melanoma while he was in his early 20’s. His dad, my grandfather, died shortly after that. I remember when my dad turned 50 and then 60 he could not believe he was still alive. He never believed he would live longer than they did. And I wish that we were planning a joint 40th/70th birthday party for each other this year. But we aren’t because a disease called alcoholism killed him.
*** These are just my opinions formed by my experiences with a few facts thrown in for good measure. I am working on a memoir that will dive into these issues in greater detail. No hard feelings to my facebook friends. I respect his opinions as different from mine as they may be. ***