can we really define and diagnose alcoholism?
isn’t always easy. As far back as 1938, the AA
pioneers had trouble defining an alcoholic as they formed
what is now the General Service Board. The simple
definition, “a sick person who couldn’t drink at all,”
didn’t work for legal purposes. So they gave it
up. Since then, we’ve trudged our road of happy
destiny without a real definition that wraps it up in
a few brilliantly crafted sentences. As for diagnosing
alcoholism---well, the AA idea is that people must diagnose
themselves as best they can.
privately thought of an alcoholic---at least myself---as
a person who uses alcohol compulsively, excessively,
and destructively as a mood-changing drug. I also
like that concept gleaned from the Big Book: a
person who suffers from an allergy of the body and an
obsession of the mind. (We shouldn’t go too far
with that one, however, because “allergy” doesn’t really
fly with the medical community. I prefer using
“physical susceptibility to alcohol” to make the same
the lead of the medical sciences, however, I realized
that the right way to diagnose alcoholism is to look
at the symptoms. Scanning my own embarrassing
past, I could find twelve such symptoms which should
convince any person that he or she is one of us.
Simply put, an alcoholic is a person who shows these
symptoms. I have frequently talked about these
symptoms while sharing with other alcoholics in AA discussions
or in talks at AA meetings. Here they are, a list
of twelve for anybody who wants to use them:
Couldn’t quit drinking even when my posterior was
dropping off. While I never had much in the
way of status or possessions. my alcoholism quickly
stripped me of what little I had. I swore off
after waking up in jail, after passing out on the street,
after being beaten, humiliated, or rolled. Swearing
off or cutting down never worked, and it hasn’t worked
for countless other AAs I’ve met.
People started calling me a drunk. Though
I tried to deny it, word got around that I was a drunk.
Moving didn’t work; people in my new locations quickly
got the same idea, proving that gossip seems to travel.
It was almost as if a large “D” had been tattooed on
my forhead. Some bartenders seemed to read it
almost intuitively and would shut me off even before
I’d had enough drinks to become really obnoxious.
I failed at the drink-switching game.
I tried one beverage after another, hoping there’d be
one that wouldn’t turn me into a slobbering wretch or
leave me with a terrible hangover. They were all
the same in the long run because they all contained
The “hair of the dog” became routine. I
can’t remember when I learned to medicate my awful hangovers
with more drinks the next morning. I may have
done this even before I learned that this was
taking “some of the hair of the dog that bit me.”
And I was doing it long before I learned that this practice
is another symptom of alcoholism.
Watching controlled drinkers made me feel envious
and weak. Time and again, I felt wretched
and ashamed in the presence of people who could take
a drink or two and then go about their business.
Secretly, I berated myself for my lack of will power
and vowed I would become one of them. It never
Drinking made me a “problem person” to other people.
My way of drinking caused rumbles with others.
While drunk, I once took a cab thirty miles without
having a cent to pay the driver. I insulted people
over the telephone. I borrowed money without paying
it back. I told lies while drinking and then told
other lies to cover them up. The list goes on
and on---all things that don’t belong in a sane, manageable
Drinking caused home problems. I had no
real home of my own, but my drinking brought trouble
wherever I lived. I was kicked out of a rooming house
for wetting the bed. A relative who put me up
temporarily asked me to leave within a week. I
lived with my parents for a time, and finally wore out
their patience. For a while, I was even homeless,
although the term then was vagrancy.
Frantic, compulsive drinking overtook me.
Once started, I wanted to drink continuously without
interruptions for any other activity. I wasn’t
invited to parties, but I would have snatched extra
drinks had I been so favored. I hated to drink
with people who could control their drinking or preferred
a more leisurely pace.
Denying the problem, deluded about the seriousness
of it. Looking back, I am now amazed that
I could have had so many delusions about my drinking.
I was aided in denial be observing a few others whose
drinking seemed to be even worse than mine. Long
after I was way out of control, I continued to believe
that I might somehow either quit or moderate my drinking.
Getting fired, being rejected. I was fired
several times and also shunned by others once my drinking
problem became apparent. The main reason for being
fired was absenteeism caused by drinking, but alcohol-related
character defects also caused some of my employment
Blackouts, or whatever you call them.
I had many experiences of forgetting an entire evening.
A few weeks before taking my last drink, I apparently
caused a shameful disturbance in a bar, but never recalled
a single moment of it. It was also common, while
drinking in a bar, to notice that two or three hours
had elapsed during what I thought was a few minutes.
Mounting regrets. Despite my denials and
delusions, I had numerous regrets about the damages
and costs of my drinking problem. In rare moments
of honesty, I was beginning to see how it was wrecking
my life and hurting others.
were my Twelve Symptoms, and they had the cumulative
effect of prodding me into AA. The memory of the
pain and humiliation they caused has helped keep me
sober since April 15, 1950. If anything, the memories
of the symptoms have become sharper with the passing
years, serving to dislodge any belief that I might somehow
drink again in a controlled manner. I never want
to revisit the distressing life that included these
symptoms, which did disappear when I got sober and stayed
one have to have all of these symptoms to be self-diagnosed
as an alcoholic? Not at all; having even a third
of them surely means that the individual is well into
the danger zone. Yet I believe that a large number
of AAs could honestly say that they had most of the
symptoms in one degree or another.
like to offer My Twelve Symptoms to the drinking world,
but it’s not necessary. AA World Services has
already done this job. In slightly different forms,
the Twelve Symptoms are discussed in two AA conference-approved
pamphlets. One is titled Is AA for You?;
the other, Is AA for Me? You can use either
of them to go over your own drinking problem or to help
others walk through theirs. Honest answers to
the questions in these publications could be the keys
to real understanding of one’s problem and continuing
also seems to be a lucky number in AA. Bill W.,
in writing the Twelve Steps, even linked it up with
the Biblical use of the number. Then we went on
to have the Twelve Traditions, the Twelve Concepts of
World Service, and even the Twelve Promises. I
never realized until lately that my alcoholic symptoms
added up to Twelve. But talk about lucky numbers!
Facing my Twelve Symptoms was one of the luckiest things
that ever happened for me