When I was in graduate school for counseling, I had to attend some 12-step meetings as part of my training in substance abuse. I was particularly interested in the dogma that addiction is an incurable disease. I had a nagging feeling that this disease concept was scientifically justified yet incomplete.
One evening, before an AA meeting started, I asked an old fellow, call him Bill, if he thought alcoholism is a disease. He stroked his five o’clock shadow and said.
“Sure, it’s the disease of being human but not wanting to be.”
I asked him to explain.
“We all got feelings,” he said. “Feelings can be a pain in the butt. So, when I had a feeling I didn’t like, I drowned it in alcohol. ”
“Do you think you could’ve stopped doing that,” I wanted to know. He thought for awhile.
“At first, I probably could’ve. Problem is when you do anything long enough, it stops feeling like a choice. That’s why we call it a habit. A habit is a choice that don’t feel like a choice.”
It seemed like Bill was oversimplifying so I plunged on.
“Well, how about all this research that says we get addicted because of chemical changes in our brains?”
“Look,” he said, “I never graduated high school. I got no right to disagree with all those smart people. But let me ask you this. Suppose, after you pour enough booze down your throat, it does mess with your brain. How come you started drinking or drugging in the first place?”
I knew the answer to that one.
“Genetic predisposition,” I declared with an air of superiority. “Some people have a genetic endowment that makes them vulnerable to addiction.” I knew I had him on this one.
Bill looked at me like I was a child.
“Those are impressive words, son. But tell me this. What do you do to avoid feeling bad?”
I had to think. Then I realized that sometimes I watch too much TV or play on the internet or read for hours or focus on a new relationship. I listed some of those things.
“You think you have a genetic endowment that makes you watch TV?” The words “genetic endowment” came out with an amused tone that said I’d have to do better than throw fancy words at him.
This was getting ridiculous. Bill was just not understanding the science and the meeting was about to start.
“Pay attention, son. I want you to tell me how many of the people you listen to tonight sound happy.”
The topic of the meeting was humility.
After the Serenity Prayer, while people were shaking hands and finishing their coffee, Bill looked at me.
“Well?” he asked.
I answered Bill’s question. Some of the people who spoke at the meeting were lively, laughing, telling stories about their families. They seemed happy. Others seemed depressed, angry, scared. Still others told war stories about their drinking days.
“There is only one thing all those people have in common,” Bill pointed out. “None of them is still drinking. So, why ain’t they all happy?”
It took a minute but is struck me.
“Some of them have moved on. They aren’t just sober. They approach life differently.”
“Bingo,” Bill whispered, as another fellow approached and asked if he was heading out to a local restaurant.
“When you feel bad now, what do you do?” I asked as he reached out to shake my hand.
“I live with it, son, I just live with it. I found out that bad feelings pass, just like everything else.”