Addiction to alcohol is a disease of the mind. “A disease is a medical condition that negatively affects the particular structure of all or part of an organism” (in this case the brain). The literature is plenty and well documented on the impact that alcohol has on a person’s physical, mental, emotional and material well-being. But where are we as a nation getting it wrong in the treatment of this disease that has torn families asunder, relegated once upon a time national leaders to mere paupers and led to moral depravation in the broader society.
Over-reliance on traditional methods of treatment, seeking advice from the wrong people, shame, stigma and ignorance are all cited as factors that lead people not to acquire professional help from recognized medical practitioners for problems pertaining to the abuse of alcohol and alcohol addiction.
In Namibia, drinking is normalised as a social pastime. However in any given population there are those who are not able to consume alcohol safely, who may not be able to practise controlled drinking, and who may be susceptible to becoming an alcoholic!
The stigma thereof is that they are shunned by society as being morally defective and because of that stigma attached as being ‘not like others’, acceptance and willingness to seek treatment becomes difficult.
Addiction to alcohol manifests itself in the behavior of an individual and is best explained as someone who cannot control their drinking (when they start they cannot stop voluntarily), have behaved anti-socially while under the influence and have done things they would not have done had they not been under the influence (stealing from someone and then feeling guilty and returning the object the next day when possible if that thing had not already been sold to continue drinking alcohol).
Having unexplained fights and accidents that have resulted in injuries when under the influence, neglected marital duties towards the family because alcohol has become their number one priority, absence from work or neglected professional responsibilities because of alcohol are some of the significant indicators that someone has a problem with alcohol and that if the use of alcohol is removed from that person’s life the individual can resume living a normal and fulfilling existence.
But it is not always so! Many people only seek help when they have ‘hit rock bottom’ – meaning that alcohol has affected other areas of their lives like their professional reputation, physical well-being in the form of memory loss and alcohol dependency meaning that they need to have a drink to calm their nerves and calm the jitters (alcohol shakes). “Cunning, baffling, powerful” – imagine you have to take the thing that makes you sick to make you feel better. That is exactly what alcohol does.
But there is hope in several treatment and rehabilitation programmes that are available by contacting a health professional and seeking the required information. It should however be noted that amongst health professionals, despite their qualifications, there is ignorance of the disease of alcoholism.
There is also a tendency to misdiagnose the disease of alcoholism by offering different names such as bipolar, mood disorder, depression, etc. Of course these medical disorders do exist but how often do medical doctors (psychiatrists and psychologists included) diagnose, prescribe medicines and set patients up for failure without getting the patient sober first, observing them when they are not using alcohol and then only precede to treat the patient accordingly. Many doctors do not give their patients the required attention needed to accurately diagnose before providing treatment. There is a rush to make as much money as possible in the shortest possible time. It is wrong, unethical and goes against the spirit of the Hippocratic Oath that doctors swear to uphold.
Rehabilitation and alcohol treatment programmes are well coordinated programmes that address alcoholism from a medical perspective with emphasis on the sum total of the human beings’ physical, spiritual, psychological and emotional needs. Most patients seeking treatment for alcoholism are down and out but almost all have the capacity and ability to make a full recovery if only they remain sober and completely abstain from the use of alcohol for the rest of their lives.
There is only so much that a treatment centre can do for an individual, then it is up to the individual to choose a new purpose and a new destiny in life or continue on the path of destruction that usually ends in ‘jails, institutions or death’, this, according to Alcoholics Anonymous literature, a fellowship programme that uses the 12 steps and 12 traditions as a tool for recovery for people addicted to alcohol ‘and whose lives had become unmanageable’ due to their continued use of alcohol.
De-stigmatising alcohol treatment programmes is a step in the right direction, which requires understanding in the broader society which includes but is not limited to national leaders, health professionals, families and the church.
All members of the Namibian society have a role to play in highlighting the fact that alcohol is a disease that can be treated and that the alcoholic needs to be rehabilitated through the appropriate channels with support from family, peers and professional counsellors.
Alcoholics are individuals who suffer from the disease of alcoholism.
They need to be treated with love, understanding, dignity and respect in order for them to make a full recovery. They are not entirely at fault although they have to take full responsibility and accountability for the actions they may have done to harm others due to their disease of alcoholism. There is recovery in treatment, and de-stigmatising the disease helps those in need to seek help without the fear of being labelled and shunned by society.
*Vitalio Angula is a socio-political commentator and independent columnist.