The Differences and Similarities Between Alcoholism and Addiction

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Alcoholism and addiction are often mentioned in the same breath. They are often even experienced simultaneously. In the modern age, many who abuse alcohol also abuse drugs or other addictive substances, yet many stick to one or the other. All of this combines to create a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding surrounding alcoholism and addiction, and the differences and similarities between them. 

Alcoholism vs. Addiction

Some hold the belief that alcoholism is simply an addiction to alcohol. This theory says that alcoholism and addiction are simply both” addiction.” There are also those who classify addiction as a type of alcoholism, thereby making both addiction and alcoholism just types of alcoholism with different manifestations. For some it is an issue of semantics, and academic and medical opinions may vary. However, for the purposes of recovery using the 12-Steps, there are some points that can be cleared up from a non-medical perspective.

Alcoholism is the name given to the disease which is treated by the 12-Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Alcoholism in this 12-Step sense of the word may still need some clarification. In the context of the literature of the recovery program, the books Alcoholics Anonymous and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, alcohol is merely a symptom of the disease of alcoholism. Within this literature is mention of self-diagnosed alcoholics who struggled with other various substances and behaviors. Though alcohol was their primary drug of choice, it was the disease known as alcoholism that was their real problem. The exact “symptom” did not matter in terms of what substance or behavior they abused or were addicted to. What mattered was that they recognized the hallmarks of the disease called alcoholism in themselves.

A Three-Fold Disease

The disease of alcoholism is characterized primarily by three things that are all present in the sufferer, giving it the moniker of a “three-fold disease.” First is a physical allergy, or an allergy of the body. This means that once a person uses a substance, whether it is drugs or alcohol or engaging in addictive behavior, they find themselves unable to control their consumption. They cannot control their behavior and if or when they will be able to stop. Simply put, once they take a drink or drug, they are essentially no longer in control whatsoever. 

Next, we have the mental obsession, or obsession of the mind. This is the pattern of constant thought and behavior all centered around the incredible urge to drink or use again. No matter what the circumstances or the desire to stop, there is an irresistible urge running at all times, causing the person to act and behave around their next drink or drug. They think about it so intensely that using or drinking again is inevitable, no matter how badly they may wish not to. 

Finally, there is the spiritual malady, which denotes a general powerlessness to live in accordance with one’s desires. Though they may wish to live clean and sober and be good to the people they love, they cannot muster the power to choose to act accordingly. They are at the behest of the allergy of the body and the obsession of the mind until they discover an effective method of addressing the spiritual malady. This malady may be symptomatic of mental or emotional health issues like depression or anxiety, or unhealed traumatic experiences that resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It can also look more like a soul-sickness or defeated spirit. 

The Substance Does Not Matter

For the purposes of recovery, anyone who exhibits these three symptoms may very well have alcoholism. Alcoholism is rare, in that it must be self-diagnosed for effective treatment to begin. Here is where we find some cause for confusion. People who have experienced these same three characteristic symptoms, but used drugs exclusively, may find themselves distancing from the 12-Step solution because they are not “alcoholics.” This is where clarification is most often needed — though the disease is called alcoholism, alcohol abuse or addiction is not necessary to qualify for having the disease. Recognition of the allergy of the body, obsession of the mind, and spiritual malady are what is necessary to diagnose yourself with alcoholism. There are plenty of young people who never had a drink, but recognized their alcoholism and saved their lives through recovery.

The particular substances and behaviors engaged in and abused are not the primary defining factor of alcoholism. Instead, the three-fold nature of the disease is its chief characteristic. If the slight differences or details in the language prove to be too great a barrier for some people, there are luckily other 12-Step fellowships. These groups use essentially the same 12-Steps, but have converted certain parts of the language to remove the blockage of easily confused words. At their core, all 12-Step fellowships engage in the three-fold solution of unity, service, and recovery to address the three-fold nature of the disease. They may use different words to describe the disease or some of its symptoms. However, this gentle repurposing may often make the difference for those who are unable to see past certain terms and have trouble relating. For if they can relate to and recognize the disease, hopefully they will be able to relate to the solution and recognize that it can work for them. 

Alcoholism and drug addiction, or even addiction to certain destructive or addictive behaviors, are tragically common diseases. Those who suffer may experience symptoms that present differently or go by different names, but the core is the same. Sufferers are in the grips of a progressive illness of a three-fold nature. Luckily, there is a solution also of a three-fold nature. It is a 12-Step design to facilitate the necessary psychic change and vital spiritual experience that can set the person free from their disease and restore them to a happy, whole, and meaningful life in recovery. If you earnestly want help, Jaywalker Lodge can show you the way. Call us today at (866) 529-9255.

author avatar
Stefan Bate, MA, LAC, CCTP Chief Clinical Officer
Stefan Bate, BA, MA, LAC holds a Master's Degree in Applied Psychology from Regis University and is a Licensed Addiction Counselor in the state of Colorado. Stefan has wide-ranging experience in the field of addiction recovery including: working as a recovery coach, therapist, and program director.

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