The so-called disease of alcoholism has been much discussed following Charles Kennedy’s tragically premature death. I cite the dictionary definition of disease – “an unhealthy condition in a person, animal, or plant which is caused by bacteria or infection”.
I fail to see how compulsive drinking qualifies as a disease on that score. Yet neither do I subscribe to the Peter Hitchens view that alcoholism is not an illness at all but merely a condition afflicting the weak and undisciplined. Too many documented cases of alcoholism betray similar behaviour: progressive loss of control, obsession with the bottle and apathy over the downward drift of one’s life. And all this, of course, accompanied by the drunk’s delusional view that the only thing making him feel better is the drink itself.
Some have cited Westminster as ideal territory for the lush because of all the subsidised bars. But is there something about being an MP that renders a person more prone to a tipple? Sure, we all know the usual suspects. George Brown was always being photographed falling over. He was even drunk when interviewed after President Kennedy’s assassination. And then there was Reggie – “for God’s sake get me a large scotch” – Maudling. And Nicholas Fairburn and, more recently, Eric Joyce. Yet this is a mere sprinkling of names in a profession for which heavy drinking would seem a disqualification given the unsocial hours in London during the week alongside the demands of being a constituency MP. In 2015, at least, the seriously alcoholic MP would probably be weeded out early on.
You often hear people say that journalism and acting are also professions that encourage drunkenness. In fact, every business has its notorious cases – everything from ex-footballers, singers, writers, barristers and diplomats through to chefs and teachers. It’s just that some lines of work afford the sufferer anonymity.
The definition of a drinking problem was once much too wide. We were told that if you were a male who drank more than 28 units a week, you were in trouble. So if you and your spouse shared a bottle of wine every evening, you were both supposedly fit for rehab. This ignored those who drank to excess and far, far above the weekly safe limit as did, we can assume, did Charlie Kennedy – the likes of whom warranted more attention.
Let’s not, however, talk about a disease. That implies something over which alcoholics have no power to influence. I noticed that the late George Best consistently referred to his drinking as a disease. And while I do not wish to cast aspersions on Best, this gave him the “get out of the drying out farm and into the pub” pass. The alcoholics who make the most progress are those who admit their addiction but then treat it through abstinence.