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Taking Issue with Terminology: Untreated Alcoholism and Alcoholic Behaviors

Feb 11, 2021

By Bart Ross | Recovery & Alumni Services Coordinator

I don’t believe the terms “untreated alcoholism” and “alcoholic behaviors” are always 100% accurate statements. I can see the point, but does referring to alcoholism or addiction like this help society understand the disease, or does it cause more misunderstanding? Does it give the alcoholic and the addict a bad excuse for their behaviors?

This article is coming out of a small resentment I once had. It wasn’t the kind of resentment that would make me angry but rather one that would make me uncomfortable. I often hear people refer to themselves or someone else as suffering from untreated alcoholism or blame some behaviors on alcoholism. I think this is not a helpful description of the cause. I definitely do not want to be controversial. I want to respect other people’s views.

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I had to ask myself, “Do I want to continue to resent this, or do I want to try and be a part of a solution?” I feel it’s time to share my view more widely. You might agree or disagree, but I hope you can see my point and, more importantly, know why I’m sharing it with you. Many of us say that alcoholism is a threefold disease. I definitely agree that it affects the body, the mind, and the spirit.

The reaction the body has (the craving) is limited to those who suffer from alcoholism.

“We believe, and so suggested a few years ago, that the action of alcohol on these chronic alcoholics is a manifestation of an allergy; that the phenomenon of craving is limited to this class and never occurs in the average temperate drinker.” (Big Book, Page xxviii)

The mind piece (the obsession) is also limited to the alcoholic and the addict.

Alcoholic thinking is having thoughts like, “I’ll have just one,” or “it really wasn’t that bad.” If our past proves otherwise, and we think like this, then that’s alcoholic thinking. There are many bad habits that people can have. I believe that all people develop some type of unhealthy passion, but that doesn’t mean they are an addict. Someone can abuse something that causes little or no harm to themselves or others. Or maybe it does but given a sufficient reason, they “can” stop or moderate. We wouldn’t label them an addict. Addiction is a repetitive engagement in a behavior despite harm to self or others. It’s something they have no choice over.

 “This is the baffling feature of alcoholism as we know it-this utter inability to leave it alone, no matter how great the necessity or wish.” (Big Book, Page 34)

All people, not just alcoholics and addicts, have some form of spiritual sickness (the spiritual malady).

This is where some people refer to the terms: untreated alcoholism or alcoholic behaviors. As the Big Book refers to it on page 64, the spiritual malady is not limited to alcoholics and addicts. The Big Book on page 62 does say, “the alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot,” but it’s NOT limited to the alcoholic and addict.

I’ve never met anyone who was 100% honest, fearless, and who wasn’t selfish and self-centered to some degree. All of us in the human race are imperfect. If an alcoholic or addict shows a part of their imperfect self, why would we label it untreated alcoholism or say it’s alcoholic behavior? Isn’t it just a part of being human?

We absolutely can recover from alcoholism and addiction. What being recovered looks like is that we no longer have a mind that says it’s O.K. to have the first one; this means that our body doesn’t get the opportunity to crave more. However, we will never fully recover from the spiritual malady because this is part of being human!

When an alcoholic is truly happy about their sobriety, they no longer obsess about drinking, although they still may act out in poor behaviors or thoughts. Haven’t they recovered from alcoholism? I think so!

Here’s an example I like to give. Let’s say two people, an alcoholic and someone who’s not an alcoholic, are both broke. They walk into a store, steal some food, and get caught. Does the alcoholic get to use the excuse “I’m an alcoholic, my friend is just a thief?” No, they’re both just thieves! Why is it that when an alcoholic is dishonest or engages in some other type of poor behavior, we hear people refer to it as alcoholic behavior? It’s NOT. It’s a spiritual malady.

“We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection” (Big Book, Page 60)  

You might be asking, why do I even care about this? Because alcoholics and drug addicts already get looked down upon by much of society with undeserved stigma. It doesn’t matter the cause when we use our disease as an excuse for our shortcomings, does it? Yes, to remain in the recovered state, we must continue to work on the spiritual malady.

Why do alcoholics and addicts have to turn to a Higher Power to live a spiritual life?

Why do we need a Higher Power’s help for our defects? Why not just for our drinking?

“We could not wish them away from any more than alcohol.” (Big Book, Page 66)

Why is the spiritual malady such a big part of the disease? Here are my thoughts. People who are not alcoholics or addicts can be restless, irritable, and discontent when they are living with resentments and fear. When they don’t work on their spiritual condition, they may continue to harm others and themselves with their selfishness and self-centeredness. When they’re not spiritually fit, they don’t get the obsession to drink. They just won’t live up to the joy God intended them to have.

But when the alcoholic is not working on the maintenance and growth of their spiritual condition, the thought of a drink returns; they drink again, and to drink is to die. As alcoholics and addicts, our Higher Power is what keeps us sober. We must not allow ourselves to be cut off from the sunlight of the Spirit. Spirit by these defects of character for long. Our effort must always be on that relationship and how we’re living. Our efforts are not on our sobriety.

“For if an alcoholic failed to perfect and enlarge his spiritual life through work and self-sacrifice for others, he could not survive the certain trials and low spots ahead. If he did not work, he would surely drink again, and if he drank, he would surely die.” (Big Book, Page 14)

This is one of the blessings of being a recovered alcoholic and addict. Besides sobriety, we get to be happier, more useful people and continue to improve on a relationship with a God of our understanding. We don’t get to blame our defects on our alcoholism or addiction anymore!

I would love to hear your thoughts. Together, let’s try and help bring an end to the stigma society has for alcoholics and addicts. Email me at

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