Disease. Is alcoholism a disease? I was mulling the first of the 13 statements used by Women for Sobriety to build a healthy sober “new life.” Conversations in WFS meetings aren’t unlike the “step work” done by AA participants; they involve unpacking and applying the statements to one’s own life. Anyway the first statement says this:
I have a life-threatening disease that once had me. I now take charge of my life and my disease. I accept the responsibility.
In chatting online with some other ladies about this statement, I realized I was uncomfortable with the word “disease” and couldn’t quite pinpoint why at the time. A little more investigation gets at the heart of things: it’s not the D-word in and of itself, it’s what it implies: that you are powerless. Just like the AA thing that people trip over when they don’t want to say they are “powerless over alcohol.” Then there’s the whole business of giving it up for a “higher power,” which, in this era of individualism and secularism, doesn’t go over well with everyone. And it poses the same problem as the disease thing: that you are not the boss of yourself.
I get it. I mean I disliked the disease word because I dislike seeing myself as a victim – as someone who will be buffeted around by life, my body, by others, by my “disease,” by whatever. Ugh. Fuck that. Besides, if I’m “powerless over alcohol” how am I ever supposed to get past the label and the stigma of being an alcoholic? That makes no sense.
Except it does. And I suspect that recognizing the paradox of the “power of being powerless” is essential to sustained, peace-yielding recovery. There are swaths of philosophy on the question of how “free” we really are to choose how we live, and I’m no philosopher. But the gist, I think, is that defining your alcoholism as a “disease” or something outside the bounds of your will is itself an act of will. It’s the choice to stop investing pointless energy in to “managing” your drinking and focus it elsewhere: on healing from shit you’ve been avoiding by drinking, on making new friends, on healthy activities, on new experiences.
From this perspective, the matters of “disease” and “Higher Power,” while fodder for all kinds of interesting philosophical discussion, are only practically useful to the extent that they help you resolve this weird, weird thing where you have no real freedom without limits.
“No alcohol ever, under any circumstances” is a one big, self-imposed limit, but because it is self-imposed, it’s still a choice. So, you’re “bound” by fundamentally accepting a kind of powerlessness over alcohol, but that acceptance is what sets you free. Which is cool. Confusing, but cool.
 See Levi, D. (2016). The power of powerlessness. Philosophical Investigations, 39(3), 237-252.