Can alcoholism be cured? Any number of high cost private health clinics would like to give a positive answer to this question, but the traditional wisdom of groups such as 'Alcoholics Anonymous' is that alcoholism can never be cured, but only controlled.
Of course no one would deny that many of the physical problems associated with excessive alcohol consumption can be cured, though some are more easily treated than others. The liver can regenerate. Imbalances to the blood and damage to the muscle tissue can both be repaired. Long-term damage to the brain and central nervous system is less responsive to medical treatment. Even then though, no one would want to underestimate the benefits of proper medical attention being given to even the most chronic of ailments.
Similarly, medical science can play a very significant role in helping an alcohol-addicted person get through the period of detoxification that is the mandatory first step towards bodily health. While some helping professionals still frown upon the use of sedatives and pain killers during the detox process, few who have seen a person suffering from 'delirium tremens' as an effect of alcohol withdrawl would not sympathise with the value of detox medication of some sort. In all such cases though medical science can only treat the symptoms of alcohol addiction (and alcohol withdrawl). The question is whether the disease itself can ever be cured.
As mentioned above, the traditional wisdom of 'Alcoholics Anonymous' (hereafter 'AA') and its sister organisations ('Narcotics Anonymous', 'Gamblers Anonymous', etc.) is that such diseases can never be cured, as the the disease is only ever symptomatic of an addictive personality, and that the personality problem is embedded in the addicted person's genetics.
Participants in AA meetings always begin their time of sharing by introducing themselves by name and then announcing, "I am an alcoholic". They will do this even if they have not touched a drop of alcohol in 50 years, as the self-understanding is that they are now only 'non-drinking alcoholics' who are nonetheless only ever one drink away from returing to a life that is entirely controlled by destructive drinking!
Such a perspective helps to make AA members humble and non-judgemental, as they never see themselves as rising above their sisters and brothers whose lives are still being destroyed by their alcohol addiction. Such an analysis though also inevitably minimalises the significance of any non-genetic factors leading to alcoholism, which, it could be argued, mightinhibit the recovery process.
A person who drinks alcohol regularly and excessively always has a history associated with their drinking problem. While in some cases it might just be a bad habit picked up during the party days of their youth, in a vast number of cases the drinking problem has arisen in response to an experience of serious personal tragedy, such as family breakdown, the death of a son or daughter, or some other unbearable crisis that has led the person to drink in order to numb the pain. In the short term of course this can be a very positive way of dealing with an impossible situation. The problem occurs though when the drinker finds that he or she is no longer able to deal with pain or with life itself without the sedative effect of alcohol to soothe the nerves.
This is the essence of the predicament faced by the addicted person, be they addicted to alcohol, drugs, sex, work, or something else. They engage in addictive behaviour in order to lessen the pain. As one good friend of mine who had suffered from a 20-year addiction said to me, when challenged as to why he kept returning to his addiction again and again even after long periods of abstinance, "I just don't know any other way of dealing with pain".
According to the 'addictive personality' diagnosis, healing can only begin when the addict acknowledges their helplessness in the face of their dependency and hands over control of their lives to God (or their 'higher power', to use the more commonly accepted term).
The emphasis on 'spiritual healing' predictably finds few adherants in the established medical community, even in the absence of successful alternatives to point to. Some religious communities though have also been critical of the 'personality type' diagnosis, though obviously not on account of the spiritual dimension. Some reject the idea that there can be no final healing for the addict. True healing is possible, many believe, though the process of healing may require an extensive working through of the historical factors that contributed to the disease.
If there is no healing for alcoholism, then the only possibility for health lies in controlling addictive behaviour and channeling addictive tendencies towards more creative alternatives. A person who becomes addicted to 'working out' or even addicted to their work is naturally far healthier and generally easier to live with than someone who is addicted to alcohol or narcotics. As is commonly quipped, it is amazing how quickly AA members become addicted to AA meetings. Indeed, I personally know of one member who has not missed a meeting for a single day in almost 30 years!
Perhaps in the end it is unimportant whether or not alcoholism can ever technically be 'cured' so long as there is a solution to the problem, and so long as sufficient weight is given to the non-genetic factors that lead to alcohol dependency. For while the devestating effects of alcohol dependency start to look depressingly similar from one alcoholic person to the next, the history of the disease is always unique, and needs to be taken seriously if there is to be any hope of recovery.
I'll never forget one tragic old man who was spending the last part of his life moving between Sydney's park benches and the various shelters available for homeless men. After I got to know him a little through one of the shelters I was working with, I spoke to him about the possibility of going through detox. Unlike almost everyone else I had spoken to, he was totally disinterested, though initially he didn't want to tell me why. "Buy why not?", I implored him. He told me: "because my alcoholism is the last weapon I have against my family!"
It is indeed a tangled web we weave, and in truth, medical professionals will always be limited in what they are able to do to help alcohlic persons. They can treat the symptoms but not the disease, though when we fully understand the history of our alcoholic sisters and brothers, we often find that the disease itself is only a symptom of a deeper pain - one for which there is no simple cure.