A Threefold Disease



Alcoholism is a threefold disease. There are three main factors: a spiritual malady, a physical allergy and a mental obsession. The spiritual malady, or sickness of the spirit, is the catalyst that causes a person to seek comfort in a state of intoxication rather than face the sober reality of the world as given. Everyone suffering from alcoholism has exhibited the symptoms of the spiritual malady—they were restless, irritable, and discontent, and sought refuge in alcohol or drugs. The physical allergy, and subsequent phenomenon of craving, is the inability of one to control how much they will drink or use once a substance has entered their body. The final component, the mental obsession, is a problem in our ability to reason. We may be fully aware of the consequences of our drinking and the suffering it causes, but we are unable to resist indulging once again. Recovery is possible, but requires adherence to a program that addresses all three components of the disease—the mind, body and spirit.


I love this description of the threefold nature of our disease. When I first entered the program of A.A. I thought I had one problem. I was completely unable to stop or even control my drinking, and that lack of control over my body made me feel like I was going crazy. The agony and isolation of knowing that I was definitely an alcoholic but definitely not ready to stop drinking crushed me. That was it. I could no longer live with alcohol but had convinced myself that I could not live without it. And the increasingly loud voice telling me that being dead might be the only way out of this predicament alarmed me. So I started to attend A.A. meetings religiously, for I wasn’t quite ready for death.


My first year in the program I dove headlong into meetings and the A.A. literature. Unfortunately, I wasn't much for hanging out with anyone in A.A. or even getting that connected to my home group. I wanted to leave my options open. My option to drink again. If I became friends with these people or told any of my friends that I was an alcoholic that would be problematic. I did this for years! A disastrous plan of action, one that I would not recommend. But I'm not alone. I know a lot of people who don't tell anyone - not even their partners - that they are in recovery or at least attempting to be in recovery. The reasoning goes something like this: "If I'm at a wedding or a party or dinner or anywhere really, and want a drink, I don't want some busybody loser hovering nearby with some "But I thought you were in A.A." bullshit. No thank you.


I stopped drinking alcohol for good on January, 1999 and in November of that year I started to feel very squirrely about my first "holiday season" without my best friend, alcohol. I was not sure I could make it. I was sharing my fear of the upcoming holidays one day and after the meeting a guy named Tom grabbed me. He started to talk about the threefold disease. "Yeah yeah yeah" I cut him off. "I know, I know. Spiritual, mental, physical, blah blah blah." Obviously at 10 months sober I knew the program better than anyone else and consequently had ALL the answers. But Tom stopped me short. "No, you knucklehead. The other threefold disease. Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. That's what will take you out sooner than anything else." We laughed about that 22 years ago and I'm laughing about it still. And now, once again, it's upon us.…the holiday season. Why are these holidays so hard? Maybe it's too much hassle. Too much shopping, cooking, cleaning, planning, expectation, family? "Your family knows exactly which buttons to push...because they installed them" is an A.A. saying that I love. Maybe it's total lack of family? Some addicts can blow themselves up to such a degree that they are unwelcome anywhere for the holidays and that can be devastating. I have seen men and women who have nowhere to go over the holidays year after year after year, until one day, miraculously, they are invited back to holiday gatherings. They have become a new person, a better person, a person that people want to have around. Who knows the reasons why, but I do know that for addicts the holiday season can be a very rough time.


I have friends who are currently drinking alcoholically but just want to "get through the holidays". Then in January they will check back in with me to "maybe hit a meeting”. I get that. The impossibility of the holidays without alcohol or drugs. But it's not impossible. I go through all of the holidays sober now, and it's such a relief. A deep, comforting relief of not having to worry about how much will I be "allowed" to drink socially versus how much I will have to sneak when no one is looking. The juggling act of hiding bottles of wine or booze, or pills or packets of white powder or baggies of sticky pungent green leaves. How humiliated will I be the next day? Will I be flooded with shame about something I said or did or didn't say or do? A slurred "please pass the potatoes" or a drunken stumble while bringing the turkey to the table? Or will it just be the agonizing internal struggle of getting slowly sloshed while cooking and hosting, pretending I’ve only had a few sips of wine. The rushed last minute Christmas Eve present shopping and the drunkenly wrapped presents. The overly hyped, boring New Year's Eve party and the awakening on New Year's Day with a sickeningly sweet heavy throbbing champagne hangover. The perfect way to start the new year off on a good foot, right?


It was all so exhausting. Finally, after years of misery I surrendered. I just gave up. I threw up my hands and said “I'm beat. I'm at your mercy God, Higher Power, Spirit of the Universe. Whatever or wherever you are I need help.” Amazingly, by really meaning those words, by finally prostrating myself at the foot of my Higher Power and giving up, of releasing the idea that I could handle "this" (meaning life on life's terms) I got the relief I was seeking. For me it had to be an unconditional surrender. Meaning that under no conditions at all would I be "allowed" to drink. Not Thanksgiving, not Christmas, not New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. Not birthdays or weddings or Groundhog Day or funerals or accidents or winning the lottery. Not when triggered by family or the stressors of "the season". I just surrendered it all. Unconditionally. And now I happily handle the threefold disease of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s with the same tools that help me handle life day after day. I stay connected to my home group, to the program, to my sponsor and to my sponsees. I attend more meetings. I share honestly about missing red and white wine at Thanksgiving, rummy eggnog on Christmas, shots and champagne on New Year’s Eve. I share my resentment at seeing the normies drinking more than usual. I romanticize about the good old days, getting absolutely wasted the night before Thanksgiving with my friends from high school. I share my long simmering outrage that "everyone else does it. Why can't I?"


I can't because I have a disease that makes me and alcohol totally incompatible. It’s a fatal romance. If I want to live I need to take my medicine. Medicine which I find in the rooms of A.A. Getting sober was not a painless process for me. Not at all. But it's no longer painful. It's quite the opposite actually. By going to meetings and sharing openly and honestly about the triggers of “the season", I have learned that I am not alone in my trepidation about the holidays. And, most importantly, I now know that if tempted to drink in any situation I can always just leave. After all, that's why God gave us legs, so we can escape from danger.


I see clearly that I was so alone in addiction and that I am so not alone in A.A. I feel lighter, freer, happier around "the season" than I have before. Strangest of all I have come to enjoy the holidays. I try to accept things as they are, not as I think they should be. I am learning to live in gratitude. Gratitude for Alcoholics Anonymous, which has not only given me my life back but also gifted me with a blueprint for living. A blueprint that pretty much guarantees me that if I can stay in gratitude and away from drugs and alcohol I just might enjoy every single day of the year, even the threefold challenge of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s.

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