Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Chris Rattue: An addiction that shows no mercy

Alcoholism can affect anyone at any age- leaders, professionals, actors and even sports stars.

Alcoholics are not just old men sucking out of paper bags on park benches, says Rattue. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Alcoholics are not just old men sucking out of paper bags on park benches, says Rattue. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Far be it for me to definitively diagnose Zac Guildford from afar, but a string of alcohol-related incidents indicate the young All Black has a serious problem with the firewater.

Who knows - he may be an alcoholic. After painstaking research, this column will use the Guildford situation to put forward the following observations about alcoholism and addiction.

Most of the information is standard stuff for those in the know, the point being that it struggles to see the light of day in general debates.

In Zac's case, his agent says it's probably time he simply "knocked it on the head". If only it was that simple, which it ain't. Try telling anyone not to ever drink, let alone someone whose system clearly cries out for the stuff.

When Zac does set out to have a couple of drinks, he's probably not intending any trouble. Yet whacko, 20 hours later, he's back in the headlines.

But Zac is not alone with his problem. Far from it. So what is alcoholism?

•Alcoholics are not just old men sucking out of paper bags on park benches. They are prime ministers, doctors, lawyers, rubbish collectors, nuns, priests, shop assistants, journalists, movie stars, referees, sports stars ... the condition has no borders.

•Alcoholism in itself is not a moral failing - it is largely an inherited genetic situation involving the brain's pleasure centre and neuro transmitter system. "Bad behaviour" as a result of alcoholism is tough to categorise.

•Addiction carries a stigma. It is a disease viewed with widespread ignorance, not helped by its unique and mysterious nature.

•It is estimated between 5 and 10 per cent of the population suffers from addiction. It is claimed that more than 80 per cent of our prison population has "substance abuse issues". There are many forms of addiction - including eating, sex, gambling, drugs ...

•Many alcoholics have always lived with unease - they may, for instance, feel as if the rest of the world has a script for socialising never given to them. Initially, alcohol is a magical panacea, inducing feelings of ease. It removes fears and allows them to fit in, but over time their "best friend", the alcohol, turns against them. The allure lives on, however, and they always think "this time it will be different" despite evidence to the contrary. And there often were good times "on the piss".

•The first drink sets up such a powerful craving in alcoholics that they are unable to stop drinking more and more. All kinds of behaviour can then occur depending on personality type, including Guildford-type incidents. These can even occur in a state called blackout - where the memory is erased. These concepts are, quite naturally, very difficult for non-alcoholics to understand. But they are fact. Even many alcoholics never realise the power of the first drink.

•It is a progressive illness, in which the quantities drunk (and other factors) increase over time. Addiction leads to jail and other institutions, lonely lives, and ugly deaths. Who the hell would wish that on themselves, unless they were in the grip of a monster?

•The disease can be looked at through sociological eyes. Cultural and sub-cultural attitudes play a part in revealing, disguising and even defining the problem.

•Vows to stay clean and sober, often made in response to embarrassing incidents, hardly ever work. Attempting to stay sober without any support or guidance creates a worse state of mind. A lot of anger and obsessive thinking can ensue - yet another hell for those around the alcoholic. This syndrome is known as being a dry drunk.

•The world of recovery from addiction is full of relapse, which can and does occur after a day, a week, a year, 15 years, 25 years.

•For inspiration ... while the road to and in recovery can be tough, there are New Zealand alcoholics known to have more than 50 years of continuous and mainly happy sobriety.

•But ... very few addicts make it into recovery, and only a small percentage stay.

•Society's misplaced obsession with individuals having total control over their psychological makeup and thus lives makes it harder to deal with and understand alcoholism.

•The big stick doesn't work. Addicts will find what they need somewhere, including by cross-addicting to other substances or actions.

•Controlled drinking is a practice advocated by some but most true alcoholics find that it is impossible to sustain this approach.

•Putting down the drink/drug also creates major new problems. Without the drinking, an alcoholic is left with painful thinking, a lot of chaos to sort out in their personal life, and often still craves a drink.

•The best-known recovery method is the 12-step programme including abstinence, which has its origins in 1930s America. The recovery community has a core of committed self-help, help-each-other attitudes.

•Organisations/employers such as rugby unions are often out of their depth with this illness. Yet ironically ham-fisted actions such as punitive ones or those that induce humiliation can inadvertently help the sick alcoholic reach the so-called rock bottom, a desperate place of realisation and action.

•There is a slowly increasing awareness about this illness ... yet many still consider alcoholics to be weak-minded old men sucking out of paper bags on park benches. They can't imagine that a young All Black might be an alcoholic.

- NZ Herald

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Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Chris Rattue writes about a wide range of sports for the New Zealand Herald. He has covered numerous sporting events for the Herald including Rugby World Cups and the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

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