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Alcoholism: A Society's Disease

An essay by Mara K. Potter
Writer's Craft ISU

"Alcoholism," as defined by Encyclopedia Encarta Online "is a chronic disease marked by a craving for alcohol."

In today's' world, alcohol is readily available to almost anyone who would like to have a few drinks. Because of easy access to alcohol, it should not surprise anyone that alcoholism is as big a problem as it is 1. Alcohol not only has many, many negative effects on the human body and mind, but it is also creating increasing numbers of harmful social effects. Every year there are increasing numbers of families being destroyed, children being abused, people being sexually assaulted and traffic violations associated to alcoholism. Unfortunately, alcoholism doesn't affect everyone the same way. There are physical and social effects to the disease. Each just a detrimental as the other. Timothy Findley, author of "The Last of the Crazy People" and "The Wars", uses alcoholism as an underlying theme in both novels. Through each novel, the reader is able to understand how alcoholism can contribute to the demise of a family member and the destruction of the family itself.

In the novel "The Last of the Crazy People", we as the reader are introduced to the character of Gilbert Winslow, whose alcoholism (at the age of Twenty 2) directly affects the lives of all his family members. In the novel "The Wars", Timothy Findley creates the character of a mother (Mrs. Ross), whose alcoholism becomes apparent after her eldest son prepares to leave for war, and the death of her eldest daughter. Both characters are successful in isolating themselves from the rest of their family. They are not alone, but they are certainly lonely.

There is not one lone cause of alcoholism. The contributing factors that create alcoholics are many, and any combination can increase a person's chance of falling dependant on the substance. Some of the factors that contribute to alcoholism are age, gender, family history, family background, psychological disorders, and even personality traits 3. Any of these factors could increase chances of being an alcoholic, but scientist thus far are unsure of the exact cause of alcoholism, they can only evaluate by studies that the above mentioned factors truly do directly effect those that would be alcoholics.

Alcohol's most commonly known physical affects are illnesses such as cirrhosis of the liver, hepatitis, and jaundice (all of which are illnesses of the liver). However, there are much more illnesses that can be just as dangerous that are associated with alcoholism. Such as, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, gastrointestinal problems, pneumonia, skin disorders, muscle disorders, bone disorders, Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome and it also increases the hormone level of estrogen in the body (which, in men, can lead to impotence). Alcohol can also cause problems in people with diabetes, people who smoke, those taking almost any type of medication (including aspirin), and those who are pregnant. If that weren't enough, there are also the psychological effects of alcohol. Prolonged use of alcohol in an abusive fashion can increase your chances of neurological disorders. These disorders can vary in intensity from depression and confusion, to full-fledged psychosis. Studies have shown that most of these neurological disorders recede once the person stops drinking for a long period of time. If that weren't enough still, there are the long lasting effects on each of the family members. 4

Once a person is alcohol dependent, their alcoholism begins to effect every part of their life. In "The Wars", Mrs. Ross wanted to say goodbye to her son before he was to leave for Europe, but she was prevented from doing this because of her alcoholism:

"…Mrs Ross put on her opal dress and tried to fix her hair. She dropped a lot of pins on the floor and couldn't see herself in the mirror. She decided to put on a large fur hat that would cover her head and hide the fact that she could not fix her hair the way she wanted to. Then she went into the salon and sat with her legs tucked beneath her in one of the pullman chairs and drank a third of a bottle of scotch. When Mister Ross came in and said it was time to go, Mrs Ross stood up-and fell down. 'I can't,' she said. Her legs had fallen asleep. Mister Ross was determined, nonetheless, that he should go – even if he had to go alone."(The Wars, pg73)

This quote is able to demonstrate how alcoholism prevents people from interacting with others. In effect, they isolate themselves from life. In isolation, the alcoholic begins a cycle of depression caused by alcoholism, which in turn causes them to drink more and continuing the cycle.

Many alcoholics begin drinking, thinking that the alcohol will relieve their stress and anxiety. Have a hard day- kick back with a glass of wine or a bottle of beer. Initially, the alcoholic will feel their spirits being lifted, only because the alcohol numbs the senses. Gradually it takes more and more drinks to make them "feel better", till eventually it begins to effect every other part of their life. They miss work, stop keeping track of social and family obligations, till finally their alcoholism is out of control. Monitoring your alcohol intake is incredibly important. If for some reason a person needs to have that drink, that is when there is a real problem.

One of the biggest things that most people enjoy about drinking is that it empowers a person to be able to do things that they normally wouldn't do. Things that maybe they were afraid to do, they might be shy. With the aid of alcohol, a person may feel anything is possible. Of course there is a downfall. The very things that a person might do while in an intoxicated stupor may be illegal or offensive in a manner to others. A lot of sexual harassment and sexual assaults happen while an assailant is under the influence. Normally the conscience of a person or their sense of reality would have prevented them from committing acts like those from ever happening. In "The Last of the Crazy People", the character of Gilbert Winslow goes and argues with his mother:

" 'MOTHER?' Gilbert's voice had thickened with extra whiskey. To the listeners, he sounded like someone calling from under the water. They heard him move… 'Are you going to come down?' said Gilbert. 'Or am I going to come up?'…'You aren't really sick, you know,' Gilbert called out. 'And we all know that.' "(The Last of the Crazy People, pg149)

After the argument, Gilbert forgets that it happens. When he recollects the incident later in the book, he regrets having confronted his mother. Many people with alcohol dependency will experience some sort of regret about their actions while they were intoxicated. Most often these feelings of regret turn into a reason to drink more, so that in turn the incident may be forgotten.

There is no known cure for alcoholism, however there is a lot of help and support to be had. Almost everywhere in the world you may find a chapter of Alcoholic's Anonymous 5. Most hospitals have or know of a facility that provides in-patient programs or out- patient programs 6. There is support for all members of the family of an alcoholic too. Al-Anon and Alateen are both divisions of Alcoholic's Anonymous that provide counseling and a support system for all those who have been affected by the drinking problem of another person. As Alcoholic's Anonymous is religious in nature, there are other treatments similar that do not have the underlying religious content. Such as, Rational Recovery, and Secular Organizations for Sobriety/Save Our Selves (SOS).

The programs mentioned above take a psychological approach to the healing, but there are medications that can be prescribed by a doctor, that react with alcohol to create some very unpleasant reactions. One of the medications that is available is the drug Disulfiram 7, which interferes with how the body processes alcohol in the system, causing the person to feel nauseated, dizzy, gives them headaches, and may cause an irregular heartbeat. These symptoms only appear when the medication interacts with alcohol and are meant to encourage people to give up drinking.

Unfortunately, many people do not get the help they need in time. Like in the novel "The Last of the Crazy People", the character of Gilbert Winslow commits suicide 8 by setting himself on fire (while intoxicated). This final desperate act foretells the shocking ending of the book and the lives within. As for the Ross family, not much information is revealed at the end of the book about Mrs Ross. However, at the end of the book when Robert (the son of Mrs Ross) is buried only his father goes to the funeral. You may draw your own conclusion about their relationship and its future.

Most people will not have such a 'poetic end' as Gilbert Winslow, or the ability to just ignore the problems like Mrs Ross. Unfortunately, whole lives can be destroyed for generations if the proper help and realization is not found in time. And remember "Once an Alcoholic, always an Alcoholic".


    1. Canadian statistics "show that close to 600,000 people, or 1.9 percent of adults aged 15 and older, are alcohol dependent. The number of male alcoholics is double that of female." – Taken from Encyclopedia Encarta Online. READ
    2. Men tend to become alcoholics earlier in life than women. While men show signs of alcoholism earlier around the age of twenty/twenty-one, Most women do not tend to become alcoholics until they are middle aged. (taken from http://content.health.msn.com/printing/article/1680.50298) READ
    3. Studies show that Native Americans and Irish descendents are at a higher risk to develop alcohol dependency. Asian Americans and Jewish Americans show the least risk at developing alcoholism. (Please see above footnote about age.) Alcoholism is also prevalent in those that display behaviour that is impulsive and have a tendency to be very hyperactive; therefore people with ADHD are susceptible to alcoholism. READ
    4. Some of the effects that can be seen in children that come from a household where there is alcohol abuse are depression, poor grades in school, anxiety, stress and self-esteem issues. READ
    5. Alcoholic's Anonymous was created in the 1930's. AA uses a 12-step program that helps people understand the harm that they have caused, embrace forgiveness, and give them selves to a higher power. A list of the 12 steps can be found attached! READ
    6. Please see attached print out of the Betty Ford Center pamphlet and stapled brochure. READ
    7. Also known as Antabuse. READ
    8. According to http://content.health.msn.com/printing/article/1680.50298 approximately one quarter of all suicides are alcohol related. READ



    1. Findley, Timothy "The Last of the Crazy People" Penguin, New York, 1967, 282 pages.
    2. Findley, Timothy "The Wars" Penguin, Toronto, 1977, 218 pages.



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