A reader asks: Lydia, I’m new to your site and much of it makes sense. How ever with the defect issue I have one thing that bothers me. That would be the influence of anyone with a mental illness. To be clear I’m talking about a diagnosis from Mental Health professional and not one of self diagnosis. I struggle with this. Depression for one is an illness and not a defect in character. I struggle with the concept of defect in relationship to mental illness. Where is the line between a defect and an illness? Maybe you addressed it in another post regardless I would be interested in your take on this.
******Extremely important disclaimer: All that’s written here is my opinion only. I have no special training or credentials. I have lots of opinions, and when someone asks, I usually will give it.*******
I gave this question a lot of thought, for many reasons. Critics of AA find fertile ground here. AA members span the spectrum on what they think about these things. As I hope we all know, AA is not an inherently safe place, and people can find someone to say just about anything there.
And that’s part of the problem. Mental illnesses (including alcoholism), physical illnesses, terrible life situations, bad luck. Alcoholics can and do use all of these to manipulate people including doctors and therapists. They can and do use all of these things to manipulate the people in their lives. They can and do use these things to avoid sobriety, to avoid work, to obtain drugs, to get or avoid attention.
I have personally been pregnant and given birth, I’ve had teeth removed and a dental implant, I’ve gone through bad emotional crises in sobriety and I’ve been offered drugs that I didn’t need and that are dangerous to me by doctors who I’ve specifically asked not to do that.
For me, it is incredibly dangerous. Once the drug enters my system, my ability to think clearly is compromised. My brain reacts in a way that does not care if my tooth actually hurts beyond my ability to bear it. It craves the sensation of those drugs and once it has some it wants more.
Sitting here now, sober, I can recognize and avoid all that. But “what if” I actually need the drug and have to take it?
What if I don’t actually need it and want to take it?
I know people who have gone out and died because of needed pain killers. I know people who have not been able to bear the psychic pain of depression and who have killed themselves.
Is “depression” a character defect? I think so, yes, for just about everyone. Depression as a mental illness is something else that only some people experience. Personally I absolutely cannot judge what someone else is going through, and this troubles me very much when I’m asked to counsel or sponsor someone who needs to take psychoactive drugs. I know that they can be easily abused and misused and cause death. I know that a lack of effective treatment for some mental disorders can cause death. What I don’t know is the mind of the person I’m talking to, or thinking about.
People who have serious mental illnesses, including depression, or serious physical disorders, in my opinion, may face a much more difficult time achieving and maintaining sobriety than people who do not have those things in addition to alcoholism. I try to move very very cautiously when I listen to those people. I’m afraid I usually end up on the side of not being tough enough in my questions about, “Do you really need this drug?”
The thing is it’s just so, so dangerous to take them. If there’s any way to avoid it, I’m for that. But of course I realize there is more danger, for some people, to not take them. Problem is, all of us alcoholics in some way want to be the person who has to take the drug.
So, to answer the question, is there a line between the illness and the character defect? I think there is, but it’s a dotted line, not a solid line. A person who has the mental illness can still suffer from the character defect, and probably does, as we all do to some degree. It may be harder for that person to deal with the character defect. That said, in my real life I do know some people who have mental illnesses including depression who are successfully sober for long periods of time in AA. I can’t pretend to know what they go through, but from my staunchly pro-AA standpoint it seems to me they have lives that are so much richer because they work the steps and participate in the fellowship of the program that was in large part designed, by the way, by a famous depressive, Bill W.