Mike Dingman: Alcoholics need treatment, not a shrug or a scold

"Why do you drink?"

"Because there are things inside of me I need to kill".

That interaction was part of a joke from the sit-com "Two and a Half Men" however; it rings true for so many, either publicly or very quietly in our society.

Alcohol abuse is rampant in our state - and Alaska would seem to prefer to just ignore it.

When I say Alaska, I'm not putting this failure on the Alaska legislature or even the governor - It belongs to all of us. We have failed our neighbors, family and friends by ignoring their addiction, pretending it is simply a personal failure and trying to lock them in the closet so that we don't have to see them.

In order to gain a better understanding of why this happens, the path they 've travelled and where they are now, I spent the last week talking to addicts.

When I go out for beers with friends I'm well known for never drinking more than two. It's not because I'm concerned about what will happen if I drink too much, or necessarily because I need to drive - I just rarely desire more than two beers.

Thankfully, I'm not an alcoholic.

That's not to say that I'm any better than those who suffer from alcoholism, I'm just not an addict. I am one of the lucky ones.

It's easy just to consider them weak. We could just pretend that a litany of decisions made that put them where they are. We could simply say it's their responsibility to pull themselves out of the hole they have dug for themselves.

Or, as a community, we could offer our hand and help them climb out.

One thing that was nearly universal amongst those that I spoke with is that it all started with alcohol - and it almost always started when they were young. A lack of parental supervision coupled with a lack of options for our kids, has led to an early entrance into the world of alcohol for far too many of our kids.

I've known alcoholics my whole life; I've had alcoholic acquaintances, friends and family members- yet I still can't completely understand it. I don't understand the need to keep drinking, the need to lose control or the need to kill anything inside of me.

I am one of the lucky ones.

The truth that many people don't want to believe is that alcoholism isn't simply a personal failing, it's not something people can "just fix", and they should "just stop drinking."

It is not that easy - alcoholism is a disease - and it's rampant in our society.

One of the problems is that alcohol is acceptable. It's a social norm to head to the bar after work and throw back three or four beers or a couple glasses of scotch. If we saw someone lighting a joint or shooting up, we would be appalled, however, we think very little of someone "having a few too many."

Alaska has serious problems with alcohol - this fact is indisputable. A McDowell Group Report prepared for The Alaska Mental Health Board and The Advisory Board on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse says that alcoholism costs Alaska 1.2 billion dollars in 2010.

Many tell their alcoholic friends and acquaintances - just quit drinking.

It's not that easy. Alcoholism is not just a bad habit; it's a disease. As a state we have tried this method in various ways including an alcohol tax - it doesn't work. As Kyle Hopkins reported in the Anchorage Daily News, alcohol sales continued to rise even as the alcohol taxes continued to rise.

Many want help, but can't get it. Resources are limited and they can often be expensive and come with long waiting lists. As one addict told me "By the time the call comes to be accepted into treatment, the addict is high and just doesn't care anymore."

Alcohol is the real "gateway" drug. Young people see their parents using it, often seeing them drink to intoxication.

I talked to many alcoholics that said that their parents looked like they were "having fun" when they were drunk. They saw it as an attractive lifestyle and wanted to emulate it.

The lasting effects of alcoholism can be tragic; it should be treated as the disease that it is. Simply telling people to stop and dismissing them or simply accepting that they drink too much is akin to watching someone die of cancer and refusing to take action.

Don't walk by the hole your neighbor is in and shake your head - offer him a hand and help him out.

Mike Dingman is a fifth-generation Alaskan born and raised in Anchorage. He is a former UAA student body president and has studied, worked and volunteered in Alaska politics since the late 90s. Email, michaeldingman@gmail.com.