Alcoholism as a Manifestation of Allergy

Dr. William D. Silkworth, wrote an article “Alcoholism as a Manifestation of Allergy,” which appeared in the Medical Record (March 17, 1937), discusses what he saw as the difference between “normal drinkers” and the real alcoholic.

We may set it down as a fundamental proposition that alcoholism is not a habit. Second, drunkenness and alcoholism are not synonymous. Intoxication with alcohol, as commonly observed, is a purely superficial manifestation of no diagnostic importance whatever in itself; nor is the desire to take a drink, which is common to many. The majority of people who drink alcohol apparently do so with impunity. Prohibition revealed, among other things, how much people desire to use alcohol on all sorts of occasions, and that this desire, and intention, are not limited to chronic alcoholics. The judge, the senator, the preacher, all want their alcohol on occasion.

Dr Silkworth

The merchant or the broker closes transactions over a highball and frequently indulges several times daily for many years. The clubman and the society matron, the daily laborer, the high and the low alike may drink daily more or less liberally of any and all sorts of liquor during much of their life time. They may, and do, become intoxicated; but note that in the majority of such cases alcohol exhibits only the immediate effects of the drug, and recovery is prompt and uncomplicated. Copious elimination, with a cold pack on the head and a brisk shower bath on the “morning after” end the matter. Also note, for later comparison, that if, for any reason, this type of drinker decides to “swear off”, he experiences no more physical or mental pang than accompanies the abandonment of any other habitual mode of living. There is no “problem,”no struggle, no psychic complications to be met, nothing but the transient inconvenience of interruption in his usual customs. For one reason or another he has decided that the inducements to stop drinking are greater than those to continue it. He has had a one hundred percent change of mind and his will is one hundred percent free to act accordingly.

Such people drink from choice and not from necessity. They find in alcohol a pleasant stimulation, a relief from anxieties, an increased warmth of conviviality. It is not a dominant factor in their lives. They are normal people, mentally and physically, to all intents and purposes. We must keep in mind, also, the fact that the multitude of persons who exhibit misbehavior conduct through faulty upbringing or complexes, who are oppressed by a sense of humiliation or inferiority because of unfriendly or disapproving associates or because of some physical defect, and find that a few drinks enable them to consider themselves the equals of any or even superior to all others, are not to be classed as chronic alcoholics merely because they indulge in alcohol regularly. A change of environment, a new mental attitude, or the restoration of confidence in themselves may suffice to bring about a totally new policy on their part. The significant point is that under such circumstances, if they desire to stop drinking they can do it without a struggle. They have no need to lean upon anyone else or anything outside of themselves for support. Alcohol is not necessary for them.

This, we believe, is a fair view of the general drinking public, and constitutes a familiar background against which to contrast a very different picture. These people are not true alcoholics, but they may become so; and it is from among them that the real alcoholics are derived.

Let us now contrast with this kind of drinker an entirely different type. He is, as we have noted, a development of the class we have just described, his history may be quite like that of the average. But sooner or later there comes a time when he manifests changes that place him in a classification characterized by symptoms that were entirely lacking before, and unequivocally set him apart from the average drinker. Whereas he formerly drank for pleasure, he now has to drink from necessity in order to keep going. He cannot take his liquor or leave it, as he used to do. Yet, even if he is more or less soaked with it all day, his mind at first functions fairly well, he transacts his business with fair efficiency and keeps up with his obligations to his associates and the community. But he discovers that a change has occurred in him. He finds that he has to have a drink in the morning. Then he finds, after a little more time, that his hand shakes; when he signs his name, for example. Later, irritability and lack of concentration supervene. He is not the man temperamentally that he used to be. In order to meet these changes and increasing symptoms, he is compelled to increase the amount he consumes, and a prolonged spree replaces a short intoxication.


Silkworth: The Little Doctor Who Loved Drunks the Biography of William Duncan Silkworth, M.D. by Dale Mitchel
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