Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Treating Alcoholism

Paul Carr is a humorist. He is also a recovering alcoholic. He has just written a pamphlet about how he beat alcoholism. The pamphlet was accompanied by an article for the Wall Street Journal.

Exceptionally, he did it on his own. He did not follow the famous 12 Steps. He invented his own rules.

Admittedly, he tells everyone not to follow his example, but, if you offer a new way to beat alcoholism it’s very na├»ve to believe that other alcoholics will not give it a try.

I suppose that we all admire Carr for not having had a drink in over two years, but he does make the vainglorious pronouncement that he did it on his own. He states, loudly and clearly, that AA was not for him.

Disparaging AA meetings and 12 Step programs seems like a lot of braggadocio, but many recovering alcoholics have been helped by AA and many more need to attend meetings to maintain sobriety.

Telling them not to do so feels irresponsible to me.

Carr has not had a drink for the past few years, but he seems to have become drunk on his own egoism. He thinks that he is just recounting his own experience, so he has failed to consider the effect his message will have on others.

I suspect that Carr is an autonomous, independent British spirit, someone who recoils at following a set of rules laid down by a drunk from Ohio.

If Bill Wilson can write down 12 Steps, why can’t Paul Carr?

After all, Carr is a humorist. Wilson was an ordinary drunk. Unfortunately, sometimes there is a thin line between a humorist and a joke.

Carr disparages AA because he knows people who go to meetings and still get drunk. As it happens, I know people who go to meetings and do not drink at all. And I know people who remained sober while attending meetings but who started drinking again when they stopped going to meetings.

AA is not foolproof. Anyone who wants AA to work for him must work the program. People in AA come and go. They drop out, fall off the wagon, go into rehab, get back on the wagon, and go back to meetings.

In my experience they have a much better chance of getting their lives under control if they are involved with AA and follow the 12 Steps.

But, then again, Carr and I do not seem to know the same people.

If you judge AA by the number of people who never again touch a drop of alcohol its success ratio is probably not very good. But if you judge it by the people who, when they fall off the wagon know enough to go to rehab or to go back to meetings or to work harder with their sponsor... its record improves.

To point out that AA fails some people is like saying that the glass is half empty. It also makes Carr sound like he is competing with AA, or better, is asserting that he is stronger and tougher than the poor fools who attend meetings.

Carr says:  If you decide to quit drinking, you should do it on your own terms and for your own reasons.

Allow me to say that this is bad advice. Why tell people to re-invent the wheel when there is a program out there that has been used by millions of people over decades and that has a creditable record of success?

If an alcoholic is left to his own devices, to cobble together a program on his own terms and for his own reasons, he will surely find a way to maintain his drinking. His judgment is fundamentally flawed and it is not going to improve if he is told to rely on it.

More often than not alcoholics quit drinking because they feel that they have no other choice. They do it for their children; they do it for their families. Rarely, do they do it for themselves.

In fact, one of the primary rationalizations for alcoholism is that it’s the alcoholic’s body and he can do to it what he pleases. Only when he recognizes that he is hurting others does he start to see that he has to stop.

For his part Carr could not get past the first of the 12 steps.

Step 1 reads: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable."

Carr offers his own commentary: “Please. You may be weak against alcohol, or seriously addicted to it, but powerless? No. If a drinker were truly powerless, then AA would be useless to him; nothing short of death could stop him from drinking.”

Carr is a wit, perhaps. A thinker he is not.

At the least he misunderstands the concept. Step 1 says that an alcoholic cannot control his addiction with his own willpower, his mind, or his of self-discipline.

He cannot go it alone and should not be encouraged to go it alone.

People become and remain alcoholic because they believe that they can control it, that they  need not go to meetings or to follow the 12 Steps.

Perhaps Carr is being willful, but he misses the salient point. After  Step 1 come Steps 2 and 3.

They read:

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

Yes, your own willpower, the force of your ego, is insufficient. But that does not mean that the situation is hopeless. If you enlist a higher power you might win out over “demon rum.” If not, you are eventually going to lose. 

The first steps also say that a recovering alcoholic should follow the rules, regardless of whether he feels inclined to do so. The last thing you want is for an alcoholic to follow his bliss or his gut.

12 Step programs involve replacing the habit of drinking with more constructive habits.

Surely, this is the correct approach. As Aristotle said, the only way to overcome a bad habit was to replace it with a good habit.

If an alcoholic habitually repairs to his local tavern every day after work he can replace that habit by repairing every day to his local AA meeting.

I find it irresponsible for Carr to discourage people from participating in this salutary activity.

After discouraging people from going to AA meetings, Carr admits that he did not do it alone. He enlisted all of his friends, family, and acquaintances by adopting a tactic that we might call self-shaming.

He went public. He announced on his blog that he was an alcoholic, thus, allowing everyone in his social environment to keep an eye on him, to help him stay away from alcohol.

Surely, the sense that the whole world is watching has a beneficial effect. It allows you to see your own behavior as it looks to others.

Most alcoholics suffer from a disconnect between the way they think they look to others and the way they look to others.

Carr is careful to say that his steps are not necessarily going to be useful for other people. He understands that making a grand public announcement of your alcoholism might be a bad idea for different people in different professions.

In that case, what is wrong with declaring yourself an alcoholic at an AA meeting? Isn’t that what alcoholics are encouraged to do at AA meetings when they speak out.

Wilson understood that you cannot overcome alcoholism by thinking that you are controlling an urge. He saw that only changes in behavior would be able to wean alcoholics from the bottle.

Paul Carr, however, seems to think that he himself is strong enough and tough enough to have created his own program for his own alcoholism.

One applauds his success, but, one would have wished to see more humility. People who make it to Step 1-- one step further than Carr got-- know that it is an invitation to humility.

One is reminded of the proverb:

Pride goeth before destruction,
and a haughty spirit before a fall.


The Ghost said...

I would bet money that Carr has moved off of drinking to some other drug addiction ...

Anonymous said...

There is a program based on Cognitive Therapy called SMART Recovery. Are you familiar with it?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I'm not familiar with it. Where can we go for the best information about it?

Anonymous said...

The web site is

Anonymous said...

Not a drinker, but not an AA fan.

Somchai said...

I have recently celebrated 30 years of continuous sobriety thanks to AA and the 12 Steps. While I wish Mr. Carr well, I am not hopeful about his method of recovery. I have seen other "solutions" to alcoholism come and go with the years and AA remains the most successful of the lot. We have a chair with Mr. Carr's name on it. He is welcome any time.