2017. Jacob ben Abraham. A Ramble for Rachel. The following is part one of what will be a four chapter essay. The whole thing has been written for Rachel Schwartz, who will be working soon as a teacher and counselor in “the recovery movement.” It is dedicated to her, and was composed in the hope that it would be helpful to her. The first chapter considers the drinking of alcohol and introduces the author. The second asks what alcoholism is. The third looks at Alcoholics Anonymous from an inside view. The fourth and final chapter outlines ways in which professional treatment tends to have very different objectives and methods from that of Alcoholics Anonymous. It also is my attempt to reflect on the pitfalls of conflating professional treatment with AA.
The Main Points. There are libraries full of writings about the subject of alcoholism and recovery. I have not attempted to replace them. But I hope to raise some issues that I have not seen addressed in one place, and to address those issues from the standpoint of a lifetime of experience and study. My central contention is that the recovery movement has abandoned a highly successful approach to helping alcoholics for a more successful approach to helping those who wish to help alcoholics. I will advance my contention by answering the four questions which follow.
(1) Is drinking (alcoholic beverages) in itself a problem? Stated another way, we could ask if a human culture which allows its participants to drink alcohol doing itself and them a disservice or not? Generally speaking is alcohol drinking something positive or negative for both drinkers and the culture in which alcohol is consumed? (2) What is alcoholism and how is it different from other problems? Is it the same as some other problems? (3) Is there a solution and, if so, how does that solution work? (4) Does professional treatment help the alcoholic recover and, if so, are there particular considerations that the helper needs to know?
DRINKING: BAD OR GOOD?
Of course the perceptive enquirer will almost certainly recognize that none of these questions have universally accepted answers. There are those who hold that drinking alcohol has a very bad effect on its consumers and on others. These may oppose any drinking at all. Islam forbids drinking alcohol and most Buddhists are also opposed. Some denominations of Christianity also have substantial reservations about the virtues of even moderate consumption of alcohol. No religious or philosophical point of view explicitly endorses heavy drinking to the point of frequent drunkenness. But many accept and even embrace drinking. It seems reasonable to suppose that the more a person sees positive values in drinking the more tolerant one is likely to be about extensive, frequent or prolonged drinking. But it also seems reasonable to suppose that the evaluator of drinking
My own answer to the question of whether drinking is generally good or not starts with acknowledging that prolonged extremely heavy drinking almost invariably damages the health of the drinker. I have respect for Buddhism and Islam and those Christian denominations which ask their members to not drink. I have no quarrel with those who decide not to drink out of respect for their religion or philosophy or mere personal preference. Nor have I any doubt that drinking should not be done by expectant mothers, people operating automobiles or other dangerous equipment, post-operative patients or people whose doctors have prescribed certain drugs that interact poorly with alcohol. And I have never known an alcoholic who could drink safely.
But for those who wish to help the alcoholic, being opposed to drinking dooms the would-be helper to ineffectiveness. Not only is a solid argument to be made for the proposition that drinking alcohol is positive for society and for the vast majority of those adults who choose to drink, but you can be certain that any alcoholic know that argument. Most alcoholics are practiced debaters on the subject. I have never known a drunk who could not give you just as good a presentation of the virtues of drinking as the one that follows. And the most important answer to any of these questions must be ones which the drinker will accept. All alcoholics love the effect produced by drinking alcohol, and despise the attitude that drinking is bad. The success of any effort to help the alcoholic depends very much on the consent and the eventual approval of the suffering alcoholic. While short term abstinence may be obtainable by incarcerating the alcoholic or by threats of punishment for drinking, I am convinced that no one with a drinking problem can be forced to stay away from drinking indefinitely. To save the alcoholic from his drinking will, by definition, require him decided and determined to not drink.
There is nothing more pathetic than the professional who is trying to convince an alcoholic that drinking is bad and that the drinker is too stupid, ignorant or deluded to see that. Such a professional is not only doomed to failure; he is also showing himself to be the victim of his own stupidity, ignorance or delusion. See, for example, The Recovery Book, which spends about 600 pages instructing alcoholics (among others) on the dangers of drinking and the supposed dictates of recovery from alcoholism, but spends not one single sentence on drinking as a positive activity for anyone at any time! Unfortunately the principle author, Al Mooney, M.D., is rather typical of the professionals in “the field”.
I do not deny that DUI Court and residential treatment patients can be found who “admit” to having hated drinking the whole time they “were using alcohol”. Baptist prayer meetings sometimes feature testimony from those who claim they abandoned God and humanity the first taste they had of demon rum! If the reader has trouble deciding whether such stuff needs to be taken seriously, then continuing to read this essay will probably be a waste of your time.
The Sources of my Information on drinking. My father was an alcoholic and so was my identical twin. I loved both and lost both to alcoholism before either had reached the age of 50. I drank from the summer I turned 18 until the summer I turned 40. From the beginning I was an abnormal drinker, and I suffered many of the consequences of being an alcoholic.
Most of my energies for 35 years have gone into becoming and remaining sober. During that time I have tried to be helpful to other alcoholics. I have spent nine years working professionally in the field(s) of alcoholism and drug addiction recovery, been a part of a DUI Court team, and read many books and articles on alcoholism and related subjects. Thousands of my clients have been alcoholics. My reading and studying has continued to focus on this subject more than any other, and I have studied all my life. Always my diligence has been sharpened by the intensely personal motives a student has when the subject of his studies is the life and death struggle of his own existence and that of those he loves most.
Then there is the information I have gotten from attending more than ten thousand meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, listening to hundreds of thousands of alcoholics talk about their experiences and their efforts to recover. I have performed service work in AA that has ranged from the most menial to being the person representing more than a dozen AA groups at the state organizational level. I have been the founder of a group which still meets four days each week and is helpful to many, including me.
Perhaps my most significant source of information on this subject has been the huge body of experience that I have been given through hundreds of alcoholics with whom I have worked closely as an AA sponsor. They have included many medical doctors, scientists, teachers, clergymen and addiction counselors, as well as even more men and women who were not professionals of any kind. Most of these people have also been individuals who had experienced varied degrees and forms of drug abuse or addiction. More than a few have gotten well and have been living wonderful sober lives. Many others have died as the result of returning to alcoholic drinking. I loved them all and never stop learning more from them than they have learned from me.
Does not everybody already know? Offering advice about drinking is usually a thankless mission. Almost all adults believe they need no advice about what to believe or practice when it comes to religion, politics and drinking alcoholic beverages. No amount of experience or learning on the part of the advisor is likely to overcome the advisee’s conviction that he already knows that which is truly basic and worthwhile. My approximately seventy years of curiosity and study and experience may be seen as worthless compared with the reader’s innate good sense and own experience. Most people old enough to read a comment such as the one which follows are also past old enough to have a very firm conviction about the subjects the comment will address.
Danger of being sure. I can certainly identify with anyone whose mind is closed on any worthwhile issues. Been there and done that—a lot of times. My mind was firmly settled on questions about the Civil War at an early age, and similarly dug in about many related subjects. Somehow my Southern father had left a six volume biography of Abraham Lincoln in our living room. Out of idle curiosity I began to read. Carl Sandburg changed my views on Lincoln and much else. Most of all he changed my mind on the subject of the knowability of important and controversial subjects. Looking at the reasons for the beginning of the War that was his most important subject he wrote that the war came “by the capacity of so many men, women and children for hating and fearing that which they do not understand while believing they do understand completely and perfectly what no one understands except tentatively and haphazardly.” Abraham Lincoln, The War Years, Volume I, page 211 (1939). (I have recently found myself having to force myself to read still another book about Lincoln, having decided at some point that this unknowable man was perfectly known to me!) So the subject before me in this essay is one I believe fits Sandberg’s warning. The most wrong opinions are those held by the wisest students whose minds have become made up. I am warning myself here as well as you.
Humans and drinking: Match made in heaven? Of course we are talking about drinking beverages which contain alcohol. What some people refer to as “just another mood changing or mind altering drug” is much more than that. The front page article for the February 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine begins by declaring “Alcohol isn’t just a mind altering drink: it has been a prime mover of human culture from the beginning, fueling the development of arts, language, and religion.” The article demolishes the attitude that alcohol has retarded human progress. Instead it shows the enormous positive effects of drinking. It demonstrates conclusively that prohibition was not merely ineffective at achieving its goals; it was also naively prohibiting an activity that has powered human development since before it helped invent writing, agriculture and music.
Some form of drinking alcohol is a very important part of virtually every worthwhile social occasion from casual dating to holy sacrament. He who would discourage drinking alcohol is defying customs and ceremonies that bring millions of people together in bars and lounges, parties and celebrations, sports observances and once-in-a-lifetime achievements. Graduations and weddings, anniversaries and commencements, communions and Kiddush, Sabbath rituals and christenings. None of these events and many more would be crippled or demolished by abstinence from drinking alcohol.
Most of us are somehow at least vaguely aware that creative genius is frequently the partner of heavy drinking. One needs only to raise the question of which great musicians, artists, writers, actors and performers died young as the result of alcoholism. Which were driven to suicide or perished through accidents preceded by or accompanied by alcoholic drinking. And some of the most charismatic molders of political destiny also drank very heavily.
We will get ahead of this story a bit by pointing out that even Alcoholics Anonymous explicitly approves of drinking as a wonderful thing for normal drinkers: “For most normal folks, drinking means conviviality, companionship, and colorful imagination. It is joyous intimacy with friends and a feeling that life is good.” Alcoholics Anonymous, page 151 (1939, 1955, 1971. 2001). Although there are individuals in AA who are opposed to drinking, they have never carried the opinion of most members. Any person or institution which suggests—no matter how subtly—that AA disapproves of drinking has missed a degree of tolerance that goes far beyond mere resignation.
Thanking Ha Shem for drinking For Jews, dear Rachel, wine has been at the heart of our lives for millennia. “Wine in Jewish thought is symbolic of many things. Life, joy, Torah, Israel, Jerusalem, the Messiah—all are compared to wine. There is thus a halo of poetic association over the goblet of wine used in religious celebration. The fact that wine forms part of every Jewish rite, including the Marriage Ceremony, had much to do with the characteristic sobriety of Israel. Wine was associated with religion, and undue indulgence became a sin as well as a vice (Abrahams).” The Authorized Daily Prayer Book of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Empire with Commentary, J.H.Hertz (London; 1946) at page 809.
Drinking to your health. The National Geographic article cited earlier argues that fermentation of grains changed a few varieties into the nutritional foundation for the development of human society, and that the capacity to consume relatively large amounts of fermented alcoholic beverages distinguished our primate ancestors from other species long before we that distinction resulted in the rudiments of our culture. Alcohol is still a damned good, immensely varied food that is properly used to enhance the pleasure of eating almost every other food. There are more varieties of alcohol in a well-stocked grocery store than there are varieties of bread, cheese and meat combined. Of course this variety in grocery stores does not even include the even more immense varieties of beverages that can be obtained from distilled alcohol.
And a lot of what alcohol does within the human body and spirit is also very positive. Moderate drinkers average longer lifespans than people who never drink. Countless studies have shown that drinking red wine lowers blood pressure, enhances vascular performance and improves cardiac health. The symbolic value of certain alcoholic beverages is also very positive. And a medicinal drink after work or before retiring is often recommended by competent counselors to relieve anxiety and induce needed relaxation. The same drink at different times can have contrasting, even opposite, beneficial effects: the same drink that wakes me up can also help me sleep, and the same drink that braces my courage can soothe my overactive vigilance.
Alcohol the chemical. My introductory chemistry course in college taught me that alcohol is not just another mood-changing and mind altering chemical any more than sex is just another fun activity for adults. Alcohol is a functional group of the huge category of organic chemicals, the category which contains all of the chemicals that make living organisms different from nonliving things.
In fact the alcohols are the equivalent for organic compounds that water is for inorganic ones. Alcohols are virtually universal solvents for all other organic compounds. So alcohol dissolves other organic compounds, including the ones that compose the human body and the wastes of the human body. Alcohol and its byproducts enter every living cell of the human body, altering and reshaping the chemistry of those cell. It also readily dissolves or suspends in water and fruit juice and vegetable liquids. The biochemical impacts of alcohol on the consumer are chemically MUCH more complex, unpredictable and both salutary and disastrous than those of any other mind changing drug.
Alone among the mood changers, alcohol is usually consumed by drinking, carried and stored indefinitely in a huge variety of other liquids. Its biochemical effects include euphoria and depression, intoxication and drunkenness and unconsciousness and stimulation and sedative and euphoria and loss of anxiety. It can be an eye opener and a night cap, an aphrodisiac and the destroyer of any hope of sexual performance. And it can do each and all of these things in the same person within the same day or night.
Prohibition and drinkers, especially alcoholics. The suggestion that alcohol is bad is especially offensive to alcoholics. And, as the text of Alcoholics Anonymous points out, most moderate drinkers recoil from condemnations of drinking as well. Alcoholics Anonymous, page 103: “We are careful never to show intolerance or hatred of drinking as an institution. Experience shows that such an attitude is not helpful to anyone. Every new alcoholic looks for this spirit among us and is immensely relieved when he finds we are not witch-burners. A spirit of intolerance might repel alcoholics, whose lives might have been saved had it not been for such intolerance. We would not even do the cause of temperate drinking any good, for not one drinker in a thousand likes to be told anything about drinking by one who hates it.” Contrary to the widespread perception that AA opposes drinking, AA actually condemns such attitudes.
But of course drinking alcohol is not always beneficial for the drinker or for others who depend on him. That truth brings me to the second topic—problem drinking. No one who has lost a loved one through alcoholism can be immune to the suggestion that alcohol consumption can be very bad for the health of the drinker. Certainly no one who has represented thousands of victims of drunken behavior and hundreds of DUI cases and can be callous about the potential of drinking to lead to misbehavior. And no one who has lost everything in life he held dear except life itself as the result of drinking should ever forget that drinking can dissolves much more than organic compounds. I qualify for all these consequential roles created by uncontrolled drinking. I am also aware that the number of alcohol-related fatalities in this country far exceed the current figures on opiate overdoses—the national darling of substance abuse concern. If I generally approve of drinking and drinkers, I do not do so from a position of either ignorance or indifference to the case for concern.
Is it a vice of the bad or weak? I start on this subject with my own background. Like most middle class Protestant white children raised in the Deep South during the 1940s and 50s, I was taught that drinking any alcohol was an activity best left to the weak, bad and rather stupid people everyone referred to as “drunks”. I was told that many of the patients at the nearby central state mental hospital were alcoholics, the nicer name for the same people as the afore-mentioned drunks. By the time I finished high school, however, I had determined from observation that most adult people drank beverages that contained alcohol—beer or wine or whiskey. I also learned while very young that most people enjoyed drinking without ever having serious problems as the result, and that most who did have troubles were, like my father, of good intelligence, industriousness and moral character.
Returning to Mr. Lincoln I was first struck by the accuracy of his own depiction of both the alcoholic and the principal bearer of help for him. His speech to the temperance crusade of his times (the Washingtonian Society) was as complimentary of the drunkard as it was of what he drank. And it praised the sobered drunkard as the most effective bearer of help. I quote some of the speech below to show how extraordinary Mr. Lincoln was in his wisdom on these subjects. I would also note that the Washingtonian Society was begun as a fellowship of problem drinkers who got sober and stayed that way through helping each other and other drunkards who wished to achieve the same results.
In my judgment such of us who have never fallen victims have been spared more from the absence of appetite than from any mental or moral superiority over those who have….If we take habitual drunkards as a class, their heads and hearts will bear an advantageous comparison with those of any other class….The practice of drinking is just as old as the world itself. When all of us opened our eyes upon existence, we found intoxicating liquors recognized by everybody, repudiated by nobody… Even then it was known that many were greatly injured by it but none seemed to think that the injury arose from the use of a bad thing, but from the abuse of a very good thing. Another era into which the old reformers fell, was the position that habitual drunkards were incorrigible. We could not love the man who taught this doctrine. We could not even hear him with patience. It looked…like throwing fathers and brothers overboard to lighten the boat for our own security.
Mr. Lincoln referred to the “reformed drunkards” of the Washingtonian Society as the best helpers of other drunkards. “In my judgement, it is to the battles of this new class of champions that our late success is chiefly owing”
Mr. Lincoln’s views were apparently not well received by many of the more righteous members of the community in Springfield, Illinois in 1840. And they would not have been widely endorsed in Milledgeville, Georgia when I was growing up. They certainly accorded with my own sentiments. No doubt the congruence of my affection for my Father with the sentiments of Mr. Lincoln contributed mightily to my growing admiration for both Lincoln’s role in the Civil War and for the views of those who defended the Union against the Confederacy. So in my case the love of an alcoholic Southern father helped to stimulate doubts about the prejudices of his class and region.
Drinkers who drink alcohol usually don’t!! I drank alcoholic beverages for twenty two years, but never referred to what I drank as alcohol and rarely thought of what I did as “drinking alcohol.” No drinker I ever knew before I came to AA ever referred to drinking alcohol. Had there been any reference to “using alcohol” I am sure I would have thought the speaker was referring to rubbing alcohol or to finishing furniture, certainly not to drinking at all. The teacher or counselor of serious drinkers must stay aware that the drinker drinks Coor’s or Eagle Brewery or Jim Beam or Chablis or Crown Royal or screwdrivers or any of a thousand wonderful beverages to his or her way of thinking. Almost never alcohol. The drinker usually sees the speaker telegraphing an unwelcome attack by referring to drinking alcohol!
Even the most avid detractors of drinking admit it is unique. Dr. John Mooney, founder of Willingway Hospital, claimed that alcohol was just another one of a “smorgasbord” of drugs that we have the opportunity to choose from. He argued that for those who chose to drink, instead of snorting cocaine or shooting heroin, alcohol was simply their “drug of choice”. The reason we categorize it separately, as for example in the phrase “drugs and alcohol”, is not because is fundamentally “any different than any other drug of abuse”, but only because alcohol is “legal”. Of course such an assertion does not deal with any of the many reasons why alcohol is legal and others are not. Nor does it acknowledge that drinking is not only not criminal. It is also widely approved and appreciated.
I will not digress here to comment on the fate of the prohibition movement or the consequences of many efforts to discourage drinkers from drinking. Except I will note I have not yet met an alcoholic who traces his recovery to being prohibited from drinking.
One final thought on this subject that may serve as a transition from the subject of drinking to that of alcoholism. A brilliant attorney friend of mine is also admittedly both an alcoholic and a drug addict. He says the following as a way of distinguishing the two problems: “When I use highly addictive drugs I have a normal reaction. I get highly addictive. When I drink alcohol I have an abnormal reaction. I behave as though addicted, and my behavior and health consequences are terrible. Normal people enjoy drinking and live better as a result.”