I never went to Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.), but 20 years ago I underwent a lifestyle change that involved an exercise and diet program (lowering my resting pulse rate from a rocketing 120 to a healthy 60 that I've maintained ever since), and a return to church and a spiritual path.
From a daily dependence on alcohol that periodically turned into binge drinking, I went for long periods of abstinence to times when I have a glass of wine with dinner or at a social function or celebration.
My friends in A.A. still refer to me as an alcoholic, since I've never done the 12-step program and still sometimes have that glass of wine.
One evening over dinner, I asked one of those friends if she'd mind not calling me an alcoholic, explaining that isn't how I define myself. I quoted the definition of alcoholism from my American Heritage Dictionary: "the excessive and habitual consumption of alcohol."
My friend wasn't comfortable with that definition and suggested we call a doctor to get a "medical definition." I said the dictionary definition was good enough for me, and if she saw it differently that was fine too; I simply wished she'd stop calling me an alcoholic. She suddenly said, "Screw it," picked up her purse and books, and stormed out of the restaurant.
One of the drinking buddies of my boozing days is an Irish fellow who also stopped drinking 20 years ago and has never had a drop since though he never asked for the help of AA, therapy, religion, or any self-help or spiritual programs. His friends in AA lament that he is, nevertheless, what they call "a dry drunk."
In my non-AA layperson's view, a "drunk" who doesn't drink is a contradiction in terms.
Dan Wakefield's books include "How Do We Know When It's God?" and 'Returning: A Spiritual Journey.' Visit his website.
I have the greatest respect and regard for A.A., which has saved millions of lives and, as Kurt Vonnegut has said, may even turn out to be America's most important contribution to Western civilization, not only for helping people conquer alcoholism but also for providing a network of "families" in an era of social breakdown and isolation. My argument with the program is its insistence on being the only
way to deal with the problem of alcoholism and seeing its views as the only legitimate ones on the subject.
An important new book by the health and medical researcher Anne M. Fletcher, "Sober for Good," shows that there are many routes to recovery, and the idea that Alcoholics Anonymous is the only way is a myth. Based on in-depth interviews with 222 men and women, who were former alcohol abusers, Fletcher concluded that sobriety was achieved through a variety of paths and programs, including therapy (most notably cognitive-behavioral therapy, which helps people change their behavior by recognizing self-defeating thought patterns); programs such as Women for Sobriety, which stresses strength rather than A.A.'s admission of powerlessness over alcohol; Smart Recovery, which emphasizes individuals' responsibility; and Secular Organizations for Sobriety, for those who don't accept the A.A. belief in a "Higher Power."
Twenty-five people in Fletcher's survey of those who maintained sobriety for more than five years quit on their own, like my Irish friend, with statements like "I put the cork in the bottle" and "That's it, I quit." Among those Fletcher calls "masters" over alcohol--sober for at least a decade--a few have found they can drink moderately, and she concludes that "at least for some people, one drink does not a drunk make." Ninety-six of those surveyed achieved sobriety through A.A., while the rest --a little more than half--took the variety of paths mentioned above.
The hopeful and valuable message of the book is that there are many ways to conquer abusive drinking, not just one. Of those who join A.A., only 10% stick with it after a year, and it will surely be encouraging for the dropouts--and their loved ones--to know that there are other options to try. Rick N., one of Fletcher's respondents who is sober for 21 years, said, "There are probably as many ways to defeat alcohol problems as there are people who want to recover. The more choices we can offer, the more people can be helped."
In my favorite guidance on the spiritual life, Father Nicholas Morcone, abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, a Benedictine monastery, said in a homily: "We must take God as he comes to each of us." Surely the same principle holds true for recovery from alcohol and drugs.