July 26th, 2016
Sometimes standing up and speaking out is valuable and necessary. I’ve done plenty of it—some would say, too much. Some people, such as my old friend Ethan Nadelmann, are more diplomatic, and there’s value in that, too. (If only I had a dollar for every angry response I received for my mixed review of the Ibogaine conference earlier this year.)
Yet I have no regrets. If the worst people can say of me is that I speak my heart in attacking the disease theory of addiction—which I consider profoundly pernicious—maybe I can still get into heaven.
In the meantime, it’s given me some pretty good stories to tell.
1 & 2. A Gambling Conference in Nova Scotia; a DARE Session in New Jersey
In 2008, I was invited to a national gambling conference with a focus on addiction in Nova Scotia (which I love). The keynote speaker, a prominent American gambling addiction activist, described a young man—an athlete and class president—who ended up in prison due to his gambling addiction.
The speaker then proudly displayed a video he had produced. A parental couple sits complacently reading their newspapers in the kitchen. Cut to their adolescent son in another room in front of a computer screen, gambling. The young man suddenly jumps up and smashes the computer with a baseball bat, trying to exorcise his gambling demons.
The scary message to parents: Gambling will take your child straight to hell!
Of course, I believe that gambling can become destructively addictive, as I discussed in the UK in 2006 when it became a big issue there:
Peele is no fan of gambling. He recognises that for some people gambling can become problem gambling, and argues that, yes, it can be compulsive and addictive. “It is a very immediate and powerful experience that has the capability of captivating people’s consciousness with detrimental effects, and that’s a definition of addiction”, he says.
But I also said that convincing people that they are powerless to influence events in their lives is not a good way of going about things. And telling gamblers that they are sick or diseased is likely only to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The imagery of a teenager whose life is ruined by what may be casual gambling or one or two bad experiences is like DARE’s death-by-marijuana stories.
In my 2007 book Addiction-Proof Your Child, I described questioning one of these at a local high school where I then lived in New Jersey—a story about how a kid “in a neighboring town” smoked marijuana containing a horse tranquilizer and then broke through a glass door in a panic and bled to death.
In front of a packed auditorium, I questioned the DARE officer about which town this had occurred in, since I had never heard about it. I then reviewed the data on the effectiveness of DARE’s scare approach. (Such “Just Say No” programs aren’t effective.)
The town’s chief of police told me to leave. “We’re not here to discuss whether DARE works.”
Back in Nova Scotia in 2008, following the plenary talk at the gambling conference, I asked from the audience if the speaker was personally involved in the case he described—the one about the athlete and class president-turned-prison inmate. He said that he had heard about it from a third party.
I then asked, “What percentage of youthful gamblers experience such problems?”
He answered: “I don’t know.”
Despite the broad exposure to gambling among young people, another speaker at the conference from Canada, where gambling is legal for 18-year-olds, noted that only 1 percent of teens reported that gambling was a risky behavior for them (the worst risk issue the teens identified was a negative body image).
I devoted my break-out talk to discussing how media, “experts” and politicians have strived, with every new social/mental health/addiction problem, to propel it to the top of people’s concerns by using—as the speaker in the plenary session did—the tried-and-true scare tactics that have driven American drug policy for over a century.
Guess who was in the audience for my talk? Right: the plenary speaker.
That evening, in a delightful captain’s crow’s nest restaurant at the top of the hotel, I searched the speakers’ table for my place card. It had been removed to a side-table!
On the way out after dinner, I saw the plenary speaker and gave him a cheery “hi!”
He turned on me like a cornered animal: “You think it’s funny to come here, to my bailiwick, to mock my work, then to blithely leave.” With that, he stalked off.
I’ve never been invited to another gambling addiction conference.
3. An Alcoholics Anonymous National Board Meeting in NYC
A couple of years before these events, somehow I, with as strong a claim as any to be the leading AA critic in America, got invited to a national AA board meeting at a New York hotel by some guy I didn’t know, but who thought he could bring me into the fold.
During dinner, three recovering people spoke. Each presented a 45-minute drunkalogue. I leaned over to the man who had invited me and whispered—”How useful is this? Even you must be bored out of your skull!”
One woman spoke who had been homeless as a teen, at one point sleeping in a cemetery, while the two men who spoke both came from abstemious families, went berserk drinking in college—and kept on going.
Thinking that this could be a teachable moment, I went up to a board member, who happened to be president of Rockefeller University, and asked him, “Do you give your children alcohol?”
He said he let them drink wine with the family as teens. I said, “You need to tell your colleagues in AA that it’s their abstinence fixation with young people that seems to produce a majority of alcoholics, judging from those stories tonight, along with disturbed childhoods, as in the woman’s case.”
I lay out these ideas out in detail in Addiction-Proof Your Child. In fact, as discussed recently by two Cornell researchers in The New York Times, countries where children are introduced to drinking wine at meals rank among the least risky in a World Health Organization report on alcohol.
He shook his head he would not, as if to indicate he would never dare—he, a powerhouse at one of America’s leading medical research institutions—share his success in dealing with alcohol with people who demonstrated no competency in drinking. Why would a prominent person like him put himself on the line that way?
I then went up to a woman who edited the AA periodical The Grapevine, and told her she needed to do an article on teaching kids to drink at home.
Right about then, the man who invited me came over and said, “They’ve told me that you need to leave.”
Do I need to say I’ve never been invited to an AA function since?
4. A Meditation Session With Tony Robbins
In between the AA and Nova Scotia incidents, I was on a distinguished addiction panel in Vancouver, Canada. Afterwards, a familiar-looking figure approached the group. It was motivational guru Tony Robbins, who was in Vancouver visiting his wife’s family.
He said he was working on something really exciting, and asked the panel members to accompany him to a room to demonstrate it to us. My clear impression was that he, Tony Robbins, was here to teach us addiction experts something of magical relevance to the field, without troubling to listen to what we on the panel actually had to say.
He then led us in a standard meditation session, with the added feature that Robbins and his wife went around the room putting their hands on our heads.
At one point, I surreptitiously opened my eyes to see how the other speakers were reacting. Instantly, Robbins was behind me, hissing in my ear, “Not everyone responds well to this technique, Dr. Peele—you should leave.”
But this time, I wasn’t the worst reprobate!
After I left people told me that Alan Marlatt—my old mate in combatting America’s disease and abstinence fixation, who was also on the panel—stood and gave Robbins a piece of his mind: “What makes you think you can commandeer all of us to come down here for you to ply your latest gimmick?” Then he walked out.
Alan (to whom Ilse Thompson and I dedicated our 2014 book, Recover!) died in 2011. His work—including relapse prevention, the effectiveness of “wet housing,” and (with Andrew Tatarsky), harm reduction psychotherapy—is a model of courage, independent thinking, and recognition of people’s capacity to change their lives.
As Alan demonstrated throughout his career, speaking out against the consensus can sometimes be essential. For instance, he and I staunchly defended the Sobells’ controlled-drinking research against the AA-based assault represented by Mary Pendery et al.’s article in the journal Science. (Others shrank from confronting the resulting hysteria, and in fact still do.)
So standing up to Tony Robbins’ privileged intrusiveness was small potatoes for Alan. Nonetheless, it demonstrated Alan’s integrity. We should all strive to meet his high standard.
Stanton Peele is a columnist for The Influence. His latest book, with Ilse Thompson, is Recover!: An Empowering Program to Help You Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life. He has been at the cutting-edge of addiction theory and practice since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has since written numerous other books and developed the online Life Process Program. His website is Peele.net. Dr. Peele has won career achievement awards from the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies and the Drug Policy Alliance. He is currently working on his memoir. You can follow him on Twitter: @speele5.