September 13th, 2016
We heard last week how Arianna Huffington, running her eponymous publication, bravely fought against criticism of 12-step programs in a report on heroin addiction in Kentucky that was eventually nominated for a Pulitzer.
Should that surprise us? Of course not! Our media titans have long known that Alcoholics Anonymous and its spin-off fellowships are humankind’s greatest discovery for overcoming the age-old bugaboo of addiction.
To take a couple of earlier examples, in an article titled, “Bill Wilson’s Gospel,” even a libertarian skeptic like The New York Times’ David Brooks indicates that AA is the nonpareil resolution for alcoholism. Brooks’ tribute is itself based on a paean to AA by the infinitely cool Brendan Koerner in that cutting-edge technology bible, Wired. Koerner’s piece is titled “Secret of AA: After 75 years, we don’t know how it works” (but it sure works!).
When these thought-leaders laud AA to the sky, who would question its efficacy? Who would want to?
But let’s interrupt the celebrations a moment to address one small hitch. Although AA was organized in 1935, and has by all accounts proved itself infinitely effective in the intervening 80 years, our drinking problems haven’t diminished. If you ask anyone (and I often do), in recovery or not, “Have addiction and alcoholism been reduced since the 1930s?” or even, “Are alcoholism and addiction declining currently?” nobody says yes.
Indeed, we are currently undergoing a narcotics addiction scare—reflecting record levels of heroin-, painkiller- and tranquilizer-related poisoning deaths—unrivaled since Harry Anslinger was tuning up America’s drug hysteria to a fever pitch in order to pass the Harrison Act of 1914.
And that’s not all.
The United States conducts a massive national survey of drinking and drug problems called NESARC. NESARC interviews 30,000 Americans in its various waves. In the decade between 2001-02 and 2012-13, NESARC found, Americans’ past-year alcohol use disorders increased from 8.5 percent to 14 percent. That’s a jump of over 50 percent!
So what to do? Clearly, despite the near-universal recognition of AA’s effectiveness, we simply need to confront more people with the necessity of entering AA (we’ll have more courts mandate it, if necessary!) and lifelong 12-step recovery.
It’s true, of course, that the 65 years since the release of Days of Wine and Roses comprise a nonstop propaganda campaign for the world’s greatest fellowship. Nonetheless, surrounded by alcoholism and other forms of addiction, let’s keep re-upping the “AA uber alles” message!
Thank goodness, then, for AA’s Elizabeth Vargas and her new book, Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction, which yet again presents that disease in its true light.
Vargas was interviewed on Good Morning America about her alcoholism by George Stephanopoulos a couple years ago.
“I am an alcoholic,” she declared.
Stephanopoulos’s reaction: “You and I have spent literally hundreds of hours this far apart on live television and I would never have guessed this in a million years.”
“I would think, I’ll only drink on weekends,” Vargas recounted. “I’ll only have a couple of glasses of wine; I won’t drink before morning broadcasts.” However, “Those deals never work!”
Vargas began by drinking wine nightly, and inevitably it escalated. “As everybody knows,” she lectured us, “alcoholism is a progressive, deadly disease.”
Vargas attended a rehab that specialized in trauma (this emphasis is AA tuned up, à la Gabor Maté, who travels the world boosting AA).
One strange development: “When Elizabeth Vargas came home from a Tennessee rehab in 2014, she had no idea her husband would leave her just days later.” He lived with an alcoholic all those years, and only split with her when she quit drinking?
Vargas is now 54. How can we avoid a tragedy like this evolving over so many years? Why did it take her so long to see that she was an alcoholic and to enter rehab and to accept 12-step recovery? Could it be, as indicated by this hesitancy and resistance, there is something not quite perfect for her about the 12-step approach?
Actually, as is very usually the case, Vargas was in and out of a number of 12-step rehab programs, she reveals in Between Breaths. These programs are so right and good, but it seems people often have a hard time grasping and accepting their message.
Clearly, we need to thrust more people into AA at earlier ages. As Vargas describes it, alcoholism is a disease of denial, so that she really had to be forced to accept the program.
I have already described in The Influence how, in our Recovery Nation, children now attend recovery high schools and adolescents live in recovery dorms in college.
Clearly, this just isn’t enough.
Read more from The Influence:
We need recovery universities where every single student and faculty member takes a vow never to drink.
Let’s have recovery employers, government agencies, churches, baseball teams, choirs and beaches!
Indeed, why stop at the confines of an institution? Let’s declare entire time zones to be in recovery! And what if the Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific zones could all be included? Wouldn’t that be swell!
Many nations fail to grasp AA like we do. Yet international data show that such nations—including Portugal, Spain, Italy, France and Greece—have fewer drinking problems than us.
Obviously, entire countries are in denial!
And finally, get militant: End alcoholism—bomb Spain!
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.