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Some people don't need 12 steps to kick habits

BY RICHARD ROEPER SUN-TIMES COLUMNIST - July 17, 2000

It wasn't my idea. My interview subject was the one who suggested we meet in a corner bar to talk about something that might lead to a column. I ordered a Miller Genuine Draft; he drank a Diet Coke with a lemon. At one point I excused myself to go to the bathroom. "Do me a favor," he said. "Take your beer with you."

"Excuse me?"
He repeated the request: "Finish your beer first, or take it with you, OK? Because if you leave it on the table, I might pick it up and take a drink--and I haven't had a drink since I quit cold turkey on January 1st."

I suggested we go somewhere else--a coffee shop, whatever--so he'd feel more comfortable, but he explained that he still liked going to bars, even though he was no longer drinking 15 beers a night and waking up in his car. He liked the smoke, the smell, the sounds. And he really didn't mind if the people he was with were drinking alcoholic beverages--as long as they didn't leave him alone at a table with "live" drinks. So I took my beer with me--and when I returned, I saw that he had ordered a fresh Diet Coke with a lemon.

* * *
Already I can hear the loyal foot soldiers for Alcoholics Anonymous preparing to recite the litany of mistakes being made by the man in the bar. This guy's a ticking time bomb, they'll say. He's in denial. He shouldn't be hanging out in bars. He needs the help of an organized network. Maybe so. But you know what, maybe not. Maybe this man has found exactly what he needs to keep from drinking.

The road to recovery has been a subject of intense debate lately, in the wake of the too-ironic-for-fiction story of Audrey Kishline, 43, the founder of Moderation Management. That controversial organization says there's a difference between hard-core alcoholics and problem drinkers, and that problem drinkers can continue to imbibe as long as they learn to modify their habits.

On March 25, Kishline was driving 60 mph in the wrong direction on a highway in Washington state, a bottle of vodka on the seat next to her, when she rammed her pickup truck into a 1982 Dodge carrying Richard "Danny" Davis, 38, and his daughter LaShell, 12, killing both. Tests showed Kishline's blood alcohol level at 0.26, more than three times the legal limit. Earlier this month, Kishline pleaded guilty to two counts of vehicular homicide, and on Aug. 11, she'll learn how long she'll be in prison--anywhere from 41 months to life.

Some members of Alcoholics Anonymous, not with glee but perhaps with a certain righteous vindication, will say: There, see that? That's what happens when you think you can control your problem drinking.
Yet it's more complicated than that. For one thing, Kishline had renounced Moderation Management two months before the accident. In a Jan. 20 letter to MM members, Kishline said she had failed her own programs and was joining Alcoholics Anonymous.

So are we to blame AA for not "curing" Kishline? Of course not--not any more than Moderation Management is at fault. Audrey Kishline is to blame. She's the one who turned her automobile into a loaded weapon by getting behind the wheel while tanked beyond belief.

* * *
Half of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous make direct reference to God or a higher power, e.g. Step 3, Make "a decision to turn our will and our lives to the care of God as we understood him." The religious influence and the assertion that alcoholism is a disease infuriate the founders of Rational Recovery, a group that advocates personal responsibility above everything and has a mission statement filled with incendiary claims such as, "The disease theory of misbehavior is a greater heresy against human decency than racism and Nazism," and, "The stigma of addictive disease is far more damaging than the shame of drunkenness."

Wrong.

Still, I don't endorse the belief that AA is the only way to kick addiction. Read the article in salon.com by Steve Burgess, a former wild man who took his last drink 15 years ago and says, "No 12 steps; I took one, right off a cliff, and found I could fly." Is he a failure because he did it his way?



WCKG-FM's Steve Dahl, himself sober for five years, was talking about a lot of this stuff on his show Friday afternoon, and he had it right: What's the point in arguing that there's only one way to stay dry? Find what works for you and hope that your fellow travelers on the highway and in life have found their own solutions as well.

Richard Roeper (rroeper@suntimes.com) appears Wednesdays at 7:30 a.m. and Thursdays at 7:50 a.m. on WFLD-Channel 32's "Fox Thing in the Morning."

 


Alexander DeLuca, M.D., FASAM.
Copyright 1999. All rights reserved.              [Top of Page]
Revised: June 8th, 2001.