Many months ago, the cover of a national magazine leaped out at me with its title of a provocative story: "What AA Won't Tell You." It was followed by this subhead: "Controlled drinking works for many problem drinkers who are not alcoholics. But it's heresy to say so."
For me, this title and the subsequent story were a case of deja vu all over again! More than twenty years ago, a prominent think tank came out with a report that some alcoholics could return to normal drinking. I can still hear the moans of fellow AAs who were sure that this report would cause some people to go back to drinking. This was so serious that I'm sure some members thought the General Service Office should frame a response.
In keeping with our Traditions, GSO made no comment about what was really a public controversy. But the AA Grapevine did permit me to voice an opinion in the January 1977 issue ("Is Public Controversy Ever Justified?"). The thrust of the article was that AA should never enter public controversy even when its own interests are involved. As for the argument that the report would persuade some alcoholics to drink again, my argument was that we don't need a think tank's backing if we want to drink--any friendly bartender or drinking companion will serve just as well.
Perhaps I can also make some observations about programs aimed at teaching people controlled drinking. One thought is that I did think the title was a bit unfair in implying that we are somehow withholding important information or are even responsible for giving out information about such programs. The fact is, AA members don't tell people about such programs because we know very little about them or the results they are getting. Nor are we even capable of telling who might be the best prospects for recovery in AA. Despite our personal experience, we really have very little expertise in diagnosing the seriousness of another's drinking problem. Many of us probably feel that virtually nobody comes to AA unless there's been some kind of drinking trouble, so we immediately begin telling any newcomer within earshot how the AA program works.
But even if somebody would give us information about an alternative program that keeps drinking in the picture, I'd feel nervous about suggesting it. It may be that our approach may be viewed as implicitly calling all newcomers alcoholics, but they are not required to believe us. Yes, we might have bored or offended them, but they are always free to reject what we have to say and to hurry back to the bars. The more serious fault, I feel, is in our being unable to convince real alcoholics that they have a problem, not selling the program too hard to people who may still have a chance to handle their booze.
But suppose we have unwittingly convinced some persons to remain abstinent a day at a time when they really could be belting a limited number of drinks with impunity. Are we doing them grave harm in some way? (The article did hint that total abstinence is a very extreme remedy that should only be applied in very serious cases!)
I suppose our program could be seen as harmful if the person missed out on some important experiences by not drinking at all, though it's hard to think what these might be. But at the time of the think tank report, twenty-one years ago, a wise doctor explained it to me this way. (He is a nonalcoholic who seems to have considerable understanding of the alcoholism field.) He said that it's known that about three persons out of every ten who have a burst appendix can survive without surgery. But doctors have no way of knowing who those people might be, so they recommend surgery in every case of a burst appendix. In the same way, we have no way of knowing who the prospective controlled drinkers might be, so we recommend AA for everybody who comes through our doors. And we can even concede, in this day of court and employer referrals, that we might indeed be getting some newcomers who have the ability to control their drinking after having brief troubles with alcohol.
Does AA offer any way people can tell for themselves if they're just problem drinkers who can really control the stuff or are alcoholics who are over the line? Far from avoiding this issue, AA did tackle it way back in 1939 with the publication of the Big Book. AA's simple suggestion about this is on pages 31 and 32 of the basic text, Alcoholics Anonymous (Third Edition): "We do not like to pronounce any individual as alcoholic, but you can quickly diagnose yourself. Step over to the nearest barroom and try some controlled drinking. Try to drink and stop abruptly. Try it more than once. It will not take long for you to decide, if you are honest with yourself about it. It may be worth a case of jitters if you get a full knowledge of your condition."
This might be a useful statement to share with newcomers who are having real doubts about the nature of their condition. Better yet, they can deal with those doubts by getting in touch with any program that aims at controlled drinking. If it works for them, we should feel glad that they found useful answers in turning around what threatened to be a bad situation. If it turns out not to work, we're always delighted to welcome them back into AA.
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