Inside the Criminal Mind

Understanding the dark side of human conduct

When "Rehab" and Alcoholics Anonymous Is Not Enough

It's thinking, not just drinking.

Over many years, I have had men and women consult me who battled alcoholism but not successfully. They have participated in outpatient substance abuse programs, residential programs, A.A. and, in some instances, a combination of all three. After periods of sobriety, they return to the bottle. The problem, I find, is that abstaining from alcohol is essential, but it is not enough. This is because the person's thinking has not changed. Although he is not drinking, he remains a controlling, self-absorbed individual who has not learned to see things from the point of view of others. He has been his own worst enemy with his family, at work, with friends, and in other areas of life. His intentions are often good. But he alienates other people, then is puzzled and often angry about the outcome.

Most alcoholics are controlling of other people. Even though they have "surrendered" with respect to alcohol, they still are intent upon trying to impose their will on others. And they may resort to lying, intimidation, even brute force. In other words, although they have given up drinking (for whatever the time period is), their personalities are unaltered.

Among the "thinking errors" that alcoholics must identify in themselves, become fed up with, and correct are the following:

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  • Blaming other people rather than shouldering responsibility;
  • Seeking shortcuts rather than doing the plodding work that is required;
  • A failure to put themselves in the place of others;
  • Making assumptions rather than finding facts and operating on the basis of those assumptions;
  • Failure to utilize the past as a guide to present and future conduct;
  • Having unrealistic expectations of themselves and other people.

A.A. participation is vital to the success of some people in achieving sobriety—the sponsor, the support, the constant availability of meetings. Some people give up drinking without ever attending A.A. There are many paths to abstinence.  The absence of alcohol in one's life is a precondition for change.  The scope of the task of change is usually larger than remaining sober. An A.A. term is "stinking thinking".

That thinking (and what I call "thinking errors") must be addressed.

Stanton Samenow, Ph.D.,is a clinical psychologist practicing in Alexandria, Virginia and author of Inside the Criminal Mind.

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