By Jill Neimark, Claire Conway, published on September 1, 1994 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Each year it kills 40,000 Americans. It can damage and destroy
every organ in the body, scarring and pocking the liver until it looks
like a lump of drying lava, laying waste to the heart, pancreas,
arteries, throat, and stomach, snuffing out receptors in the brain. Every
year alcoholism costs our country over $80 billion, is implicated in 30
percent of suicides and 46 percent of teen suicides, and is a factor in
one of four hospital admissions. No wonder it has long been decried as
not far removed from original sin.
Yet like the music of Greek sirens, alcohol has also been the hymn
song of poets, monks, philosophers, and soldiers. It is a ritual
substance in most religions, intimately linked to God and altered
consciousness. It is the supreme seductress: "For not even the gates of
heaven, opening wide to receive me," wrote author Malcolm Lowry of a bar
in Mexico, "could fill me with such celestial complicated and hopeless
joy as the iron screen that rolls up with a crash. All mystery, all hope,
all disappointment, yes, all disaster, is here." Or, as Rabelais put it:
"I drink for the thirst to come. I drink eternally.... The soul can't
live in the dry."
What other substance has so mesmerized and polarized us as alcohol?
It has a long and illustrious role in our culture, from social lubricant
to lethal intoxicant. There are those who contend that culture itself
owes its existence to alcohol -- that the first primitive, agricultural
societies sprang up around the farming and ferment of hops. Experts
advocate a glass or two of wine daily, citing wine's healthful
antioxidants and significant potential to reduce heart disease. Yet the
same experts call for an astounding 25 percent reduction in alcohol
consumption. Sound confusing? Not surprising. Alcohol is one of the most
potent pharmacologic agents around, one whose effects seem as protean as
human nature itself.
For that reason, perhaps, it has taken the maturation of
neuroscience and psychology to give us a realistic glimpse into alcohol
use and abuse -- and the picture is no longer black or white. Researchers
are now beginning to ferret out the causes of alcohol addiction, of
liquor's fiery path across the cells of the brain, its social
underpinnings and cultural power -- as well as new, innovative, and
flexible treatments for this condition.
"There's tremendous excitement, a watershed feeling, as if
something is just beginning to happen," notes Henry Kranzler, M.D., a
psychiatrist at the University of Connecticut who has pioneered new
pharmacologic approaches to alcoholism. "This field now is at the same
place that the treatment of depression was 30 or 40 years ago. We're
really beginning to understand this condition, to develop promising
medications and psychosocial interventions."
THE SHIFTS ARE PROFOUND. Perhaps most important, according to
Dennis Donovan, M.D., a psychiatrist and director of the Alcohol and Drug
Abuse Institute at the University of Washington, is the willingness to
look at the goal of treatment for alcoholism as far more than abstinence
or the lack of it. "Abstinence is no longer the gold standard, it's
simply one standard."
There is a growing understanding among mental health experts that
alcohol abuse occurs on a continuum and must be treated thusly. According
to Steven Liljegren, Ph.D., clinical director of Child and Adolescent
Services at Brookside Hospital in Nashua, New Hampshire, traditional
alcohol treatment programs work for less than half of drinkers. An
unprecedented multisite study called Project MATCH, involving over 80
therapists, is now underway to match patient characteristics with
different kinds of therapy. Researchers are discovering that, while some
former alcoholics require unequivocal abstinence, others can drink in
As the field moves away from an absolutist, all-or-nothing view,
the definition of treatment success, too, is widening. Some of the new
findings sweeping the field include:
o Alcohol is not, as was long believed, simply a chemical
sledgehammer. It seems to act specifically on neurotransmitters and
receptors, primarily GABA, the prime inhibitory neurotransmitter in the
brain, and one that accounts for much of alcohol's effects. This
discovery may lead to new medications for helping drinkers overcome the
o Most alcoholics do not have preexisting psychiatric conditions.
However, about 20 percent are suffering from psychiatric disorders that
they may be attempting to medicate with alcohol, and which are beginning
to be treated with the latest psychotropic drugs.
o Social support -- whether from friends, family, therapists, or
self-help groups -- is crucial to recovery. In fact, peer and family
support may be the "missing link" that allows some alcoholics to quit on
their own, without any formal treatment, according to Donovan. Social
support can be provided by contact with recovering people, access to
self-help groups, and a family that helps the drinker to readjust to life
without substances. Social support does not mean that the family should
keep on protecting the alcoholic when he or she is in trouble; it means
creating enthusiasm in both the drinker and the family that a life
without alcohol is possible.
o In the arena of alcoholism, motivation to quit reigns supreme.
The latest research shows that brief, motivationally based interventions,
where counselors work with patients for one to four sessions -- to both
establish and to reinforce reasons for quitting -- can be as effective as
far more intensive therapy.
o The motivation to quit drinking varies considerably among
alcoholics. For one, losing job and family isn't enough; for another, an
embarrassing moment at a corporate party may change a man's life. It's
o One of the key genetic factors in alcoholism is an ability to
metabolize liquor too well, because of the presence of the liver enzyme
alcohol dehydrogenase. Indeed, a common trait among alcoholics is the
early ability to "drink others under the table."
o Twenty percent of all alcoholics can and do quit successfully on
their own. Researchers are just beginning to explore what is "special"
about them and how to apply it to all alcoholics.
o In sum, no matter where and how an alcoholic recovers, this
powerfully complex condition imposes three requirements for recovery:
high, sustained motivation for quitting; readjustment to -- and building -- a
life without liquor that includes family and peer support; and relapse
prevention based on specific, well-rehearsed strategies of "cue"
avoidance. These factors are being incorporated into treatment programs
around the country.
As the tectonic plates of alcohol treatment shift, with new
flexible views sending a shudder through the mental health field, the
person who may finally benefit is the alcoholic. New insights into
alcoholism are yielding exciting treatment approaches, creative uses of
medication, and innovative psychological interventions.
No one can ascertain exactly when man discovered that carbohydrates
could be fermented into alcohol, although we know that in 6000 B.C., beer
was made from barley in ancient Sumeria. What is clear is that societies
have long venerated and feared alcohol. Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia
allowed liquor into temple rites but regulated its general use; the
Greeks linked their entire intellectual flowering to grape and olive
growing; medieval monks brewed beer.
In the U.S., in turn, alcohol has a history marked by ambivalence
that has shaped treatment so powerfully that a singular model has
prevailed for nearly a century.
DURING COLONIAL days, alcohol consumption was extremely
prevalent -- and there was no concept of the "alcoholic." The dawn of the
19th century brought with it a temperance movement that, according to
Harry Levine, Ph.D., professor of sociology at Queens College in New York
City, viewed alcohol as an addictive substance as dangerous as today's
heroin or crack. Abstinence was the only solution.
Prohibition flowered directly out of the rich soils of the
temperance movement, and yet it only set the stage for a very dismal
failure: Consumption of hard liquor (which was easier to smuggle) rose,
while overall drinking fell. A typical "temperance" culture, the U.S.
gave birth to Alcoholics Anonymous, which has flourished in other
temperance cultures, such as England, Canada, and Scandinavia. Notes
Levine, "AA is really a religious movement that has tremendous continuity
with the 19th century temperance movement. And AA's understanding of
alcoholism is the central understanding of addiction in American culture
Alcohol consumption, especially hard liquor, has seen a steady
decline to 74 percent of its mid-1970s record high. Still, 13 million
Americans are alcoholics. As researchers increasingly realize, a
society's attitudes about alcohol strongly impact how individuals handle
drinking. In Mediterranean, nontemperance cultures, wine is as common as
bread, and individuals drink every day without becoming "problem"
drinkers. The per capita rate of alcohol consumption is high; cirrhosis
is common; but behavioral problems from alcohol are rare, and society
does not lay the blame for its ills at alcohol's door.
In sharp and astonishing contrast, a temperance culture is highly
ambivalent about "demon" alcohol, which is seen as a significant cause of
our society's problems. In America, for instance, addiction is considered
a root cause of violence. "In temperance cultures, people drink to get
drunk. They tend to drink in short bursts of explosive, hinge drinking.
Wine cultures rarely get fall-down drunk," says Levine.
Levine cites the typical European view: "Papa comes in with liver
disease, and the doctor calls in the family and says, 'Look, he's got to
make life-style changes, stop drinking for a while, eat less fatty food,
exercise, and minimize stress, and the whole family needs to work
together to help him because these changes are hard.' Apparently this
works. Tell these European practitioners that what they really need to do
is send their patient to 90 meetings in 90 days and turn themselves over
to a higher power and they'll say, 'I've got somebody with health and
dietary problems and you've got a religious solution?'"
In a temperance culture where alcoholism is widely -- if
incorrectly -- regarded as a disease, the cure until now has been
relentless abstinence. Levine calls this model a "useful fiction" that
works for some, but by no means all, alcoholics.
For any person, the first step in reducing alcohol intake is to
understand alcohol itself. Advances in neuroscience have given us new
insight into the actual impact of alcohol on the body -- and the
FROM AN $800 BOTTLE OF DE LA Romance-Conti, vintage 1978, to the
crudest, rudest moonshine, alcohol impairs far more than our judgment and
coordination. While we absorb the active ingredient of many psychoactive
drugs in minuscule quantities -- an ant can carry a few hits of LSD
comfortably on its back -- a drinker literally floods the body with
alcohol. "Alcohol is problematic in part because it's so impotent,"
points out John Morgan, M.D., pharmacologist at City University Medical
School in New York. "Other mood-altering substances are active in the
bloodstream at literally thousands of magnitudes below what is required
As a result, alcohol -- particularly in alcoholics, who can tolerate
large amounts of liquor -- exerts its toxic effect on virtually every organ
system in the body, says Anthony Verga, M.D., medical director of Long
Island's Seafield Center. The repercussions range from W.C. Fields's
perpetually red nose to a torqued and failing liver common in
The liver, in fact, is the body's main line of defense against
intoxication. But the fight is hardly fair. The organ's supply of alcohol
dehydrogenase -- the enzyme that helps break alcohol down into harmless
water and carbon dioxide -- can only handle about one drink's worth of
alcohol an hour. Worse, the process produces acetaldehyde, a highly toxic
chemical that attacks nearby tissues. The result is a variety of
disorders. One of the gravest, cirrhosis, kills 26,000 Americans each
year. But the liver is by no means the only casualty of
o After a few years of heavy drinking, some alcoholics develop
pancreatitis, a painful inflammation of the pancreas.
o The heart wastes away, a condition called alcoholic
o Drinking impairs blood flow. Heavy drinking can increase risk of
o A pregnant woman who drinks heavily can give birth to a baby with
Fetal Alcohol syndrome (FAS), one of the leading causes of mental
retardation. FAS occurs in up to 29 out of every 1,000 live births among
known alcoholic mothers. Babies suffer lifelong neurological, anatomical,
and behavioral problems. Some of them never learn to speak. Recent
research indicates the casualty rate may be higher than once thought:
Even babies appearing normal in infancy often grow up to manifest FAS
o Alcohol takes its greatest toll on the brain. A small percentage
of alcoholics may, after years, develop such severe brain damage that
they remain permanently confused or become psychotic, suffering from
auditory hallucinations. At least 45 percent of alcoholics entering
treatment display some difficulty with problem solving, abstract
thinking, psychomotor performance, and difficult memory tasks. About one
in 10 suffers severe disorders like dementia.
Why can't a drunk brain think? Is there any way to correct the
misfiring that chronic alcohol use induces? Alcohol appears to stimulate
GABA in the brain: "What GABA does is slow down the firing of the cell on
which the receptor is located," says Kranzler. This neuronal inhibition
may contribute to the telltale signs of intoxication, from slurred speech
to nodding off in mid-sentence. And, while Valium and barbiturates are
distinctly different drugs than alcohol, they also target the GABA(A)
receptor, suggesting a kinship.
Alcohol cuts a far wider swath than GABA; it alters other receptors
in the human brain:
o Drinking inhibits two of the three receptors for glutamate, the
primary brain fuel and GABA's chemical opposite.
o Alcohol increases levels of a chemical messenger known as cyclic
AMP, crucial for the healthy functioning of brain cells. To compensate,
the brain reduces cyclic AMP levels, and over the long term, cells
require alcohol to achieve normal levels.
o Levels of dopamine and serotonin, which contribute to behavioral
reinforcement, also rise with alcohol consumption. Their increase may
explain how alcohol tightens its grip on a drinker's habit.
o Alcohol increases levels of the brain's natural opiates,
endorphins and enkephalins. This may be the key to the eternal, if
politically incorrect, question: Why is drinking so much fun?
Alcohol addiction is real, and withdrawal from alcohol can require
a period of unpleasant detoxification. During that period, a former
drinker can suffer acute anxiety, irritability, insomnia, increased blood
pressure and body temperature, and severe, though temporary, confusion.
Acute symptoms may fade after a week, but subtler symptoms of unease and
insomnia may persist for months, making it difficult to remain
Until recently, it has been an axiom of alcoholism treatment that
withdrawal requires a (usually) month-long intensive in-patient treatment
regimen, and then often a modified regimen where former drinkers live in
halfway houses for up to six months. During the intensive phase, the
alcoholic can detoxify from the drug while immersed in 24-hour support
with other recovering alcoholics and counselors (often former alcoholics
themselves). Group therapy is a feature of these programs, designed to
break through the alcoholics' wall of denial and help set them on the
straight and narrow path to a substance-free life. These programs can
cost $16,000 or more per month.
The good news is that the very physiological nature of alcohol's
seductive hold can lead us to new treatments for the condition.
Pharmacologists are investigating drugs that may aid in nearly every
aspect of alcohol abuse, reducing the craving of newly detoxified
drinkers and even alleviating cognitive impairment.
Naltrexone, for example -- a drug originally developed to combat
heroin addiction -- may prevent binges when alcoholics relapse. Naltrexone
blocks the opiates that the brain releases when someone drinks, so that
an imbiber literally gets no kick from champagne. The drug may be most
useful in the months after detoxification, when alcohol craving is
strongest. Joseph R. Volpicelli, M.D., a University of Pennsylvania
psychiatrist, and his colleagues found that only 23 percent of naltrexone
patients relapsed within 12 weeks of treatment, versus 54 percent on
Volpicelli thinks that naltrexone may prove far more valuable than
disulfiram, a 40-year-old drug well known as Antabuse. Disulfiram
interferes with alcohol metabolism, so that takers suffer nausea, cramps,
headaches, and vomiting when they drink. In practice, though, the drinker
stops taking it, because the physiological effects often build to such a
crescendo -- including violent heartbeats and hot flushes -- that impending
death is feared.
Buspirone (BuSpar), an antianxiety agent, may help alcoholics by
minimizing the effects of withdrawal. Many doctors traditionally give
benzodiazepine drugs, such as Valium, to dampen withdrawal symptoms -- but
those drugs can be addictive and may further blunt the memory of heavy
drinkers. Buspirone may be a safer alternative. Other drugs that have
shown promise include cipramine, which helps alcoholics who are also
suffering from major depression, and deispramine, another antidepressant
that seems to reduce drinking.
The new view of alcoholism is of a complex condition arising from
the intricate and unpredictable interplay of social, biological, and
psychological factors. "Alcoholism is not a disorder caused uniquely by
genes," explains Mark Schuckit, M.D., of the Veteran's Administration
Medical Center in La Jolla, California. "Some persons become alcoholic
solely through environmental exposure; others have biological and
psychological predispositions. There are many different paths to
alcoholism. Once a person drinks regularly, however, the body's reaction
to and tolerance of alcohol changes, so that the person needs more
alcohol. Patients need to be educated about the many factors that
contribute to the disorder, so they can understand that the situation is
Studies show that the type of therapy an alcoholic receives isn't
as important as the fact that he or she gets some treatment.
"There are very few harmful or useless treatment programs for
substance use disorders," says Schuckit. "If you are highly motivated,
then you are likely to do well in almost any program you choose."
The programs most alcoholics choose are based on the Minnesota
Model, which views alcoholism as an incurable disease. It involves group
counseling to confront a "denying" drunk, education about alcohol's
consequences, and confessional self-help organizations like the
There are already cracks in the Minnesota Model's clinical
monopoly. Although the personal experiences of thousands of alcoholics
attest to the model's value, its failure rate -- about 50 percent -- reveals
the futility of assembly-line treatment. Indeed, aversion therapy,
stress-management, and family therapy are proving effective for many
Take the fact that an alcoholic's memory may be impaired -- leading
to treatment problems that have little to do with the so-called
ubiquitous "denial" syndrome. "Ten years ago, if an alcoholic didn't seem
to be catching on to treatment, it was assumed that he or she was 'in
denial'," says Tim Sheehan, R.N., Ph.D., of Minnesota's Hazelden
Foundation, arguably the archerypal inpatient treatment center. "Now
we're recognizing that there may be lingering cognitive deficits." During
treatment, these patients are exposed to fewer concepts, which are
Three new approaches -- all of them "heretical" by the traditional
abstinence model -- eschew ideology and spiritual baggage in favor of
simple pragmatism. Some alcoholics do quite well with them. They
o Harm reduction, which recognizes that moderate drinking is
preferable to lost weekends. Any decrease in alcohol intake is grounds
for a (alcohol-free) toast.
o Brief intervention. In as little as half an hour, an intervention
attempts to show the subject how drinking may be impairing everything
from his liver to his livelihood; helps him rate himself on a series of
questions about his life and drinking; and then places him on a continuum
with his drinking peers so that he has a sense of the nature of his
problem. In addition, brief sessions help the person focus on motivations
for reducing drinking. Brief intervention, lasting four sessions at most,
can be as effective as more intensive treatments for many individuals,
o Cue exposure, or systematically exposing and desensitizing the
alcoholic to cues that might trigger drinking. According to Liljegren,
"traditional treatment says it's heresy to expose the drinker, it will
just increase his craving. In fact, the opposite seems true; the data
suggest cue exposure is the very thing we should be doing."
By exposing the drinker to cues for drinking that might normally
stimulate intense craving, and by refusing to reinforce those cues with
the "pleasure" of drink, alcoholics become less responsive to those cues
over time. The drinkers' sense of self-confidence and efficacy rise,
proving that they can restrain from drinking in the presence of cues. And
it provides the opportunity for drinkers to learn how to cope with their
problem in the outside world.
Typical drinking cues, notes Liljegren, include money, payday,
peers, parties, bars and other drinking settings, and
emotions -- particularly anger, sadness, and fear. "I had a young woman
here," recalls Liljegren, "who was very upset about her ex-boyfriend, who
himself was a drinker. I asked her mother to bring in a picture of him.
When she saw the picture she was very upset." Liljegren and the patient
were able to explore the patient's feelings until she was confident that
she would not drink when she actually bumped into the young man out in
One of the biggest shifts in alcohol treatment is from inpatient to
outpatient therapy. "Research has found that less costly outpatient
programs may be as effective as inpatient programs," points out Donovan.
Outpatient treatment allows patients whose prognosis is more favorable to
adjust to life without booze in a real-world environment. And it's a lot
In contrast, alcoholics with preexisting medical or psychiatric
illnesses -- and whose insurance company or bank account can cover
bills -- should consider in-patient treatment. So should those who have
failed outpatient therapy, or whose family environment is chaotic.
It's during the months and years that follow initial treatment,
says Schuckit, that the real work of recovery takes place. "Counselors
work with the patient and family. Giving up alcoholism is a loss of a way
of life -- and the alcoholic needs to grieve. Magical thinking needs to be
corrected; many patients and families have the idea that all problems
will fade as they become sober. Families need a way to deal with the
spouse anger that inevitably comes out as the patient becomes sober, and
to maintain enthusiasm.
"Contact with recovering people is important, as is access to
self-help. The former drinker needs to set up plans about what to do with
free time that used to be spent drinking. A whole life needs to be
rebuilt without alcohol. Relapse prevention is important. A former
alcoholic needs to identify the triggers to drink and rehearse strategies
to help him handle those triggers. Perpetual alertness is
Ironically, the months following intensive treatment can put more
strain on a family than years of chronic alcohol abuse. About 25 percent
of marriages break up within a year of one partner's joining AA, says
Barbara McCrady, Ph.D., clinical director of the Rutgers Center for
Alcohol Studies. She cites three reasons:
o Traditional AA protocol calls for meetings -- lots of them.
"Spouses often say, 'First I lost him to alcohol, now I've lost him to
AA,'" says McCrady. The alcoholic's reliance on fellow program members,
rather than family, can foster considerable resentment.
o Some families have for years blamed all of their difficulties on
the alcoholic's addiction. Only when the drinker is no longer drinking do
they realize that long-established alcohol problems do not just vanish
o Families that remain intact despite a member's drinking have
worked out their own ways to remain a family unit. "They've reallocated
responsibilities, roles, and chores, and the family functions pretty
well," McCrady says. "Now there's this person who is sober and wants to
reestablish a position in the family." But the family may be hesitant if
the alcoholic has tried -- and failed -- to stay sober in the past.
Perhaps one of the most interesting new paths of research is the
study of alcoholics who quit on their own. "We are beginning to explore
in depth the characteristics of these people -- the ones who can just walk
away from their addiction in the absence of any formal treatment,"
explains Donovan. Perhaps they simply have in greater measure the same
hope and courage of the ordinary alcoholic, who frequently quits for a
day or a week or a month, and then returns to the hottle. As researchers
are beginning to realize, if they can emphasize the innate capacity
present in most drinkers to improve, a great deal may be gained. A shift
in viewpoint can help lift the burden of an all-or-nothing view where
"one drink, one drunk" means that a glass of champagne on one's wedding
day is an unequivocal failure.
TIPS FOR QUITTERS
Alcoholics can quit or control their drinking -- in fact they do it
all the time. The real issue is, how to sustain recovery? Relapse is the
bugaboo of alcoholism treatment. Whether the goal is total abstinence or
controlled, moderate alcohol consumption, there are effective ways to
minimize the dangers of a relapse.
o Avoiding situations like parties or bars, where you might feel
pressured to drink, minimizes the need for self-discipline. "If you need
to be strong, you haven't been smart," says one expert.
o Rehearse in advance what you will do or say when you are
confronted with a high-risk situation. You'll be better equipped to
o Keep in mind that for most alcoholics, the urge to drink lessens
over time. The first 90 days are the hardest.
o Motivation for abstinence is bound to waver. Renew that
motivation by frequently reminding yourself why you quit in the first
o Realize that relapse will occur. Don't use a minor slip-up as an
excuse to resume heavy drinking. Don't get fixated on recording
consecutive days of abstinence. A relapse does not wipe out all that
o Join a self-help group. AA is but one, Rational Recovery another.
Recognize that they don't work for everyone, but since they're free,
there's no risk in trying one.
CAN YOU PICK HIM OUT OF A LINEUP?
Most alcoholics, explains Mark Schuckit, are not out on the street;
they are individuals as unique and at the same time ordinary as you and
me. That's one more reason not to apply a uniform treatment. "Alcoholics
have jobs and close relationships, rarely (if ever) develop severe
problems with the law, and many go unrecognized as alcoholics by their
physicians. While most of these people's lives will eventually be
impaired by their substance use, it is amazing how resilient people are."
Other myths about the alcohol abuser;
o Drunks stay drunk. Actually, says Schuckit, most people drink
more heavily on weekends, and start out each day alcohol-free.
o Drinkers can't quit. The truth is, substance abusers have little
or no trouble quitting, and often do. Temporary drying out is easy and
common. The problem is that sooner or later they begin drinking
o Alcoholics can't control their drinking. Actually, most alcohol
abusers can and do control their drinking -- for a short time, and often
after a period of abstinence.
o Alcoholics have a preexisting psychiatric disorder, such as
anxiety or depression, which they are attempting to mediate with alcohol.
The truth: Only about 20 percent of alcoholics suffer from a psychiatric
disorder. And though many claim they drink to combat depression or
sleeplessness, those problems are often caused by drinking and disappear
when drinking stops.
o Alcoholism is genetically determined. In fact, only about 20
percent of sons of alcoholics become alcoholics themselves; the number of
women is even less. And though the risk of alcoholism is higher for
identical than fraternal twins, most children of alcoholics do not become
heavy drinkers themselves. As Schuckit emphasizes, "Predisposition does
not mean predestination."
o Alcoholics drink because their friends do. Although it's true
that we drink more often when our peers drink, the fact is that once a
person begins to drink heavily, light-drinking or nondrinking friends are
likely to fall away, leaving a peer group that consists mostly of other
o Once an addict, always an addict: therefore alcoholics should not
take any psychotropic drugs, even prescribed medications. A growing body
of research indicates that for some alcoholics, pharmacotherapy can
provide a specifically targeted therapy that helps maintain recovery and
abstinence. The AA model is traditionally distrustful of any
MYTHOLOGY OR METHODOLOGY?
Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, based his ground
breaking 12-step program on what worked for him. Half a century later
there are 2 million AA members worldwide, half of them in this country,
and many clinicians prescribe attendance. There's no doubt that AA has
helped or even saved the lives of many. Yet the fundamental tenets of the
AA-style self-help movement will always remain unverified -- simply because
the program is anonymous and cannot be formally studied.
According to Emil Jr. Chiauzzi, Ph.D., and Steven Liljegren, Ph.D.,
there is no rigorous scientific evidence to support some widespread AA
teachings. Some of the disputed myths include:
o The most essential step in treatment is admitting alcoholism.
Acceptance of the label "alcoholic" is considered half the battle in
traditional treatment. "Hi, my name is John and I'm an alcoholic," is the
typical opener at AA meetings. Yet researchers find that some individuals
feel demoralized and depressed by labeling themselves the victims of an
incurable, lifelong disease.
o Addicts cannot quit on their own. In fact, say Chiauzzi and
Liljegren, 95 percent of smokers stop without the help of peers or
professionals, even though addicted people themselves consider nicotine
more addicting than alcohol. Although only about 20 percent of alcoholics
recover solo, many may not be tapping their ability to do so.
o AA is crucial for maintaining abstinence. The number of
alcoholics far outnumbers AA members (13 million versus 1 million),
indicating that AA is not for everyone. Any increased propensity for AA
members to stay on the wagon may reflect the fact that alcoholics who are
already committed to recovery, are also more likely to join AA.
o Recovering patients must avoid cues associated with drinking.
Researchers find that systematically exposing the patient to
long-standing cues can dramatically reduce the relapse danger those cues
pose. Using slides, videotapes, and other paraphernalia, researchers
found decreased reactivity among those addicted to heroin, cocaine, and
alcohol. Cue exposure and coping skills may offer alcoholics a helpful
tool in recovery.