Ever since a failed stockbroker named Bill Wilson had some kind of vision in a New York detox center 75 years ago, quit drinking and went on to help found Alcoholics Anonymous, there have been skeptics who claim there is no indication AA's 12-step model for recovery is effective.
Dr. B.A. Johnson, chairman of the department of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia, tells Herald-Leader readers "there is little compelling evidence that the AA method works, inside or outside a rehab facility," complaining that AA's emphasis on anonymity makes it difficult for outside researchers like himself to determine success rates.
Saturday, at one of the larger downtown Lexington churches, there was an annual gathering of AA members who have been sober 20 years or more, and who usually fill the capacious dining room. They are not so uptight that they would have shut the door on Johnson. While some of these folks have been to those "expensive" treatment programs Johnson scorns, most of them would have told him they recovered at home on the cheap practicing the 12-step model he says is ineffective and failing alcoholics.
Meanwhile, dozens of 12-step groups will be meeting throughout Lexington this week, as they do every week. It takes 10 pages to list them in the local meeting directory and 11 more pages to list those outside of Lexington in the paper's circulation area.
Yes, AA does not work for everyone. It involves behavior modification, coaxed along by 12 steps of change that begin with an admission that one has become powerless over alcohol and ending with a vow to encourage others to turn to a higher power for support.
("Higher power, fiddlesticks!" you say? You don't believe in a higher power? Well, what was that booze that was wrecking your life?)
How many people who set out to change their lives actually succeed? Few, really, but enough to keep hope alive.
Whether Wilson was seeing God or snakes in the delirium tremens, he and a few other drunks so inspired each other in the Great Depression years that millions of people have believed the 12-step process saved their lives.
There are now over 50,000 meeting groups and more than a million people having a go at the program every week while Johnson and other paid consultants to the pharmaceutical industry try to develop medications to treat alcoholism.
Medical research has turned up useful drugs to cope with bipolar disorders and severe mood changes that are found in alcoholics who are in the 10 percent of our population with mental issues. They should be encouraged to accept prescriptions for these medicines as well as counseling from qualified therapists.
Alcoholism is a disease, as Johnson observes and, as such, it does sometimes go into spontaneous remission, like the common cold. Addicts do quit on their own, but most of their loved ones can only wish.
Best wishes also to the scientists who seek to secure sobriety on their terms, although one of my recovering friends jokes that he wants something to let him drink without getting drunk. Meanwhile, to those medical researchers like Johnson who are compelled to denounce AA as they look for a cure in a pill, so far with no success, here is another wish: Get a grip!