On September 12, the news media carried a story about a 61-year-old bank vice president who hit a blind pedestrian while driving drunk, breaking the man’s pelvis and both his legs. That’s alcoholism. He lost his job after the hit-and-run accident, which was seen by multiple witnesses. That’s alcoholism too. Then he went to rehab. He’s probably going to AA too, though Associated Press observed the 12-step traditions by not saying so. Anyhow, he pleaded guilty, saying, “It was all my fault,” in court, reconciled with his victim, and accepted a 22-month jail sentence without protest as well as a commitment to speak in public about the consequences of drunk driving when he gets out. That’s recovery.
Will it offend anyone if I refer to what’s common knowledge about the late great senator who once left the scene of a fatal accident caused by drunk driving? That’s alcoholism. The senator continued to drink, minimizing the direct correlation between his drinking and its glaringly adverse consequences. That’s alcoholism, “the disease that tells you you don’t have a disease,” and its hallmark symptom, denial. Might he have been even greater if he’d stopped drinking after the tragedy and stayed sober for the last forty years of his life? We’ll never know.
Alcoholism is about denial in the face of signs—giant, neon-lit signs, sometimes—that it’s causing problems. It’s about minimizing or rationalizing the drinking, the consequences, and the connection between the two. “I drink, I get drunk, I fall down—no problem.” You’ve probably seen the T-shirt. “I can stop any time I want to.” You may not know that attempts to cut down or quit are 25% of the score on the CAGE assessment test for alcoholism.
"I can drink anybody under the table and still behave like a gentleman.” Increased tolerance for alcohol—needing more and more to get drunk—is another hallmark symptom of alcoholism. The drunk driver who hit the blind man had a blood alcohol level of 0.30. As I learned in my training as an alcoholism treatment professional, that amount of booze in the blood would have put a non-habituated drinker in a coma.
The remarkable thing about recovery from alcoholism is that it goes so far beyond “going on the wagon.” AA calls alcoholism a physical, mental, and spiritual disease. By spiritual, they mean that among the symptoms are negativity, hopelessness, and despair. By mental, they mean denial, grandiosity, and narcissism, or “self-will run riot,” as they call it in AA. Recovering alcoholics don’t just knock off the sauce, they turn all that stuff around with amazing rigor and honesty.
This guy who’s going to jail is not the first to make amends for a hit-and-run and take responsibility for the consequences. There was another in the news a year or two ago, and in fact, it’s simply par for the course in the process of working the Twelve Steps. In Step Ten, recovering people look at their behavior on a daily basis and “when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.” That requires an awe-inspiring degree of emotional maturity. I don’t know too many people outside the twelve-step programs who ever admit they’re wrong, no less consistently admit when they’re wrong as a matter of principle. If you don’t believe me, try it. Try it when you cut someone off in traffic. As AA says about recovery, it’s simple, but it’s not easy.