As a Michigan criminal, DUI and driver’s license restoration lawyer who spends almost all of his time on cases directly connected to problems caused by alcohol and drugs, I have wanted to write this article about coming to grips with those problems for a long time. I suppose I have, separately, and in little pieces throughout the nearly 700 articles I have published thus far, but this is really my first attempt to put it all together at once. To keep things manageable, I’ll break this piece into 2 installments. My goal here is to reach out to the person whose drinking or drug use has become an “issue” in a criminal or DUI case (or even outside of that context) and who has the unsettled feeling that something just isn’t quite right. Sometimes, these “issues” become pressing and a person begin to think about all of this after an arrest and arraignment for something like a drinking and driving offense, when he or she is suddenly ordered, by a Judge, to refrain from drinking (and drug use) and is being tested to ensure compliance. The first reaction is often a kind of discomfort because you really don’t know if you can stop drinking (you may tell yourself something like it’s not that you can’t, but rather than you don’t want to), and it’s always accompanied by a kind of anger that you’re being “forced” to not drink, and besides, who the hell is someone else to tell you that you have a problem, or treat you like you have one? This kind of inner turmoil is a big clue that something is amiss.
It’s not that everyone who is unhappy with an order to not drink has a problem with alcohol, but the degree to which someone is frustrated by or resistant to this kind of required, but temporary, abstinence can be telling. In my driver’s license restoration practice, for example, where my clients are sober and usually have been in recovery for a number of years, most will admit to NOT having stopped drinking, even while they were on probation or being tested as a condition of bond. For these people, alcohol admittedly played a disproportionately (and therefore inappropriately) important role in their lives. In other words, drinking was too much of a priority for them. To choose to use alcohol despite being ordered by a court to NOT do so, while simultaneously being under very real threat of going to jail if you do is clearly maladaptive and troubled behavior. For as much as I have seen and learned over my 25-plus years, perhaps the best and simplest way I’ve heard it put is this: “Anything that causes a problem is a problem.” In the real world, no one ever thinks about their drinking or partying until it starts causing problems. At first, those problems are infrequent and usually “fixable.” The thing is, once the problems start, meaning once you have more than something like an isolated, 1st offense DUI that just “happens,” the problems tend to keep coming, and they come more frequently and get more complicated (and expensive).
Precisely because of the way I spend all of my workdays as a lawyer, dealing with legal issues involving alcohol and drugs, I realized how much more I could actually help my clients by advancing and formalizing my understanding of addiction issues. Accordingly, I went back to school at the post-graduate level (a post-graduate program, unlike a regular graduate program, is for people who already hold a graduate degree) and completed the coursework in an addiction studies program. I learned a lot there, all of it from the clinical, rather than the legal side of things. Still, nothing beats good old-fashioned experience. Book learning is great, but I prefer the “real world” over everything else. For all the clinical and technical terms that I added to my vocabulary, I saw that in the addiction field, just like everything else, we tend to talk things to death, and it seems that in the quest to help people, we sometimes talk them right out of seeing what’s right in front of their eyes. In the case of alcohol and addiction issues, for example, the over-use of terms such as “alcoholic,” “alcoholism,” “denial,” “powerlessness” and “surrender” can scare people off and send them running for the hills. Getting help should not sound so demeaning or scary. Let me explain what I mean…
Just about everyone has heard something to the effect that a recovering alcoholic is someone who used to be in denial until he or she accepted that they were powerless over alcohol and then finally “surrendered.” That sentence alone contains 5 unnecessary labels rather likely to frighten and intimidate someone who is just starting to think that perhaps his or her drinking may be a bit problematic. It occurred to me that we should leave all the terminology behind and get to the business of helping people see that, whatever the clinical labels may (or may not) be, once their relationship to alcohol or drugs has become troublesome, it won’t get better merely by wishing that it gets better. As far as I’m concerned, if a person with a very bad drinking problem wants to quit, but is put off by being called an alcoholic, then we should help him or her stop without worrying about what we call it. The very act of labeling someone can often get in the way of helping him or her.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what we do or don’t call a person who is starting to think that he or she needs help with drinking. There is no benefit in preaching to someone that he or she is “in denial” as opposed to just pointing out that the person’s past and future experiences will show that, no matter how much he or she tries or wants to control, cut down, limit or otherwise manage his or her drinking, these fixes just don’t work. From my point of view as a lawyer, I am sometimes frustrated when a well-meaning Judge will try and “break through” to a person by being bold and direct and telling them that they are an “alcoholic,” or have a “serious” drinking problem. Sure, some people (that minority who are lucky enough to get and stay sober) will sometimes look back at such a moment and agree with the Judge’s assessment. Rarely, however, does that kind of confrontation have the desired effect right then and there. For those who do, ultimately “get it,” such a confrontational moment is usually appreciated only in retrospect. The problem, to me, is not that such an experience is unlikely to work in the moment, but rather that it can just automatically trigger a defensive response in many people. When a person gets defensive, he or she will essentially retreat into denial. The result is that this kind of approach will usually do more harm that good and have the opposite of the desired effect.
I’m not wimping out here; instead, I’m suggesting that we help people by coaxing from out of them those rational thoughts that everyone with an alcohol or drug problem has from time to time. Even those in the thick of an addiction do have their lucid moments. If it’s the reader him or herself, then you know that, in your heart of hearts, you have these fleeting instances when you know something just isn’t right. How many promises have you made to not drink or use, or to start later, or buy less, or drink or use less, or stop earlier, or only go out for a few drinks (the list goes on and on), only for those plans to go to hell? Maybe, just maybe, you can get an inkling of what the AA people mean when they look back on their drinking careers and say that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” What this means is that those people who have successfully quit drinking can now look back at all their attempts to control or moderate their drinking and understand that they had no chance of success, and kind of laugh at how many years they wasted trying. Here’s one thing you can take to the bank: You will never meet a normal, social drinker who used to have a drinking problem. Once your drinking (or drug use, or gambling, etc.) becomes problematic, the only way to bring it under control is to stop for good. Period. That is usually the last thing anyone wants to do, and it can, at first, seem overwhelming, which explains why so many people keep trying to “slow down” despite the ongoing lack of success.
There is a very relevant, old saying in the AA program that seems to have drifted out of use: Easy does it. This is as much a caution for someone beginning to wonder about his or her relationship to alcohol as it is for someone who is about to head out for a night of drinking. Because I don’t like to use labels that may intimidate anyone contemplating his or her drinking behavior, I have developed a fondness for using the phrase “relationship to alcohol” instead of using terms like alcoholism, alcohol abuse, alcohol problem and drinking problem. After all, it is the fallout from that relationship and all the problems caused thereby that is our focus. When a person’s relationship to alcohol begins to be risky or troublesome, then it’s problem enough, whatever it’s called, to merit attention. The thing is, some people, in their drive to help, will start talking about never drinking again and quitting forever and AA meetings and counseling and rehab and treatment and – BOOM – it becomes just too overwhelming and drives people away.
Imagine a person who is overweight and decides to slim down. Would you run up to him or her and start talking about diets and proper nutrition and exercise programs and gym memberships and healthy cooking and intelligent grocery shopping and no more desserts and no more ice cream, ever, and portion control and – BOOM (again)! You get the point. How about starting out by not going back for seconds, or lightening up on the chips a bit. Easy does it means acknowledging that something isn’t right, deciding to do something about it, and then taking it slowly from there. In the case of problematic drinking, we don’t go hammering someone with the idea that they’ll never have another cocktail again and that they are about to radically change everything in their lives, but rather that the easiest way to stop drinking is to do it, as another famous AA saying goes, “one day at a time.” The first commitment a person needs to make is to simply not drink today. Tomorrow? Fine, maybe you can have sip then, but first, let’s get to bed tonight without picking up that first drink. And when you start wonder how you’ll get through the next holiday without a drink; don’t. The ONLY plan you need to make regarding drinking, or not drinking, is to simply not drink today. Some people manage to get over a drinking problem without ever picking up again, but many people do have a “slip” or two (or even more) along the way. Whatever; the key to success is to not stop trying. If you slipped today, then don’t tomorrow.
We’ll stop here for now. In part 2, I want to pick up with the idea that quitting drinking, first and foremost, marks the beginning of being really happy again. Life will get good. Putting the plug in the jug, as the saying goes, will quickly stop the flow of problems in the short run, and and will not leave you feeling like you’re stuck on the sidelines while everyone else is having fun but you’re not. Instead, you’ll discover that drinking was nothing but a big, heavy anchor that kept you from going anywhere in life.