In parts 1, 2, and 3 of this article, we examined how, within the context of a DUI case, a person’s actual relationship to alcohol matters far more than the label slapped upon it. Starting here, in part 4, and continuing in parts 5, and 6, we’re going to survey this same topic, but within the setting of Michigan driver’s license restoration and clearance appeals. We’ll see how old thinking, and the use of terms like “alcoholic” can (and does) clash with modern diagnostic terms although they are still used, and to a certain extent, still useful.
It is key, at the outset, to understand that the primary focus of a license appeal is upon a person’s relationship with alcohol – past, present, and future. Specifically, the Michigan Secretary of State requires that a person prove, by what is called clear and convincing evidence, that his or her alcohol problem is both “under control” and “likely to remain under control.” This basically means that anyone filing a license appeal is automatically presumed to have a drinking problem, and must prove that he or she has really given up alcohol for good.
A lot of people come to us after having lost a ”do-it-yourself” license appeal, or after having hired some lawyer who didn’t concentrate in license restoration cases, and then losing. What we see in many of these cases is that the person had never spoken with anyone who really examined and helped him or her understand the nature of their relationship to alcohol, much less helped him or her understand where that falls on the continuum of drinking problems, from none whatsoever, all the way to out of control.
This is the kind of attorney-client interaction that is important in a driver’s license restoration or clearance case, and it is absolutely key to winning. Indeed, it is precisely because we put in that kind of time and effort that our practice guarantees to win every first time restoration and clearance appeal we take.
Many people come to us knowing that they have had a troubled relationship to alcohol, but also adamant that they’re not an “alcoholic,” whatever that really means.
What is an alcoholic?
Even though most of our clients are NOT currently in AA, those who do attend meetings usually find it much easier embrace the idea that they’re “alcoholic.” This is because they understand that term in a much broader way than most people, and are more inclined to lump anyone who has a troubled relationship to alcohol into that category.
In and of itself, this is not a bad thing, especially if it helps a person understand that he or she has come to the point where they simply cannot drink again.
Here’s where things get a bit slippery: Back in May of 2013, a huge change took place relative to the official diagnostic terms for alcohol problems. Previously, a person either had no problem, or suffered from alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence. Although it’s a bit of an overgeneralization, “alcohol abuse” roughly equalled a “drinking problem,” while “alcohol dependence” roughly equated to “alcoholic.”
When the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, fifth edition) came out, the old diagnoses of alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence were scrapped, and instead, drinking problems were covered under the single diagnostic term of “alcohol use disorder,” and further sub-categorized as either mild, moderate, or severe.
Interestingly, there is not and never has been an actual, formal diagnosis of “alcoholic.”
Yet for all of that, we all have an idea of what is meant when a person is described as an alcoholic. Unfortunately, that often conjures up images of the worst sort, although not so much for people in AA, who, as I noted previously, tend to use that term to describe anyone who has struggled with his or her drinking and needs to stop.
In the real world, lots of people who know they have a drinking problem, but who haven’t yet gotten ahold of it, will almost reflexively point to someone else and say that person’s drinking is “worse.” They’ll say things like, “I may drink too much, but I’m not as bad as him; he’s an alcoholic…”
It’s a natural defense mechanism.
It’s very different for people who go to AA. Although it’s not always helpful for anyone who has an issue with alcohol having to accept and work through being labeled an “alcoholic,” AA does teach people that, as we saw in part 1 of this article, it’s not how often or how much one drinks that defines a drinking problem, but rather whether or not his or her drinking does, however infrequently, lead to problems.
Thus, you’ll hear someone in AA say something like “I thought that because I only drank once in a while I couldn’t be an alcoholic, but I learned that you don’t have to drink every day to be one.”
While that’s true, it’s also true that use of the word “alcoholic” can be a barrier for some people to get over a drinking problem. It would be just as accurate and easy to say “I thought that because I only drank once in a while I couldn’t have a drinking problem, but I learned that you don’t have to drink every day to have one.”
To be clear, AA does get this part of things right: the use of the term “alcoholic” within that program is broad and inclusive, and is NOT limited to just old, dried up, last-gasp drunks. Unfortunately, that tends to be the image that pops in most people’s minds when they hear the word “alcoholic,” and that alone can scare some people off.
Back in part 1, we clarified the meaning of the adage that “anything that causes a problem IS a problem” to be understood that when a behavior begins causing issues in a person’s life, it’s a problem. One of AA’s most popular sayings puts it best: “I didn’t get in trouble every time I drank, but every time I got in trouble, I had been drinking.”
This has a lot of application in the world of Michigan driver’s license restoration and out-of state clearance cases, but as we’ll see, it is not all consistent.
Circling back to the legal requirements to win a license appeal, let’s remember that a person must prove 2 things:
First, that his or her alcohol problem is “under control,” meaning that he or she has not consumed any alcohol for a legally sufficient period of time, and
Second, that his or her alcohol problem is “likely to remain under control,” meaning that he or she has both the ability and commitment to never drink again.
The whole driver’s license appeal process begins with an assumption that a person’s drinking has become a problem. You cannot win a license appeal until you accept that your drinking was problematic and that you’ve quit for good. Believe it or not, we get a lot of pushback from callers on the idea that a person’s drinking is or was problematic, and one of the more common things we hear is something like, “they want me to say I’m an alcoholic…!”
This misses the point.
In the first place, the whole idea that a person’s relationship has resulted in multiple DUI’s that have cost him or her the ability to drive speaks for itself.
Again: anything that causes a problem IS a problem.
Moreover, in the context of someone considering a license appeal, we’re talking about him or her having been convicted of multiple DUI’s. Of course, a person can make a mistake and get a single DUI without it being symptomatic of any kind of troubled relationship to alcohol.
However, when a person starts racking up his or her 2nd (or 3rd, or 4th, etc.) DUI, it means something is amiss with their drinking. This does NOT necessarily mean that he or she is drinking too often, or has become some kind of hardcore drinker.
Instead, it can simply mean that, as infrequently as the person does drink, and for as many times as he or she can drink moderately and normally, there is just “something there” that, every once in a while, can cause them to lose the ability to properly self-regulate when he or she does. In other words, it just means that sometimes, when they do drink, trouble follows.
That’s enough to BE a problem, and the Michigan Secretary of State sees it exactly as such.
If you were going to buy a house and found out the living room floor had collapsed in it once before, on a previous owner, you’d probably be rather careful about making sure it was properly repaired before you bought it.
If you learned that the floor had collapsed twice in the past, on 2 previous owners, you would be very skeptical about buying the house and might just conclude there it has some kind of “problem” with it. At that point, you probably be wary enough to to care too much exactly what that problem really is, even if it was just the case that the place is habitually unlucky.
We’ll stop here for now, and then return, in part 5, to see how the idea of a problematic relationship with alcohol and the notion of being an “alcoholic” plays out in a driver’s license restoration or clearance case.