In this 5th part of this series, we’re going to continue our examination, from part 4, of how the specific nature of a person’s relationship to alcohol is more important than any label term (like “alcoholic”), within the context of Michigan DUI and driver’s license restoration cases. Here, we’re going to flip things around a bit and see how such labels, however obsolete in the clinical setting, still linger in people’s minds, and how that plays a role in the license appeal process.
In license restoration cases, my team and I see every stage of alcohol problems, from the very mildest to, those who were that kind of last-gasp drinker, to everyone in-between. As I noted before, nobody goes from being a normal drinker one day to a full-blown, dried-up, last gasp drunk the next. The Michigan Secretary of State knows that a troubled relationship to alcohol builds over time. As a result, its primary concern is where a person is with that, both in terms of their past drinking and whether or not he or she truly believes they can’t ever drink again.
As pointed out in part 3, AA people tend to identify as “alcoholic” more than everyone else, and they do that independent of any formal diagnosis. In other words, an AA member that might otherwise merely be characterized as having a “drinking problem,” more than being any kind of “alcoholic,” is still more likely to simply describe him or herself as alcoholic as opposed to someone who is not in AA. The reason this matters is because, by accepting that label, the person also accepts that he or she cannot ever safely drink again, and knows that, if they do ever pick up again, it’s nothing less than a relapse.
Before going further, let me head off a big misconception here: AA is NOT necessary to win a driver’s license appeal. That’s a simple, indisputable fact. Our office guarantees to win every first time driver’s license restoration and clearance case we take.
Each year, we handle well over 200 driver’s license restoration and clearance cases, and a large majority of those we take and win are for people who are not currently active in AA, although many had gone in the past, even if they only did so to comply with a probation requirement.
As a result, the Michigan Secretary of State can’t help but notice that people who are involved in AA usually describe themselves as an “alcoholic,” not because they are trying to label the severity of their relationship with alcohol, but rather because they have simply accepted that, whatever the actual clinical diagnosis of that relationship might be, the bottom line is that the person has passed the point where he or she is no longer a normal drinker, and therefore cannot consume alcohol anymore – ever again.
That’s not to say that people who embrace AA don’t ever go back to drinking, but rather that those who do slip also know that they shouldn’t be drinking, and that the only way for them to make things better is quit all over again.
There are certain concepts and takeaways from AA that are very helpful for people to maintain sobriety, especially in early recovery. Even those who never go to AA will be exposed to some of these lessons, if not from AA, then through counseling or other sources. These “lessons” includes sayings like, “I didn’t get in trouble every time I drank, but every time I got in trouble, I had been drinking,” and one I think is among the most important for anyone who has recently stopped drinking, “Avoid wet faces and wet places.”
If we take a step back and look at AA, or any kind of community support program, and even one-on-one, individual counseling, we can ask, “What’s the point of it?”
In other words, why is a person going, and what do we want him or her to get out of it?
Well, the truth is, we want them to get more or less the same thing we’d want them to get out of Weight Watchers, if they started going. If your friend starts following Weight Watchers, or any similar weight loss program, their goal is to lose some pounds, right?
It’s the same when someone takes steps to address his or her drinking: we want them to get the tools necessary to help them stop. We want them to “get it,” and to get better.
Of course, there will be those attend AA or counseling or treatment just to “go through the motions,” often just to satisfy someone else, or to comply with a probation requirement. There will also be people who think they can learn enough at AA or through counseling to somehow “get a handle” on their drinking.
That is 100% guaranteed to fail.
You can’t quit drinking for someone else, nor can you ever learn to limit or manage your drinking once it has become a problem. When a person’s drinking has become problematic, the only way to fix it is to quit – period. Lots of people waste lots of time – years, decades, and even whole lives – learning this the hard way, if ever.
A client once put it to me like this: the moment you even have to think about controlling, limiting or managing your alcohol use, it means you have a problem. Normal drinkers don’t have to think that way.
Think about this analogy: I have had heard people talk about having gone to the casino for fun over the weekend. Usually, because I have no interest in that kind of activity, I’ll politely reply something to the effect that I couldn’t afford to do that and lose my money.
Some folks will promptly explain that they have a “system” in place to make sure that doesn’t happen to them – like, for example, only taking as much money with them as they can afford to lose, and not having a credit or debit card on them from which they can get a cash advance.
Frankly, I find that kind of shocking; I could be dropped off at a casino with $10,000 cash on me, and I wouldn’t worry about losing more than about $20 of it. I don’t have any kind of problem with gambling (of course, this is in large part because I don’t gamble and don’t really like to gamble; I have to be reminded by my wife to buy a Powerball ticket when the jackpot creeps into the hundreds of millions of dollars and it’s kind of crazy to not at least drop a couple of bucks to have a chance).
The idea that someone has to have some kind of plan to NOT lose too much money at a casino means that gambling is risky for him or her in the first place. And, consistent with what we’ve said about drinking through all the installments of this article, it doesn’t matter how often the person goes to a casino or not, it simply matters that, when they do go, there’s a risk that things can get out of hand.
For people who have developed any kind of troubled relationship to alcohol, no plans to control, limit or manage their drinking ever works out in the long run. A person may be able to pull it off once in a while and limit his or her drinking on this or that occasion, but most of the time, if not all of the time, those good intentions get drowned out by booze.
This is where the general notion of “alcoholic” as used by AA people can be helpful. Remember, AA makes very clear that “the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.”
A person can go to a meeting and listen to someone who drank all day, every day, for decades on end and then, when it’s their turn to talk, say that they only drank a few times a year, but once they acknowledge that their drinking began to cause problem, that’s enough for them to call themselves an alcoholic – at least in that setting.
AA people don’t try to classify or categorize anyone’s drinking problems. It doesn’t matter, in that context, what a person’s clinical diagnosis is (alcohol abuse disorder, either mild, moderate, or severe), but rather that he or she can see how their use of alcohol became the common denominator to all the problems in their life.
At the tables of AA, you can find people who would never meet the classic definition of alcoholic calling themselves an alcoholic.
Here’s why that’s relevant to license appeals: however imprecise using the “term” alcoholic may be, and independent of whether a person who calls him or herself that has the ability to stay sober for life, at least he or she won’t be able to convince themselves that it’s okay if they do start drinking again.
The term “alcoholic” is old, and so, within the context of the state’s license appeal process, is much of the thinking that surrounds its use. The reader surely understands that institutions and institutional thinking changes slowly.
Consider this: For about 100 years, the idea of hanging up the phone meant, quite literally, having up the receiver. The advent of cordless phones began to change that mechanical requirement, and now, even those are passé, and almost everyone uses cell phones exclusively.
Even today, if you misdial a number, you can get a recording that says “if you’d like to make a call, hang up and try again…”
Technically speaking, you can’t end a cell phone call by “hanging up.” Instead, you press the “end call” button.
Even though that’s the case, almost everyone still says “hang up.” Who would say something like, “she got mad and ended the call with me.”?
Nobody! Everyone would say, instead, that “she got mad and hung up on me.”
So it is the case that, often, our imprecise use of words and phrases still has relevance to the way we understand things, and that certainly holds true in the context of license restoration cases.
Even though this is all a bit fuzzy right now, we’ll break here, and then come back, in part 6 to clarify this further and finish up our examination of terms, and particularly how the label “alcoholic” is used in driver’s license restoration and clearance appeals.