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A New Book Offers Advice for Problem Drinkers

Most Americans think the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is the only route to sobriety. Health writer Anne Fletcher doesn't buy that notion. In her new book Sober for Good: Solutions for Drinking Problems--Advice From Those Who Have Succeeded, she offers some alternative solutions for problem drinkers.

Fletcher, a best-selling author, tells how hundreds of people conquered their drinking problems without AA in her book. She says people can quit on their own or may not have to quit altogether.

All the people in the book did it their own way. More than half of them did so without AA, many turned to lesser-known recovery groups for help, many quit entirely on their own, and some even have an occasional drink. The book offers a multitude of recovery options in a highly accessible way for people struggling with their alcohol issues, no matter how minor or severe.

Through interviews and surveys, Fletcher identified many common threads in the stories of the interviews, some of which she says shatter many of the myths surrounding alcohol treatment today:

  • You can in fact get sober with or without AA.
  • You don't have to admit you're an "alcoholic" to get sober.
  • You can get sober on your own.
  • You don't have to go to a recovery group forever.
  • One drink doesn't inevitably lead right back to the bottle.
  • You don't have to "hit bottom" before you resolve a serious drinking problem.
  • It is not necessarily impossible for problem drinkers to learn how to drink in moderation.
  • Family and friends can help an unmotivated problem drinker.

Fletcher interviewed 222 people for the book and they come from all walks of life with different sexual orientations and religions. They include attorneys, maintenance workers, topless dancers, and college professors. There are gay and straight people, Christians and atheists, aged between 20 and 80 years. Because the vast majority of people who struggle with alcohol problems are not stereotypical "alcoholics," Fletcher made sure to include a number of less serious problem drinkers. Until now she says there has been little help for them.

So, you are saying that you don't have to be in AA to get sober?

Right and this is controversial to some people. In our country, we have been led to believe that AA is the only way. And that is just not true. It's hard, though, for people to find other options. So 93% of the treatment programs in the United States are based on the 12 steps of AA.

Where did you get the idea for this book?

Well I had written a series of books about weight loss. So I was interested in people who take hold of difficult lifestyles and make permanent changes. I avoided using the word alcoholic in the book, because I think there is a stigma to the label and in fact there is no evidence that calling yourself an alcoholic is actually necessary to overcome a drinking problem. I also had a problem ith alcohol in my 20s--I drank too much--so this also comes from a personal experience.

In the course of writing the book, which is about people who have overcome alcohol problems in many ways, I get to shatter many of the long-held assumptions about recovery which were not necessarily true.

You had a drinking problem yourself?

Yes, I drank a lot in my 20s. I saw where I was headed and did something about my problem before it got really out of hand. I saw a private counselor, although I didn't want someone just to tell me to quit. I tried to drink moderately. So for a while I was drinking in moderation with professional help. But I eventually decided to be abstinent on my own.

How was that experience?

I had long periods in which I stopped drinking and then I would go back again. Then I would drink too much and quit again. This would happen over and over until I finally got sick of it. Then I realized I was much happier when I didn't drink. Also when I id drink, alcohol took up too much of my time.

What type of research did you do to come to the conclusions you talk about in your book?

I recruited 222 people who overcame drinking problems in many different ways. Ninety-seven of them had done the 12-step recovery of AA. The other 125 people recovered in nontraditional ways. I don't pretend this was a scientific study, but I went to leading experts in the field to guide me in the research and writing of this book.

I sent each of the 222 people a seven-page questionnaire that experts helped me design about their drinking history and how they overcame their drinking problems. Then I interviewed many of them one-on-one.

What are some of the ways you say that people can quit drinking without AA?

Twenty-five people in the book quit drinking on their own. The research suggests that there be at least as many people who quit drinking on their own as who quit drinking with help. George W. Bush is a good example of someone who quit on his own.

What are some of the other ways?

Some smaller recovery groups, professional one-on-one counseling, books, and some people use a combination of a few things.

How does AA feel about your book?

I'm sure they know about it, but they haven't let me know yet. I'm not bad-mouthing AA: They have saved millions of lives. I'm only suggesting there are alternatives.

How many people have a drinking problem?

Fourteen million Americans have drinking problems. But only one in ten seeks treatment.

How can you tell if you have a drinking problem?

I came up with these wake-up call questions:

  • Do you always drink to catch a buzz?
  • Do you use alcohol as an escape?
  • Do you drink more than others?
  • Do you often drink more than you intended?
  • Do you avoid medication so you can drink?
  • Do you do things drinking that you wouldn't sober?
  • What should you do if you think you have problem?

Explore the options, depending on how bad the problem is. Most people with drinking problems are not stereotypical brown-bag alcoholics. There is a huge spectrum of problems from relatively minor all the way up to really severe. Most problem drinkers fall in the mild-to-moderate range. Assuming that most people with problems are functioning in everyday life, these people should look at their problems and look at the options to help them quit.

Unlike what AA says, you say some people who conquered a drinking problem can still have an occasional drink?

The vast majority of people who I have surveyed have made a commitment to abstinence. However in my survey and in scientific studies on alcohol recovery, there are a small percentage of people who are able to drink in a nonproblematic way. They are usually people with less severe alcohol problems.

The main reason I address the subject of moderate drinking is that most people who have a drinking problem will not accept a life of abstinence. Therefore a logical first course of action would be to give these people some tools for drinking responsibly.

For example, teaching how many drinks will get your blood alcohol level above the legal limit and measuring your alcohol consumption. However, they should drink in moderation with help from a counselor or a program like Drinkwise or Moderation Management. It does work for some people.

Are you prepared for the negative backlash?

It is interesting, though, I did some local media in Minneapolis and I was on with a recovered chef who was very pro 12 step. But he still liked the book. I think people are just interested in increasing their options.

Tell me about the six myths that you say you shatter about alcohol recovery.

Myth #1: AA is the only way to get sober.

More than half of the people in the book recovered without AA and they show that there are many different options.

Myth #2: You have t "hit bottom."

Many people quit drinking before it wreaks havoc in their lives. You can quit before it gets really serious.

Myth #3: You can't get sober on your own.

Many people get sober completely on their own, which is consistent with scientific studies.

Myth #4: You have to admit you're an "alcoholic."

There is no evidence that labeling yourself an alcoholic is necessary and a number of people never saw themselves that way but they quit nevertheless.

Myth #5: You can't help someone with a drinking problem.

In fact, family and friends can make a difference by motivating a person to take charge with a drinking problem. For example: What doesn't work is nagging, preaching, or complaining. What does work is addressing the problem directly but in a loving way. Different things work for different people.

Myth #6: An "alcoholic" is "in recovery" forever.

Some people see themselves as recovered. Former problem drinkers say they have gotten on with their lves. The idea that you have to keep going to AA for the rest of your life isn't true.

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