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Celebrating, Surviving Holidays

Celebrating, surviving holidays: Problem drinkers can turn to a range of recovery groups for help that suits their nature.

By Jennifer Desai

Almanac Correspondent

"No kid says, 'I' m gonna be an alcoholic when I grow up,' " Ernie says. "But a lot of us find ourselves grown up, and find ourselves here."

For Ernie, "here" is a classroom at Menlo Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, but it could be almost anywhere -- anywhere Alcoholics Anonymous hosts its roster of weekly meetings for people who have had problems related to alcohol, and who want to stop drinking.
During the holiday season, when many of us get caught up in a round of parties and seasonal activities, alcohol is seen as a social lubricant, a way of "making merry." But for many people, that lubricant becomes a way of life, and it's anything but social.

That's why Alcoholics Anonymous and programs like it are so important for many people, especially at holiday time. Women for Sobriety, a self-help program for female alcoholics, estimates that there are 7.5 million women who are alcoholics in the United States alone, enough to equal the total populations of Maine, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and Utah. Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the largest and best-known recovery programs, claims to have helped 2 million alcoholics attain recovery this year.

Because of the stigma alcoholism still carries, and the fact that many people who suspect they have a problem delay treatment, then attend several different support groups simultaneously, it's hard to estimate how many alcoholics there are in the United States.

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, more than 100,000 Americans die from alcohol-related causes each year -- five times the number of deaths caused by all illicit drugs combined. That's 100,000 deaths too many for AA, WFS, Rational Recovery, Smart Recovery and other groups for people who want to stop drinking.

But people who face alcohol dependency also face a number of hurdles, particularly at holiday time. The chief problem is, simply, denial: Alcohol, as alcoholics from AA tend to stress, can be "baffling, cunning and powerful" when someone is in its grip, and quite often friends and family members must take drastic measures to convince the loved one that there actually is a problem at all.

"It's the problem of having an addicted brain," says Ernie, who attends AA meetings all over San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, whenever he can. "It gets you into what AA calls "Stinking Thinking," that feeling that you're all alone, you can figure things out on your own, and you might as well be left alone to drink if you feel like it."

Making merry, making choices

Many recovery counselors say that admitting you have a problem is half the battle toward finding a solution to it. But even after a person is willing to call him- or herself an alcoholic -- or something less drastic-sounding, like "problem drinker" -- the decision to not drink has to become habitual. And when drinking has become the way to relax, to handle stress or anger or the thousand tiny annoyances any person must face on a daily basis, another coping mechanism has to be found to replace the old addictive behavior.
"Whenever I got angry, or lonely, or tired, it was the natural thing for me to have a drink, and I couldn't stop at one drink," says Catherine, who joined AA three months ago. "I'm just now starting to learn there are other ways of coping. I can call someone. I can go for a walk. It seems so simple, but part of the program is learning the simple things you thought you already knew."

Making choices, finding alternatives

It's a sobering process all around for people who commit to a recovery program to stop drinking. But while recovery programs like AA, WFS, Smart Recovery and Rational Recovery are similar in their attempt to address the problem of problem drinking, they disagree, often wildly, when it comes to methodology. And while that debate can be fascinating from the sidelines, such controversy can cloud the issues for people who really need help, counselors say.
"If a person wants to stop drinking and goes to a program where that's supported, I don't care if it's AA, Smart Recovery, or whatever else. We're not selling a brand name, or claiming the only way to recovery," says Gary, a counselor and five-year veteran of AA.

Basically, the recovery programs tend to fall into one of two camps: the 12-step programs, of which Women for Sobriety and AA are the best-known; and alternative, secular organizations such as Smart Recovery and Rational Recovery.

"I had a problem with AA, a real problem, starting with the first of the 12 steps and ending with the second," says John, a Rational Recovery advocate who responded to an e-mail query about the program. "Step One is accepting that your life had become unmanageable, which my drinking life wasn't; and Step Two says you have to turn to a higher power. I didn't like the approach, I didn't like the God talk, and I didn't want to sign on for a series of meetings for the rest of my life, where I'd be told I had an incurable disease."

In part because of its high-profile position as perhaps the best-known fellowship for alcoholism treatment and also because of its emphasis on a "higher power" to which AA members are expected to entrust their lives, Alcoholics Anonymous remains controversial, even as it remains a mainstay for alcohol-dependent people.

But for people like John, who are unwilling to call their lives while they were drinking "unmanageable" or who don't believe in a higher power, there are alternatives, Smart Recovery and Rational Recovery among them. These programs, which rely on psychological principles that can be applied when drinkers who don't want to drink are faced with offers of alcohol, rely on the reasoning capacity of individuals, rather than the support of a group or the intervention of a higher power or God.

The other main difference is that, unlike AA and other programs that accept the notion of alcoholism being an incurable disease, Smart Recovery and Rational Recovery both stress non-drinking techniques for participants to practice whether they continue to attend meetings after they stop drinking or not.

"I know I have an addictive voice in my brain, and it wants me to drink," John says. "I can make the decision to defeat that voice, with the techniques I've learned. But I don't have to say my life was unmanageable or give myself up to a god I don't believe in. I can make the choice to drink or not, and I choose to never drink again. It works for me."

Choosing the mainstay

Catherine, on the other hand, says AA is where she feels most comfortable, even if she still doesn't quite feel comfortable in her own skin. Just 90 days sober, she says she attends AA meetings from Santa Clara to San Mateo counties, but prefers a women's weekly meeting she's helping to publicize. Conducted in San Jose and convening every Sunday afternoon, the meeting is a bit of a hike but worth it, she says.
"I'm not a person that deals well with the God talk. When people started telling me there was a higher power, I thought, 'yeah, right.' And I do feel a little uncomfortable with some of AA's Big Book philosophy about women and alcohol -- you can tell AA was started decades ago when you read some of that stuff! But I'm sober, and I'm working the program, and trying to make it work for me," she says.

For Catherine, the continuing fellowship, the emphasis that she has a blameless disease called alcoholism and can modify her behavior but not her personal tendency toward alcoholic destruction, and the reassuring presence of other women going through the same struggle keeps her sober.

"I think you have to take help where you can get it," she says. "I think of my higher power as intelligence, as electricity. Because I can't think of it as God or a bearded guy in the sky. But it works. That intelligence works," she exclaims, her face alight as if with electricity she's generating herself. "I hate the holidays, and I just want to make it through the season with that sobriety in place. I want to be able to look myself in the mirror next January."

With an estimated 30 percent of young men and 10 percent of young women reporting health problems associated with alcohol, according to the American Medical Association, 25-year-old Catherine is not alone. And as the holidays approach and people feel, increasingly, the alienation and isolation that alcohol makes worse for the alcoholic, it seems petty to quibble about methods.

As Gary says, "Whatever keeps an alcoholic sober keeps that person alive for another day, and makes miracles possible."


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