Guy Walks Into a Bar

Ruminations on alcoholic schizophrenia.

Thanks to Senate hopeful Mike McGavick and Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Robert Jamieson, regaling the public with stories of drunken excess followed by repentance or newfound sobriety is the hot posture this fall.

McGavick, as is well known, volunteered that he was cited for DUI in Maryland in 1993. Later, when it came to light that the Republican candidate fudged a few details of said DUI, Jamieson took him to task in a Sept. 6 column for not telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Finally, on Sept. 21, Jamieson, on the one-year anniversary of his own sobriety, reminded readers that he was a reformed drunk who came within a hairbreadth of getting a DUI himself.

One of the oldest myths in journalism is that you get some of your best story ideas on a barstool. The cool thing about this myth is it's actually true. Which is why it's really too bad that Jamieson climbed on the wagon rather than making a serious attempt at managing his behavior. (Jamieson, a good columnist who was better when he drank, did not answer repeated requests for comment.)

Maybe it's just ignorance. According to University of Washington clinical psychologist G. Alan Marlatt, the 12-step recovery model—wherein one must surrender to a higher spiritual power and never touch another drop of liquor again—accounts for 90 percent of all rehab programs in the United States. But it's not the only model that works.

"If you don't accept 12 step, you're told that you're going to go out and hit bottom," says Marlatt, who conducts much of his field research in a full-service retro-'80s lounge, aka "BARLAB," housed in Room 242 of Guthrie Annex 2 on UW's campus. "That's helped a lot of people, but one out of two people who go to Alcoholics Anonymous never go back. So there's got to be room for other approaches."

Marlatt prefers harm reduction and moderation management, where total sobriety isn't necessarily the objective—although if a client freely desires to give up drinking altogether, that becomes the goal. "We give [clients] an individualized safe-drinking program," he says, based on an exhaustive assessment of an individual's behavior. "You have driving courses to be safe drivers. We teach people to be safe drinkers."

But abstinence-only rehab is big business. Hence, concerted attempts by moderation-management and harm- reduction advocates to snatch potential abstainers are typically shouted down. (It didn't help when Audrey Kishline, the self-avowed founder of Moderation Management—which sponsors support groups similar to AA—killed two people in a vodka-fueled crash on I-90 in March 2000.) Then there's the increasingly aggressive agenda of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Candy Lightner, whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver, was quoted last year in USA Today as saying of the organization she founded in 1980: "They've become very neo- prohibitionist in their philosophy. I encouraged them to focus on the hard-drinking driver vs. what's commonly known as the social drinker."

Says MADD National President Glynn Birch."[We're] not against adults 21 and older drinking responsibly."

Yet if you look at MADD's position statements and merchandise, the organization's disdain for drinking in general is undeniable. One of MADD's posters has a beer bottle fashioned to look like a heroin syringe, while another shows a pitcher of beer being dumped into a toilet with the tag line "Drinking Wastes Your Potential."

"They have to perpetuate the business that is MADD Inc.," says John Doyle, executive director for the American Beverage Institute, a restaurant industry advocate. "Their highway safety mission has evolved to an antialcohol perspective. They admit they've helped reduce the problem to a hard-core element, so they should step aside and let those who focus on this hard-core element step in."

"[Doyle's] job is to keep drunk drivers on the streets," replies MADD's Birch. "MADD's job is to save lives."

Toss in the United States' drinking age—the highest in the world—and you've got a culture whose relationship with booze is schizophrenic at best.

"By making the drinking age 21, we've actually made drinking more of a sign of adulthood, whereas it's not a sign of adulthood in many European societies," says David Hanson, a former SUNY-Potsdam sociology professor and one of the abstinence movement's favorite whipping boys. "In Italy, if young people drink excessively, their peers criticize them for it. They have a different idea toward alcohol; they see it as food. We tend to view it is as poison."

"People under 21 do drink," adds Doyle, whose organization takes no position on whether to lower the legal drinking age. "And because it's illegal, they drink in unsupervised settings and drink all they purchase because they can't go home and put it in the refrigerator."

Hanson advocates lowering the drinking age and giving young drinkers the equivalent of a learner's permit. "In my world, the goal would be to teach moderation to young people who we expect will choose to drink when they are adults," he says.

"AA popularized the idea that the only way to deal with alcoholism is not to drink at all," Hanson adds. "People just came to take that as a tenet of faith. The common logic is people can't drink in moderation, in spite of evidence that people can."

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