Debunking the myth about “one little sip”

How Moderation Management is reshaping the way America views alcoholism

Nigel Sumerlin

Editor’s Note: While AA works for some, and even though Adventism and Union College don't condone the consumption of alcohol, we understand that for those struggling with addiction, options to overcome such vices must be talked about.

Growing up at a Seventh-day Adventist boarding academy, I remember attending a celebration of the school janitor’s 20th anniversary being married to his wife. He gave a speech, thanking his wife for her support in their journey out of alcoholism. Partway into their marriage, he told us, they had both joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Although they both saw themselves as alcoholics, they had been sober for more than a decade.

This janitor was very open about his history and ready to share with the students and the community of staff where he had come from and how he had escaped. At one of his worship talks in the men’s dorm, we were told that just one drink would catapult him into the despair of his old lifestyle. Prayer and surrender to God, he exhorted, was the only thing separating him from the shackles of alcoholism.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was established in 1935. Since then, its message of complete abstinence from alcohol has become the most widely accepted form of treatment. When other forms of recovery were tested and shown to be successful, they were overshadowed by American’s acceptance that AA was the best way to escape from the carnage alcoholism inflicts upon its victims.

The AA “bible,” otherwise known at the Big Book, asserts that 75 percent of people who use AA and give it their full effort recover. But this is a broad assertion, given that the nature of AA is anonymity and the program is notoriously difficult to study. Nonetheless, Lance Dodes, a retired professor at Harvard Medical School extensively studied retention rates and sobriety of AA members. His findings, published in his book “The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry,” were far from encouraging, showing that the actual success rate of AA is somewhere between five and eight percent.

“The Handbook of Alcoholism Treatment Approaches” ranked various treatment methods. Out of 48 different methods, AA ranked a low 38. Despite being the most popular treatment program for recovering alcoholics in America, AA is far from being the most effective.

A close friend of mine’s mother is a recovering alcoholic. My friend vividly remembers her mother’s first DUI, and the consequences she received in court. Among fines and restrictions, the judge required my friend’s mother to regularly attend AA meetings for two months. Indeed, 12 percent of AA members today are required to be there by court order.

My friend also distinctly remembers her mother’s second DUI, and the many different prescription drugs she abused after her stint with AA. Although many who do not find success in AA undoubtedly have not committed to their own recovery, this story shows the futility of treating AA as a cure for alcoholism for everyone.

Hope still abounds for those struggling with alcohol abuse, though. Many different methods besides AA exist for treating alcoholism. One that is quickly gathering attention is an organization called Moderation Management (MM).

In her article for “The Guardian,” Amy Girvan describes MM as starting off with a 30 day stint with no alcohol, followed by a slow reintroduction of alcohol and a strict plan to limit intake. This program is a flexible way of controlling an alcohol habit, without the painful guilt and self-loathing that recovering alcoholics often inflict upon themselves after one small misstep.

According to the organization’s director, Marc Kern, “The current status of the addiction field is based 97% on this black and white idea that you’re either an addict or you’re not, and if you’re an addict the only path is abstinence.”

This new program provides a method of delivery where MM members feel like they have a sense of control over their problem, and takes away the devastation from slipping into old habits. Members feel like their support group and the program meet them halfway and work with them towards recovery.

There’s a lesson to be learned from the way MM treats people who want to limit their alcohol consumption. Things aren’t as black and white as we like believe, and finding the best solution often means accepting that there is a whole spectrum of grey where people land.

A single drink or even a night of drunkenness doesn't immediately constitute an addiction, or qualify a person for an extensive rehabilitation program such as First Step. Although many people have been rescued by the strict abstinence AA promotes, many have been driven to anguish and further drinking by that very same approach. Demonizing alcohol can often be destructive and cause more problems than it prevents. Compassion and understanding has far greater potential to encourage people to be responsible and safe than harsh punishment or scolding could ever hope for.

Nigel is a freshman pursuing a double major in history and psychology.