The AA Member Who Drinks

I know Tom Mullen from the court system in New Jersey, where he seeks long-term residential treatment alternatives for defendants with drug and alcohol problems. He is 66 years old, and has been married for 43 years. In 1998, he had two cancer operations, from which he has recovered.

Tom received a medical discharge for “war neurosis,” an earlier version of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and he has been on disability ever since. Tom tried to go to college. But he had a series of nervous breakdowns, alternating with binges of substance abuse. He was a heavy drinker, and then starting taking codeine and heroin after being in the hospital.Tom was raised on a farm. He won several amateur boxing crowns as a young man. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, he joined the marines. He was wounded severely in 1952, ending up in a recuperation hospital in the County where we both now live.

Tom worked at diners and retail stores. He had several abstinent periods of up to eighteen months and two years. His relapses were often precipitated by nightmares. Tom would go on drinking binges that lasted 3-10 days. He kept pints of vodka in the glove compartment of his car or in the water tank of the bathroom at home or work. He also took drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, and amphetamines. Tom did give heroin up around 1962.

Tom first went to AA in 1964 to pacify his family. He was a frequent visitor to the VA hospital for alcohol or stress-related treatment until 1974. There, he became involved with a Vietnam Veterans’ group. These sessions included discussions of PTSD along with alcohol and drugs. Even while attending these groups, he still didn’t clean up totally. He finally did quit drugs, but continued to binge drink until 1983.

From 1984 to 1994, Tom avoided all drugs and alcohol, and returned to AA. His nightmares lessened, and he could deal with them without drinking.

In 1994, Tom became confident that he could drink. He started by drinking a little bit of wine; then he had highballs and beers. In the five years since he has resumed drinking, he has never had more than one or two drinks in a single day. Tom might drink once a month or less, often with service buddies. (Note that George Vaillant, a Harvard psychiatrist and researcher and a member of AA’s international board, defines this level of drinking as abstinence.)

Tom accepts the principles of AA. He believes he was able to resume controlled drinking because he was only “psychologically addicted” to alcohol. Tom is convinced he will avoid alcoholism: “No way on God’s earth that it will ever bite me again.”

Tom avoids the topic of controlled drinking at AA, since nobody there ever asks him. He still announces in AA, “My name is Tom. I’m an alcoholic/drug addict and I will never be anything else.” He reports he has been sober for 15 years. And he preaches abstinence for others. “I was 60 years old before I could really drink.”

Tom’s father “died with a bottle in his hand.” His daughter is a recovering alcoholic. His mother also drank a lot – at least three beers a day – but she was not a “drunk.” Furthermore, Tom had four uncles who were alcoholics, and a brother with a drinking problem. Tom believes alcoholism is inherited.

Tom now plays a valuable role in the Morris County court system, gaining treatment opportunities for people that he feels really help many of them. “If only I had found this calling earlier, I could have made many more contributions in life.”

What’s the point of Tom’s story? There are many ways to sobriety. Although, as I showed in last month’s column (“Maturing Out“), it is usually people who avoid AA and treatment who moderate their drinking, it is not only these people.

When I told a friend in AA about my column about Tom, he immediately raised a stream of objections. “Have you followed him to see how long he can keep this up?” When I asked, “What about all the abstainers who fall off the wagon,” my friend responded, “That’s part of the program – alcoholism is a chronic relapsing disease.”

Why do my friend – and so many others who are in AA or treatment – find it necessary to discount Tom’s story? Why can’t they respect his integrity and his hard-fought sobriety? In other words, why can’t there be pluralism in alcoholism treatment and outcomes?

Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.


  • Katy says:

    Hi everyone,
    I’m so glad I stumbled across this!
    Here’s my humble contribution and it’s subjective…
    My drinking had definitely gotten out of control and I needed help. I went to AA for a couple of years, did a lot of service, looked for all the identification, attended meetings daily, did my 90/90 etc, etc. I had a sponsor and made sure I shared in meetings regularly.
    I came to realise that my attitude towards alcohol had completely changed and tested the waters with a single bottled beer. I did not crave another. I won’t criticise AA but I will admit skepticism. The utter black and white approach that indoctrinates the belief into you that if you ‘pick up’ it’ll be worse than before, isn’t true for me.
    I don’t rely on alcohol as a crutch, as I once did, and I don’t drink regularly. It is wonderful not to have to label myself an alcoholic and it’s fabulous to be able to have a nice glass of wine when out for a meal with friends or my partner. It’s also marvellous not to feel compelled to have a drink at all! For instance, I still won’t have any alcohol at all if I am driving. And I don’t mind being the designated driver.
    I once believed none of the above was possible, due to the AA message. Whilst this is probably true for most, it wasn’t for me. I’m pleased I looked in between the black and white of the programme…
    I still do service in AA and attend occasional meetings, but I don’t rely on it to keep me 100% sober, as I have now drunk safely for many years.
    I will always be grateful to AA for helping me to stop drinking when I felt unable to do so by myself. And I’m ever glad to have met a lot of wonderful people in the fellowship. I chose, much like a buffet, what worked for me, and eventually got to where I am today.

    There is a big BUT… I won’t tell my AA buddies that I now drink occasionally and safely. Why? I know the response won’t be positive. The assumption will be that I am tempting fate and that one day I’ll be getting pissed on the daily. I’m confident it won’t.

  • Melissa says:

    I just recently made the decision to bring alcohol back into my life after being a serious AA member for almost 5 years. I have so much love and gratitude for what AA and the sober women in my life have done for me.. I truly am a new person than I was 5 years ago, and I wouldn’t take back any of the harsh, hard work that was passed to me to do. The last 8 months I have found a diverse community that tries to shred the identifications that separate us from being a community. I had this urge to stop labeling myself as an addict for my past life when in fact, I have a totally new life and perspective to keep growing with.
    I found this new way of looking at myself and have felt like I have finally shed the identity of only being an addict. We all struggle with something and for some reason AA had kept me feeling apart from a bigger picture. Now, I have no clue where this decision will take me.. I have drank 3 times in the last week and for the most part felt amazing and a new freedom. The voices of AA have haunted me the first time, and reading this blog had me in tears knowing I am not the only one.
    What is beautiful about having awareness is the acceptance that I will be ok no matter what. If I start to have issues with drinking, I know I can bring in the tools and support that helped me the first time. I want to take this risk so I can understand my belief more that this life is about having spiritual connections and selflessness.. not judgements and black and white thinking around what we put into our bodies.
    I am so thankful for everyone’s share and would love to join a support group for women as I embark on this new chapter if anyone has any recommendations!!

  • Sylvia says:

    After 18 years of sobriety and working the ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) program. I have started to drink moderately. The desire to have one more is not there. Getting down to the true causes and conditions is what has truly helped me “clean out the wound” and deal with painful PTSD as a child. I allow myself to feel the and have learned to breathe again. That is the only way I will get through it when I am emotionally triggered. Really would like to talk to others who ae still attending AA meetings after they started drinking again (not alcoholically). Does anyone happen to know about a meeting that runs like that on Zoom?
    Thank you,


  • Amy Moore says:

    Social drinking after A.A. and sobriety Is it possible?

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