Who says you’re an alcoholism expert?


James Sullivan wrote:

What are your credentials to qualify you to answer questions concerning alcoholism?

Dear James:

My qualifications are the evidence provided by the insight and knowledge I display on this site. Don’t you agree I’m qualified? Both in the US and internationally, people have been paying me to lecture, accepting my articles for publication and buying my books, and seeking advice and treatment from me for decades. Did you read the accolades on site from prominent figures in the field, counselors, and people with drinking problems, like the man who claims I saved his life? Also, don’t forget that the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies presented me its 1989 Mark Keller Award for my exceptional work in the field—and who can argue with the Rutgers Alcohol Center?

Of course, others have been arguing that I don’t understand the disease of alcoholism like every member of AA does (sometimes they quote chapter and verse from The Big Book to prove their case). Let me guess—you think that having been a drunk for many years qualifies a person as an expert on alcoholism. When you think about it, that’s a pretty unique conception. After all, we don’t turn treatment of the mentally ill over to people who have emotional problems themselves. (Ethan Nadelmann, Director of the Lindesmith Center, puts it this way: “You don’t get a bankrupt person to advise you on financial matters.”)

Consider this—if people who spend a lot of their lives drunk actually understand less about the role of alcohol in their lives and about their needs and motivations than other people, and we insist on giving such people prominent places in treating alcoholism and creating alcohol policy, we could be doing exactly the wrong thing! Add to this the fact that AA members seem incapable of apprehending any other point of view than the one they believe has led them to salvation, and you can see why it is we deal with alcohol so unsuccessfully in this country.

If on the other hand you agree that I provide exceptional insights and knowledge about alcoholism, disregard all of the above, and my compliments to you on your keen understanding of alcohol problems.

Best regards,

My friend, I was merely inquiring as to your academic credentials!

Oh, sorry!

I have a Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Michigan, which I entered because it was the best in the country in this field. But they had nothing about addiction when I was there. Nonetheless, I began to write Love and Addiction before leaving graduate school.

One group of people become involved in this field because of their personal or family problems with alcohol. They are compelled, as though by unconscious forces, into the field. Others, like me, can say they have not been addicted or alcoholic and that no member of their family abused substances (other than my Uncle Oscar, whose cessation of smoking I often speak about). People in the latter group usually say something like, “I got involved in addiction/alcohol studies by accident.” Robin Room and others say they came to college or graduate school and found a program in which they became interested, because it was there and they liked what the program was doing.

But my entire conscious life has been absorbed by reflections on consciousness, behavior, and loss of control —in a word, addiction—particularly due to the use of substances like drugs and alcohol. When I was growing up in South Philly, a neighbor would become raving drunk and people would have to carry him home. I pondered for hours (at the age of 5) why a person would put himself in such a position. My mother was highly abstemious, and I pondered her view of this man and his behavior.

At the age of seven, I was reading the Sunday issue of the Philadelphia Bulletin, which included a magazine. An article in the magazine described a man who was hospitalized for alcoholism. While in the hospital, his wife moved. The man came home, only to be confronted by piles of boxes arrayed all over the new apartment. He immediately turned around and went on an alcoholic binge. I thought, “I don’t know alcoholics, but I know people who react to stress and challenge by freaking out, making it even less possible for them to confront and overcome the challenges in their life.”

Although I went to a heavy-drinking, fraternity college (the University of Pennsylvania), I knew almost no one there who drank excessively. I was in something called the Honors Program for talented students. Later in college, I did meet and know people whose lives were absorbed in drugs, albeit for the most part middle-class substances like marijuana and LSD. Nearly all of these people went on to medical, law, and professional schools and became highly paid and successful professionals.

Do you believe that addicts and alcoholics have an entirely different way of thinking from nonalcoholics and nonaddicts, or do you think that they follow basic rules of human behavior? I felt that the best insight into addiction and alcoholism was provided by reflecting on my own thinking and fears and those of the people with whom I was intimately connected. Enoch Gordis, Director of the NIAAA thinks this is the wrong approach (he doesn’t actually even think in these terms). Gordis believes alcoholics are in a different world, due to inherited biological differences, which drives them to drink until they are unconscious. He thinks this way because he has no insight into addictive behavior, or behavior at all. And he is wrong, dead wrong.

Stanton Peele

Stanton Peele , recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts by The Fix, 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.

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