Paul Carr and the Wall Street Journal have created a tiny ripple in the recovery community with Mr. Carr’s article this weekend and corresponding interview by Kelsey Hubbard. I hate to bring more attention to this highly irresponsible journalism about what Hubbard herself calls a “serious topic”. But now that it’s out there, we in the personal and professional practice of recovery have a responsibility to set the record straight.
Mr. Carr shares with his audience that he is an alcoholic who has not had a drink for almost 2-1/2 years, though he (inexplicably) advises alcoholics in recovery not to tell anyone if they have relapsed “just once.” So regardless of the amount he has or hasn’t been drinking of late, Mr. Carr’s life seems to be working for him now. I congratulate him and wish for him a long life full of the gifts of sobriety. But I wonder why he is intent on disparaging Alcoholics Anonymous as a means to sobriety when he admits he has never gone to an AA meeting nor read more than a few sentences of the literature? He characterizes AA’s 12 Steps as rigid but then he rigidly rejects AA without trying it. Nowhere in the AA literature does it say that the only way to get sober is by joining AA. But Mr. Carr would have us believe AA is no way to get sober. He doesn’t even realize that the program overlaps somewhat with the “steps” (c’mon, really? steps?) he developed “on his own” to stay sober until now.
I suspect there’s a simple answer to this apparent contradiction: Mr. Carr shares that for him, his ego is his most important tool for staying sober. No wonder AA is anathema to him! The path of recovery in AA is premised on the belief that the ego is more likely to get in the way of sobriety than be of help. The founders of AA knew what worked for them from their own experience, but what we now know about the brain and chemical dependence supports their premise. Chemical dependence disrupts the healthy flow of mood-regulating chemicals in our brain, inhibiting our ability to think rationally in a way that is informed by, but not ruled by, our emotions. For a variety of reasons, this disruption to healthy brain chemistry can outlast the physical dependence on the chemical of abuse. Recent research supports the idea that membership in a long-term, mutual support group (like AA, for example) can be protective when relying strictly on our “ego” or “willpower” isn’t enough.
So for the benefit of those who may need help with their drinking and are wondering where to turn to, let me correct some of the misinformation Mr. Carr is disseminating about AA. First, he mistakenly interprets the First Step as an abdication of responsibility, because it calls on members to admit they are powerless over alcohol. In fact, his interpretation is antithetical to AA. Taken as a whole, the “12 Steps” are designed to support the person in recovery taking full responsibility for his or her actions in the world, as they relate to alcohol and everything else. Strangely, Mr. Carr advocates “taking responsibility,” but criticizes AA members for making amends to people whom their actions have harmed. Only someone like Mr. Carr, whose ego is the driving force of his sobriety, would believe that “staying sober” is the only amends required to rebuild relationships with the people his actions may have harmed! To hear him tell it, he would have us believe that AA advocates making amends instead of staying sober. Making amends as part of a program of recovery is not just empty talk. It’s part of a process by which those in recovery take an honest look at themselves and take responsibility for their lives. Again and again.
Another misrepresentation by Mr. Carr would be comical if it wasn’t potentially damaging to people in need of help: his take on anonymity in AA. The pledge to anonymity is in respect of other people’s stories, not one’s own! To make AA a safe place, members agree not to disclose the identity of others. Nothing prevents someone from joining AA and going public with their own story, as a means of building protection into their daily lives. Indeed, those of us in the profession of helping people stay sober know how protective it is to be open and honest for precisely the reason Mr. Carr suggests: it’s harder to hide or revert to old habits if everyone knows you’re sober. But for some people, “going public” is not the best option at first. For example, it may be too exposing and destabilizing if you have a very limited network of friends or family to support you when you first get sober. And unlike Mr. Carr, for whom going public has had professional rewards, some people would face quite the opposite, with financial implications for themselves and their families. In this regard, AA’s policy of respecting each other’s anonymity removes what could be a legitimate reason to stay isolated and not get help.
If Mr. Carr truly believes that people should choose their own path to sobriety (and not his), he should immediately retract his distorted, uninformed representation of AA and encourage people who are struggling with chemical dependence to try anything and everything that works, including actually attending an AA meeting. Lives depend on it.