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Published at the AOL Addiction and Recovery Forum, April 1999.
© 1999 Stanton Peele. All rights reserved.

The AA Member Who Drinks

Stanton Peele


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 Mullen
Tom Mullen

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 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 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?

Next month's column: Why Do Countries That Drink More Have Fewer AA Members?