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Ethics & Religion
January 13, 2016
Column #1,794
A New Way To Fight Alcoholism
By Mike McManus

This is the season of New Year's Resolutions, about 5 million of which are vague promises "to get sober." Two weeks into the New Year, many have relapsed.

Scripture is clear: "Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes? Those who linger over wine, who go on to sample bowls of wine" Proverbs 23:29.

An alternative, taken by 1.4 million Americans is to join one of America's 65,000 Alcoholics Anonymous groups. They have saved millions of lives.

But many can't take that step. Recently I talked to a man I'll call Frank. He told me that by 1989 "I could not get sober. I had a major relapse in 1994, got in an accident, went on painkillers. I had periods of doing the right thing. I lost my connection with God. Things got rockier."

In 1995 Frank moved out, away from his wife, and "pursued recovery in AA. I did not fit in. I wanted to be a church guy. Most of AA members talk about seeking help from a `higher power.' I felt this did not honor Jesus. In trying to get sober, I was left alone with God and my dog."

Eventually, he got involved in a church which helped him rebuild his life and marriage.

Reddit has created a more creative answer: an online service that can be tapped anonymously, and at no cost called r/StopDrinking. One member of the SD group said, "The support I saw in SD on day one felt like nothing I had experienced in hundreds of AA or SMART meetings."

This thriving community of more than 32,000 recovering alcoholics offers a new strategy for treatment. Volunteers, who are members, run the online program where members share their insights: "I'm happy again," said one, a posting that she confessed was to "help me get through my cravings."

Many subscribers call it their most helpful tool in combating addiction to alcohol - more so than counseling, rehab or peer-recovery groups like AA.

Experts don't doubt this assessment. "It's the fellowship factor that's effective," John Kelly, an addiction researcher at Harvard Medical School told a reporter. "There's accountability and monitoring over time. There's 24/7 support. There's cheerleading. It's incredibly valuable, especially early on," he asserted.

StopDrinking works like a conventional peer group with a daily check-in, where members affirm their sobriety. One asserted, "It's been 30 days." Another commented, "Sober weekends are where it is at."

The website has strict "Guidelines for Participation" designed to keep the site a "warm, welcome and predictable place for all participants."

"Be kind." Or at least "be civil." Speak from the "I" which means participants should refrain from "speaking in the imperative. Don't tell others what they should or must do. It is better to phrase your advice in terms of your own story, talking about what worked for you."

One important Guideline is "Post only while sober."

Another: "No promotion," in which links to outside websites are cited. Any such promotion "will likely lead to your comment being removed by a moderator."

"Don't critique other members' comments," the website warns. If someone's comment runs afoul of the guidelines, participants are asked simply to hit a "report" button.

Participants are given "badges" that report how many days they have been sober, a pat on the back for progress. Seven days. Fourteen days, states an icon next to the user's name.

What if the person has major questions? There are answers. Does everyone drink? 51.3% of US adults use alcohol at least once per month. The top 20% of drinkers consume 89% of the alcohol.

One woman said, "In the beginning, SD was so integral to my sobriety, because I felt like it made me accountable, not only to myself but to thousands of strangers."

Harvard's Kelly asserts that any good addiction-recovery therapy should do three things. "One: Teach cognitive-behavioral coping skills, like the ability to deal with bouts of depression and anger. Two: Change the addict's social network so that she changes her lifestyle and gets fewer cues to drink. Three: Motivate people to recover, largely by reminding them how they lived and felt before.

Twelve-step programs like AA accomplish all three. But they don't work for everyone - particularly people who feel uncomfortable in group settings, or those who fear discussing alcohol abuse in person.

Addiction is often seen as a moral problem. StopDrinking overcomes that stigma by letting people connect in complete anonymity.

In time, I predict it will be as important as Alcoholics Anonymous.

Copyright (c) 2016 Michael J. McManus, President of Marriage Savers and a syndicated columnist.

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