“Hello. My name is Gene, and I’m an alcoholic.” This is the way I have begun countless 12-step meetings. And today, I celebrate nine years of sobriety, without so much as a sip of communion wine. The decision to seek treatment for alcoholism nine years ago was one of the best, most rewarding decisions of my life. Indeed, it saved my life, pure and simple.
Alcoholism is a progressive disease that only gets worse, never better. It invariably wreaks havoc on the lives of those who have it, often ending in financial (not to mention social) ruin, jail, or death. By the grace of God (or Higher Power, as we would say in the “rooms” of the 12-step programs), I was saved from that fate and I now live a productive and happy life, one day at a time.
On Thursday, The New York Times reported on steps announced by Dartmouth College to deal with its on-campus drinking problem and its ban on hard liquor. I am a longtime friend of Dartmouth, and as the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, I spent considerable time on campus both in formal settings and informal gatherings of students. No one who knows Dartmouth doubts the reports of alcohol abuse. Sexual assaults and other misconduct, attributable to alcohol abuse, are widely known. The only thing that makes Dartmouth unusual among its peers is in admitting to what has been happening.
According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, “Alcohol is the most commonly used addictive substance in the United States—17.6 million people, or one in every 12 adults, suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence along with several million more who engage in risky, binge drinking patterns that could lead to alcohol problems. More than half of all adults have a family history of alcoholism or problem drinking, and more than 7 million children live in a household where at least one parent is dependent on or has abused alcohol.” Alcoholism is, in short, a pandemic. This is a problem that is not easily going to go away, not at Dartmouth, not in America.
Adding to the problem of alcoholism is the moral stigma attached to problem drinking. Most people still believe that drinking too much is a moral choice, and those who do so are simply weak morally. The fact—and I know this from experience—is that when a one-in-12 alcoholic takes a drink, something happens physiologically and chemically in a particular part of the brain that does not happen in the brain of the non-alcoholic: a chemically-induced anxiety is created for which there is no “cure” except more alcohol. The choice to take the first drink is the choice made by the drinker; after that, the alcohol takes over and makes the subsequent decisions. More!!
In my own alcohol use, before I knew the science, I knew that effect. When I had something important to do, or a speech to make, I would simply delay my first drink and the chemical reaction that would inevitably take place. I knew that after that first drink, I was incapable of resisting another, and another. How comforting it was to learn that I was not morally weak, but harbored a physiological disease whose only cure was not having the first drink at all. It’s not unlike having an allergy to peanuts, let’s say. If you eat peanuts, you are going to break out in hives. The only solution is not to eat peanuts.
When 50 or so students gather at a Dartmouth fraternity for a party, at least four of those students will be alcoholic, whether they know it yet or not. They will see their peers throwing back drinks one after another and assume they can do the same with impunity. They are wrong. Dartmouth, in its shaping of the character and future of its students, has a responsibility to help these four unsuspecting alcoholic students face their problem—not to mention the non-alcoholics who will binge drink and later sexually assault another student. While Dartmouth president Philip J. Hanlon worries about the damage done to the college and its reputation, I worry about the students themselves, the lives they will lead if their drinking goes unaddressed, and the harm and pain they will bring others—family and strangers alike.
One part of Dartmouth’s announcement troubles me. Their ban on hard liquor hardly addresses the problem. Yes, one can get drunk faster drinking hard liquor, as anyone who has ever “done shots” knows. But alcohol is alcohol, and one can get just as drunk on beer and wine as on hard liquor. In this, Dartmouth is seeking a too-easy, and thereby faulty, solution to its problem.
I hope that Dartmouth undertakes a campus-wide mandatory program of education about alcohol that includes the responsibility of every student to notice and address problem drinking in their peers. An alcoholic, once he’s started to drink, cannot stop on his own. Dartmouth and other colleges must get serious about every student’s responsibility to notice when a fellow student has had too much to drink and take steps to keep him/her safe.
It’s a risky thing to confront someone about her drinking, because it is the last thing in the world that the drinker will want to hear. But it will be in that person’s best interest, may save him from doing something harmful and/or criminal to someone else, maybe even save his life or that of an innocent other.
Here’s a little of what I’ve learned in nine years of sobriety. As impossible as it is for an alcoholic to imagine life without a drink, it is not only possible but life-giving. It is possible (though not universal) to be delivered from even the prison of craving a drink. The community of 12-step groups is a miracle waiting for anyone who needs it—filled with people who are sometimes wholly unlike you (it may be the last place in society to gather where there is a genuine mix of class/income/employment), but who possess the wisdom born of the experience of ending their dependence on alcohol and beginning a new and better life of sobriety.
On this, my ninth anniversary of sobriety, I am profoundly grateful for the new life I have found in sobriety. I will always be an alcoholic. But by God’s grace, I will always be a recovering alcoholic, taking life one day at a time and constantly returning to the community who helps me stay sober. I wish that for the students of Dartmouth and every other college in America.
The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Washington, DC, and the retired IX Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire. Follow him on Twitter @BishopGRobinson.