Alcoholism and addiction are rarely permanent—they are more likely to be so if you are convinced that they are.
There are a variety of arguments explaining alcoholism and addiction—that they are brain diseases, that they are due to permanent damage traceable to trauma in childhood, that they are based in the person’s genes.
Before I refute these, I need to note that, despite all of the modern theorizing about addiction as a unified concept, we continue (illegitimately) to put alcohol and drugs in separate categories. Alcoholics are born, we believe. Drug addicts are made. But, in either case, this becomes their identities: “I am an alcoholic/addict.”
One fact disproves ALL of these theories. And it is irrefutable. Overwhelmingly, addicts and alcoholics get better, as Ilse Thompson and I stress in our book, Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict. Most people overcome alcoholism and addiction without treatment. We have known this since we began studying addicted and alcoholic lives—that is, what happens to those addicted to drugs and alcohol over time. Any professional or facility that isn’t familiar with this research is guilty of malpractice.
Here are the top seven pieces/types of research showing that alcoholism and addiction are impermanent:
- Winick and “maturing out.” At the beginning of the modern addiction craze in the early 1960s, Charles Winick, a social psychologist in New York City, examined the federal records of known heroin addicts (largely inner-city African-Americans). Typically, these men had become addicted in their teens. By their mid-thirties, two-thirds to three-quarters had matured out.
- Epidemiological studies of alcoholism. From the very start of the study of alcohol problems by the famed Alcohol Research Group in Berkeley, beginning in the late 1960s, drinking problems were shown to vary greatly over time, including even the most serious, loss-of-control type of drinking. By now scores of studies have demonstrated this to be the case. The most recent is the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC):
Using NESARC, Dawson and colleagues examined data on people who experienced the onset of alcohol dependence at some point before the year prior to the survey. In this sample, 25 percent were still alcohol dependent, 27 percent were in partial remission, 12 percent were in full remission but drinking at levels or patterns that put them at high risk for relapse, 18 percent were low-risk drinkers, and 18 percent were abstainers during the year prior to the survey.
It is interesting to note that only 25 percent of these respondents reported ever receiving treatment. (And only half of those AA or 12-step rehab.)
So, if three-quarters of alcoholics cease being alcoholics, not usually through undergoing treatment or AA, and more than half continue to drink—what happened to that pesky alcoholism gene?
Their findings are similar: people outgrow alcoholism if their lives improve, they develop motivation and a positive outlook, they get married and have children.-Stanton Peele
- Longitudinal studies of alcoholism. If you follow a cohort of alcoholics in their natural settings, what do you discover over time? Several studies have (and continue) to do so. Their findings are similar: people outgrow alcoholism if their lives improve, they develop motivation and a positive outlook, they get married and have children. And they don’t relapse! This is the opposite of what is observed in treated populations. According to Madeline Meier, at Arizona State University, “Based on our representative sample, relapse does not appear to be as ubiquitous as one might expect based on estimates from clinic samples.”
- Every major study of addiction finds the same thing. According to Gene Heyman, “Since 1991 four major national surveys of psychiatric disorders and their correlates have been published. Each found that most of those ever addicted to illicit drugs were ‘ex-addicts’ by about age 30. Moreover, most of those who quit did so without professional help. Follow-up analyses reveal that the high remission rates were not temporary, due to missing addicts or a function of other methodological pitfalls.”
- Oh, most of those who overcome drug addiction don’t relapse even when they use again. Remember I said that we have two different world views—unjustifiably so—when regarding drug addiction and alcoholism. Even those who know that many alcoholics consume again without relapsing don’t believe that is possible with drug addicts. And, yet, along with the Winick study, the most iconic research on drug addiction, that with returning Vietnam heroin addicts, proved this to be true. As I reported that research in 1978: “most of these men [addicted soldiers] did not return to narcotics use in the United States. [However] one third continued to use narcotics (generally heroin) at home, and only 7 percent showed signs of dependence. ‘The results,’ [Lee] Robins writes, ‘indicate that, contrary to conventional belief, the occasional use of narcotics without becoming addicted appears possible even for men who have previously been dependent on narcotics.'”
Genetic determinists, are you paying attention?
- Government research shows drug and alcohol addiction/abuse declines with age. We don’t need to believe radical addiction researchers. We can turn to the government data (which, of course, we did with NESARC). The government’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health tracks succeeding generations of those who abuse/depend on alcohol/illegal substances. These data float a bit, but here’s the best summary of these results: from a peak in their twenties of 20 to 25 percent who abuse/are dependent on substances, for each aging cohort this figure falls by half, to 10 to 12 percent in their thirties and forties, to 5 percent in their fifties, to half again in their sixties and older.
- Even Bill White, famous AA advocate, says so. William White, perhaps the most legitimizing figure for the 12 steps and AA (he may have some personal involvement with the 12 steps, which he never discusses), after analyzing 415 scientific reports of recovery from the mid-19th century to the present, was forced to declare that, “Recovery is not an aberration achieved by a small and morally enlightened minority of addicted people. If there is a natural developmental momentum within the course of these problems, it is toward remission and recovery.”
So, you see, all of the theories of permanent alcoholism and addiction, and particularly genetic determinism, have already been disproved by the data on actual, living alcoholics and addicts.-Stanton Peele
So, you see, all of the theories of permanent alcoholism and addiction, and particularly genetic determinism, have already been disproved by the data on actual, living alcoholics and addicts. The failure of the field to acknowledge this, to its shame, means (a) most “experts” don’t know what’s going on, (b) we teach addicts and alcoholics helplessness so that the best guarantee of making alcoholism and addiction permanent are experiencing 12-step style treatment/groups, (c) our most pre-eminent theories of alcoholism and addiction, and especially genetic theories, are full of…let’s just say they don’t hold water.
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