About sixty people—soccer moms and lawyers on lunch breaks, old guys with fading tattoos and hipsters in skinny jeans—are sitting in a church and listening to a man with a slight paunch and a tie that complements his pale blue eyes. He looks like a successful politician, with the warm charisma of assured reelection.
“My name is John,” he says, “and I’m an alcoholic.”
“Hi, John,” everyone replies.
“The first time I decided to get help was when my son broke his arm,” John says. He’s standing behind a podium. “I was having an affair with a woman at work, and she told me that she wanted to end it. So I went to a bar and had two vodkas, and went back to my desk, and at lunch I went to Chili’s with a friend, and we each had a few beers, and then at about two o’clock, me and another friend left and found a place with a two-for-one happy hour. It was my day to pick up the kids—my wife didn’t know about the affair yet—so I drove to their school and got them, and I was driving home on a street I must have driven a thousand times, and I slammed into a stop sign at the end of the block. Up on the sidewalk and, bam, right into the sign. Sam—that’s my boy— hadn’t put on his seat belt, so he flew against the windshield and broke his arm. There was blood on the dash where he hit his nose and the windshield was cracked and I was so scared. That’s when I decided I needed help.
“So I checked into a clinic and then came out, and everything was pretty good for a while. For about thirteen months, everything was great. I felt like I was in control and I went to meetings every couple of days, but eventually I started thinking, I’m not such a loser that I need to hang out with a bunch of drunks. So I stopped going.
“Then my mom got cancer, and she called me at work, almost two years after I got sober. She was driving home from the doctor’s office, and she said, ‘He told me we can treat it, but it’s pretty advanced.’ The first thing I did after I hung up is find a bar, and I was pretty much drunk for the next two years until my wife moved out, and I was supposed to pick up my kids again. I was in a really bad place by then. A friend was teaching me to use coke, and every afternoon I would do a line inside my office, and five minutes later I would get that little drip into the back of my throat and do another line.
“Anyways, it was my turn to get the kids. I was on the way to their school and I felt totally fine, like I was on top of everything, and I pulled into an intersection when the light was red and this huge truck slammed into my car. It actually flipped the car on its side. I didn’t have a scratch on me. I got out, and started trying to push my car over, because I figured, if I can make it home and leave before the cops arrive, I’ll be fine. Of course that didn’t work out, and when they arrested me for DUI they showed me how the passenger side of the car was completely crushed in. That’s where Sammy usually sat. If he had been there, he would have been killed.
“So I started going to meetings again, and my sponsor told me that it didn’t matter if I felt in control. Without a higher power in my life, without admitting my powerlessness, none of it was going to work. I thought that was bull—I’m an atheist. But I knew that if something didn’t change, I was going to kill my kids. So I started working at that, working at believing in something bigger than me. And it’s working. I don’t know if it’s God or something else, but there is a power that has helped me stay sober for seven years now and I’m in awe of it. I don’t wake up sober every morning—I mean, I haven’t had a drink in seven years, but some mornings I wake up feeling like I’m gonna fall down that day. Those days, I look for the higher power, and I call my sponsor, and most of the time we don’t talk about drinking. We talk about life and marriage and my job, and by the time I’m ready for a shower, my head is on straight.”
The first cracks in the theory that Alcoholics Anonymous succeeded solely by reprogramming participants’ habits started appearing a little over a decade ago and were caused by stories from alcoholics like John. Researchers began finding that habit replacement worked pretty well for many people until the stresses of life—such as finding out your mom has cancer, or your marriage is coming apart—got too high, at which point alcoholics often fell off the wagon. Academics asked why, if habit replacement is so effective, it seemed to fail at such critical moments. And as they dug into alcoholics’ stories to answer that question, they learned that replacement habits only become durable new behaviors when they are accompanied by something else.
One group of researchers at the Alcohol Research Group in California, for instance, noticed a pattern in interviews. Over and over again, alcoholics said the same thing: Identifying cues and choosing new routines is important, but without another ingredient, the new habits never fully took hold.
The secret, the alcoholics said, was God.
Researchers hated that explanation. God and spirituality are not testable hypotheses. Churches are filled with drunks who continue drinking despite a pious faith. In conversations with addicts, though, spirituality kept coming up again and again. So in 2005, a group of scientists—this time affiliated with UC Berkeley, Brown University, and the National Institutes of Health—began asking alcoholics about all kinds of religious and spiritual topics. Then they looked at the data to see if there was any correlation between religious belief and how long people stayed sober.
A pattern emerged. Alcoholics who practiced the techniques of habit replacement, the data indicated, could often stay sober until there was a stressful event in their lives—at which point, a certain number started drinking again, no matter how many new routines they had embraced.
However, those alcoholics who believed, like John in Brooklyn, that some higher power had entered their lives were more likely to make it through the stressful periods with their sobriety intact.
It wasn’t God that mattered, the researchers figured out. It was belief itself that made a difference. Once people learned how to believe in something, that skill started spilling over to other parts of their lives, until they started believing they could change. Belief was the ingredient that made a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.
“I wouldn’t have said this a year ago—that’s how fast our understanding is changing,” said Tonigan, the University of New Mexico researcher, “but belief seems critical. You don’t have to believe in God, but you do need the capacity to believe that things will get better.
“Even if you give people better habits, it doesn’t repair why they started drinking in the first place. Eventually they’ll have a bad day, and no new routine is going to make everything seem okay. What can make a difference is believing that they can cope with that stress without alcohol.”
By putting alcoholics in meetings where belief is a given—where, in fact, belief is an integral part of the twelve steps—AA trains people in how to believe in something until they believe in the program and themselves. It lets people practice believing that things will eventually get better, until things actually do.
“At some point, people in AA look around the room and think, if it worked for that guy, I guess it can work for me,” said Lee Ann Kaskutas, a senior scientist at the Alcohol Research Group. “There’s something really powerful about groups and shared experiences. People might be skeptical about their ability to change if they’re by themselves, but a group will convince them to suspend disbelief. A community creates belief.”
As John was leaving the AA meeting, I asked him why the program worked now, after it had failed him before. “When I started coming to meetings after the truck accident, someone asked for volunteers to help put away the chairs,” he told me. “I raised my hand. It wasn’t a big thing, it took like five minutes, but it felt good to do something that wasn’t all about me. I think that started me on a different path.
“I wasn’t ready to give in to the group the first time, but when I came back, I was ready to start believing in something.”
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