Monday, May 16, 2011

14th Time’s the Charm

After some of the things I’ve seen recently, perhaps it’s time for me to share a hopeful story.

I’ve never had a problem with alcohol, but I’ve often found the 12 steps to be a very useful program. I attended quite a few open AA meetings in Dayton back in the early 90s. One evening about 20 years ago, I heard a grey-haired gentleman give a “lead”: a description of how he started drinking, what it was like, and how he came to sobriety. After he finished, I asked him if it was OK if I shared his story with others, and he gave me the go-ahead.

This man was an extraordinarily intelligent fellow. I believe he was a self-employed engineer. However, he was convinced he was much too smart to be an alcoholic, even after he repeatedly picked up drunk driving convictions. Back in the days he was describing, judges weren’t as eager to give out jail time as they are now. In most jurisdictions today, a third DUI conviction in five years gets you a felony and over a year in prison.

A few weeks ago, I talked with an alcohol counselor at a continuing legal education seminar who told our group that if a person gets a drunk driving conviction, it’s about 50-50 as to whether they’re an alcoholic. If they get a second conviction, they’re much more likely to be an alcoholic. If they get a third, it’s just about an absolute certainty. I hope my readers will forgive me my slightly sketchy memory 20 years later, but the number of his drunk driving convictions was in the teens, somewhere between 13 and 19.

This guy found the repeated loss of his license and thousands of dollars in fines quite annoying, and while still convinced he was not an alcoholic, he finally concluded he didn’t want anymore drunk driving convictions. So he put a great deal of thought into his drinking and planned his bouts very carefully. He figured that he was not an alcoholic as long as he didn’t get another DUI, but if he did in spite his best efforts, he would have to admit that he was indeed an alcoholic. Lo and behold, one night driving home from the bar he saw flashing red and blue lights in his rearview mirror, and when the officer who had handcuffed him helped him into the paddywagon, he said aloud, “Oh ****, I’m going to have to go to AA.”

At the time I met him, he had been sober for over a decade. The lesson I take form this story is, there is no such thing as a hopeless alcoholic, as long as that person is still breathing (and has not suffered permanent brain damage). There are people for whom the odds are long, but after 22 years as a defense attorney, I have learned you never can tell who is going to die a drunk and who is going to see the light and achieve sobriety.

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