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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Don't try this at home

This American Life ran a story titled The Wisdom to Know the Difference, and it's been troubling me ever since I heard it.
The story is of a woman named Tina who got sober at the age 13. She was well-known in AA circles for her inspirational story and a poster child for teens in the program. But at age 33, she became obsessed with the notion that she might not be an alcoholic after all. So she started drinking again. Responsibly. And after 7 months of handling alcohol without spiraling out of control, she's ready to say she's not an alcoholic after all. 
The reporter's clearly buying it, but anybody who's spent any significant amount of time in the rooms of AA, NA, or Al Anon has heard this story so many times we can recite it verbatim. It never has a happy ending. So when the story wrapped, it left me feeling like it ended with a woman standing on her tiptoes at the edge of a cliff. It's possible she won't fall to her grisly death. It's possible she isn't really an alcoholic after all. But I feel like the reporter failed to do her job by relaying Tina's story without apparently talking to a single addiction expert.
The story is, in the end I believe, dangerously naive. By presenting the story of a single individual without pointing out, "hey, experts say this is a terrible idea," the reporter is painting a very incomplete picture of the disease of addiction.
And the reporter missed a huge red flag. Tina says she agonized, every single day for 9 months, whether she should try drinking again. Discussed it with her fiance - who said he'd support her no matter what - every day for 9 months. But here's the thing - overblown claims about the magic of red wine aside, drinking provides no tangible benefit. Billions of people will go their entire lives without ever touching a drop, and they'll be none the worse for it. So why, if the benefits are so low and the risks so very high, would she take the risk? Especially when she's been in the program for 20 years, hearing people tell exactly this story for 20 years. She's a big girl and entitled to her own decisions, but I feel like the reporter should have probed that question, if not with Tina, than with an addiction professional. 
It seems to me that the general public is already so unaware of how addiction and addiction recovery programs work, and I feel like this story made listeners all a little more ignorant, which is kind of the opposite of what journalism is supposed to do. And while in the end, it's the addict who is solely responsible for his or her behavior, the people around the addict should know that Tina's story is far more likely than not to end in disaster.

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