My Dad's side of the family is entirely different. Despite the immense size of the Shimer clan, we cannot boast even one retired drinker. Shimer gatherings still stock coolers of beer and bottles of vodka, and quite often, if you're lucky, there's a good family fight. To this day, my 60-year-old dad drinks either one case of beer, one box of Franzia white wine, or one bottle of vodka per 24-hour period. He frequently talks about how he wants to go to prison so that he'll quit drinking, write a book, and get in shape; and although I am not at liberty to discuss his criminal infractions, he's doing his best to assure that this happens. But why, one might ask, would he try to get thrown in prison rather than just joining a local 12-step?
It's simple, really. My Dad is a cynical old fuck who cares about as much for his neighbor's sob story as he does for Blink 182's latest album. Even if he ever agreed to go to an AA meeting, he'd last five minutes before someone punched him in the face or he was ejected for calling the meeting leader a fatass.
If my Dad has regrets, he doesn't want to share them with a bunch of strangers, and he certainly doesn't want to get personal with a group. So, what recourse is there for the cynic? The person who wants to stop drinking, but doesn't want to do so in AA? The person who wants to stop spending $1,000 a month on booze, but can't do the first step and actually mean it?
Considering alcoholism affects millions of Americans--13 percent of the adult population--there are a surprisingly limited number of pharmaceutical options for the alcohol abuser. In fact, naltrexone (or ReVia) is the only medication approved by the FDA to treat alcoholism specifically. (Other drugs, such as Zofran--which is traditionally used to treat nausea in chemo patients--have proven effective in helping early-onset alcoholism, while the anti-depressant Zoloft has proven effective in helping late-onset alcoholism.)
Naltrexone was originally used to treat opiate addicts, blocking opiad receptors in the brain, and thus serving to eliminate the pleasure a user gets from taking drugs. Naltrexone works similarly in the brains of alcoholics, and while it hardly serves as a "get sober" pill, it helps disrupt the addiction cycle by reducing the pleasure the alcoholic gets from drinking. So when an alcoholic has that first drink (or "slips"), it doesn't have to mean a balls-out relapse.
Dr. Joseph R. Vopicelli, who researched the effects of naltrexone before its FDA approval in 1995, found that 85% of patients on a placebo who slipped went on to eventually relapse, while only 50% of patients who slipped while on the naltrexone fell completely off the wagon. People who did slip reported a decreased high from alcohol, and serious boozers even went so far as to leave a glass of alcohol half full. Even though I personally consider that an incredible waste, it proves that naltrexone, by weakening the alcohol's power, does help problem drinkers.
Of course, 50 percent of the naltrexone users still went on to get hammered regardless of how displeasurable it was, so--drugs or no--you still may end up dumping that stiffy G&T down your gullet.
Because alcoholism is genuinely confounding to doctors and researchers, the federal government and National Institute of Health have gone so far as to conduct a research study on the Chinese herb NPI-028, which has been known to ease drunkenness. Taken from the kudzu plant, which grows in the southeastern United States, the herb has long been referred to by the Chinese as the "drunken dispeller." For centuries, the Chinese have made tea from NPI-028 in order to sober up when hammered, or combat a raging hangover the next day. Researchers believe that the compound NPI-028 affects the brain's serotonin, somehow diminishing the desire for alcohol.
In research studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, rats that were genetically engineered to prefer alcohol to water were injected with NPI-028. After injections, the rats decreased their alcohol intake while sustaining a normal intake of water, meaning that NPI-028 decreased the rats' desire for booze. The same was true when the experiments were performed on alcohol-preferring African Green monkeys, thus giving researchers confidence that the compound will reduce the desire for alcohol in humans.
In addition to this Eastern secret, acupuncture is another crafty Asian treatment for alcoholism. Supposedly, by putting five small needles in the ear, the body releases opiod peptides that decrease your perception of pain, thereby making you less susceptible to tying one on.
CLUB BEVERLY HILLS
Recently, in the music magazine Under the Radar, notorious boozer/junkie Elliott Smith talked about his recent six months of sobriety. One of the most cynical of all cynics, Smith admitted he'd tried traditional detox programs several times and failed, because he "couldn't honestly do the first step. [Admitting you are powerless over alcohol.]" So instead of blowing more money on rehab (a nice rehab center can run $36,000 for 28 days), Smith went to the Neurotransmitter Restoration Center in Beverly Hills.
The fruity, non-FDA approved treatment costs about $1,000 per day, and requires you to be connected to a drip bag of amino acids and saline for a week to ten days--or in Smith's case, longer. The treatment flushes your system with amino acids, circumventing withdrawal symptoms, purging your nerve receptors of toxins, and helping rebuild the neurons in your brain. Or so they say. But considering Elliott Smith has been off the sauce for six whole months, it at least works initially. And according to the clinic, of the 15,000 people treated, 80 percent have stayed sober.
IT'S AA OR THE HIGHWAY
When I asked Ray, a local AA volunteer/member with 37 sober years under his belt, what he'd recommend to the drinker who's shy of the "group sharing" format of AA, his response was definitive.
"Go drink," he said. "And when you get tired of drinking, then look at us again. There are some other things you can do. You can become institutionalized. Some people go to church."
And for the most part he's right. After 15 years of studying alcoholism, the only findings the National Institute of Health came up with were that self-help programs like AA--used in conjunction with drugs like naltrexone--do reduce the use of alcohol. Their findings recommended several different forms of therapy, but beyond that, they've come up with no quick fix for alcoholics. It seems that the alternatives to Alcoholics Anonymous, and AA itself, can't work unless the patient really wants to quit drinking. According to Ray, "The success rate in Alcoholics Anonymous is only 50 percent--and those are the people who really try to stay sober."
For the most part, inpatient detox programs borrow heavily from Alcoholics Anonymous' 12 steps. As Ray sees it, "[Detox centers] come down and get the AA Big Book, and then sell it you for $5,000." So you can either drive yourself to AA, or pay someone an exorbitant amount to take you there by force.
Even though Ray seems like something of an AA hardliner, it's obviously worked for him. Committing himself wholeheartedly every day to being first and foremost an alcoholic has helped him not drink--and that's why AA works.
YOU VS. THE VODKA TONIC
For the problem drinker who doesn't want to dedicate his life to being an alcoholic, however, the options are limited. Stop drinking, see a therapist to figure out why you were drinking so much, maybe take some pills or drink some tea to reduce your desire for it. The essence of the problem is that no matter how many researchers there are, they can't figure out a way to stop people from lifting a cocktail to their faces or driving to the liquor store. Unless of course, you throw them in jail--but that doesn't seem like much of an alternative.