Episode 154: Jeremy P. | What Makes an Alcoholic?

As storm Ciara tore its path across the United Kingdom, somewhere in London, Jeremy P. hunkered down and spoke with me for this podcast. A few weeks prior to recording this episode, Jeremy sent me a very thoughtful email about his difficulty identifying with many of the AA speakers he hears on various podcasts. He explained that this is keeping him from saying anything at the meetings he attends. His inclination is to introduce himself by saying, “my name is Jeremy, and I don’t know what I am.” 

What makes an alcoholic, and if you’re not sure, can you be a member of AA? That in part is what this episode covers. 


00:00 John S: AA Beyond Belief is a podcast by, for, and about people who have found a secular path to sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous.


00:26 John S: Well, it wasn’t that too long ago, I think it was towards the end of January, that I got an email from Jeremy, who is going to be our guest today. Jeremy is from London, England, and they’re having a storm over there if you don’t know. At any rate, Jeremy had a really interesting question about what makes an alcoholic, pretty much. And he really brought up some interesting points in his email, and I thought this would be a good podcast. So he agreed to join me, and here he is. Hey Jeremy, how are you?

01:00 Jeremy P: I’m good, and thank you very much for having me on your podcast. I have to say, I feel sort of somewhat fraudulent appearing as a guest, but it’s great to be invited and thank you for having me.

01:10 John S: Oh, heck, it’s nice to have you, and you shouldn’t feel fraudulent at all. Why would you feel that way?

01:17 Jeremy P: Well, I think that kind of goes to the heart of why I mailed you in the first place. I have been to a number of AA meetings, and the tradition appears to be that when you have your turn to speak, you say, “My name is Jeremy, I’m an alcoholic,” and that’s the point on which I get stuck because I want to start by saying, and therefore I’ve never said anything in a meeting. “Hello, my name’s Jeremy, and I don’t know what I am. I don’t know whether I qualify or not, and I don’t know whether that matters from the point of view of my attendance at AA meetings.”

02:00 John S: Yeah, and in my view, it doesn’t, because first of all, what’s interesting about the term alcoholic is it’s really not used in medical science now. I think that the treatment professionals refer to it as alcohol use disorder, or substance abuse disorder.

02:16 Jeremy P: Okay.

02:17 John S: Yeah. So that’s how it’s labeled scientifically. As a disorder, as a substance abuse disorder. Alcoholic is probably just a social term that we use that has just been used over time, and I think that we have a better understanding of what is substance abuse disorder now, that it runs more on a spectrum and that the consumption of alcohol by itself alone is typically not good for a human being anyway. [chuckle] So it’s not really a natural substance I think that we should be ingesting. But I think everybody to one degree or another is impacted by it through their health. But it is interesting that in AA, we have this custom of introducing ourselves as, “My name’s John and I’m an alcoholic,” and I have met more than a few people, mostly many years younger than me, who question that practice, who don’t like the label and putting that label on themselves, and it’s really not necessary.

03:23 Jeremy P: Sure. I mean, certainly listening to you… Maybe I should go back a bit and explain how I came to be emailing you in the first place. I’m 53 years old, I’m English, and I’m a male, and therefore I have a complicated relationship with alcohol. I probably would say… A problematic relationship with alcohol. I’ve drunk since I was a young adult, and I’ve had periods when I’ve definitely thought that I’ve drunk too much. I have had occasion to believe alcohol has at least contributed to making me make some very bad decisions, do things that I regret, and probably changed the course of my life in ways that are quite profound. And so the issue of drink and drink-related problems has always been relatively in my consciousness. And I started to have periods when I just stopped drinking, partly from just a health perspective, but also because I had concerns about my ability to moderate my drinking as opposed to abstaining. So for example, at the moment I’m four months sober. I have one of those apps that you have on your telephone that I make a pledge in the morning, and at night time I review my day and say how hard it was, or otherwise, not to drink.

05:00 Jeremy P: And it’s not difficult for me, I find it very easy to not drink once I’ve stopped drinking. Sometimes quite difficult to stop before having these periods of abstinence. But I started thinking it would be nice to have some support and also some friendship or fellowship amongst people who don’t drink because it does feel quite a lonely thing. Because I think one of the things about particularly male British culture, and I’m sure it’s true in Europe and lots of other places, maybe the US, that socializing and being friends with people is very much done around alcohol in the UK. You just, you go for a beer with somebody, right? And if you go to the pub and you’re not having a beer, then people look at you in a funny way, [chuckle] and it’s quite a difficult thing. So I thought, “Well, maybe I should have a look at some of these… AA for example, and just see whether it’d be suitable for me to go for a meeting.” Maybe it’d help me in my quest to be sober because I think I do want to remain sober now and maybe I’ll get some friends out of it. So because I was cowardly rather than go to actual meetings, I started listening to podcasts, looking at websites. I found your website and others like it and started listening to particularly speaker meetings.

06:43 John S: Yeah.

06:45 Jeremy P: And I think at that point I started thinking more, well, is there a difference between alcoholics and people like me who probably you might describe as heavy drinkers who occasionally lose control of their ability to regulate their drinking. And does it matter from the point of view of attending meetings of AA? And certainly, to start with, I thought there probably wasn’t going to be much of a difference. And then I started just listening to more and more podcasts like Sober Cast and yours and I listen to a lot from the North Oakland Alcoholics Anonymous. So a lot of my experience is of the US, particularly, in terms of listening to people talking. And I got quite a lot of questions around the definitions of alcohol and also about whether or not it’s something that might be useful for me or other people like me, because I think there are a lot of people like me in the UK who are Alcoholics Anonymous curious or solutions to our problems curious. So that’s where I’m coming from.

08:01 John S: Yeah, no, I get it. So my background is, I was 19 years old when I first started considering getting help for my drinking and I don’t know if any doctor at that time would have diagnosed me with a substance abuse disorder or anything along those lines. But I was certainly having problems at that time in my life, mainly with relationships and my schooling, I was in college at the time. But I told myself I was too young and that label “alcoholic” really was problematic for me. I just couldn’t see myself as an alcoholic, I just figured I’m just way too young. But then over the next five years, and this is what’s interesting when you… I think the human memory is kind of tricky. How often did I drink? How bad was it? I seem to remember that it was pretty bad, [chuckle] but I wasn’t drunk every day and did I get drunk every time I drank? I don’t know, I don’t… Probably not.

09:12 John S: But when I share the story in an AA meeting, I’m probably more likely going to recall those harrowing experiences where I ended up in jail or whatever. But I think that for me, ultimately, what happened is I got to a point where the problems I was having in my life associated with drinking were so bad that I didn’t care whether or not I was an alcoholic. I just wanted to stop drinking because I didn’t think I was going to have any kind of a decent life if I continued. And when I got to that first AA meeting, there is that tradition that says the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. And reading that really eased my mind because the way I understood that was, I don’t have to put any a label on myself. If I want to stop drinking, that’s all that matters and I just left it at that. Of course, I do go to meetings and introduce myself as an alcoholic. And maybe I am, [chuckle] I presume I am. It would be a cruel joke if I were to find out later that I could actually… [chuckle] Yeah, but now that…

10:29 Jeremy P: Can I ask you something about that? Sorry to interrupt. So it’s been a long time since you had a drink, right?

10:38 John S: [chuckle] Yeah.

10:38 Jeremy P: I mean, how long if you don’t mind me asking?

10:41 John S: 31 years. Yeah.

10:42 Jeremey P: Right, and that’s amazing. Congratulations on that. It’s incredible. So you’ve been a non-drinker much more of your life than you’ve been a drinker, right?

10:56 John S: Yes, that’s right.

11:00 Jeremy P: So if you wanted to make the argument that you are an alcoholic, why are you still one now? I don’t hear people often in AA meetings say that they are recovered, right?

11:14 John S: Right.

11:15 Jeremy P: They say they’re in recovery or they say they’re still an alcoholic despite the fact that they took their last drink in 1985. And that somehow seems to be therapeutically non-useful to me.

11:28 John S: Yeah. I think it’s semantics in anyway.

11:31 Jeremy P: If you’re not going to… Yeah.

11:33 John S: Because it’s like if you’re a diabetic but you have your diabetes under control. If you weren’t taking care of yourself, watching your diet and doing what the doctor suggests you do or asks you to do, your diabetes is going to flare up. Now, so that means that one might have diabetes, but then we also put a label on them and call them diabetic and it’s kind of the same thing with, I think, substance abuse disorder or what alcoholism is. Once having lost that degree of control over one’s drinking, it’s really… It seems like you’re not likely to regain it. But that’s not always true in every case. Now I do… When you talk about recovered and recovering, I tend to view myself as recovered. I don’t really use the terminology so much, but I view myself as recovered because to me the whole problem with the disorder is that, first of all, I had this idea that I’m… In my case, I always thought… I would tell myself, “I’m just going to go have a few drinks. I’m going to have a few beers.” And then I would lose control.

12:53 John S: And then I would just repeat that over and over. And so the problem was two-fold. It was the denial that I could control my drinking. I mean the denial that I couldn’t, and then whatever was going on with me physically, where my body would… Or my mind would want more. So, I don’t know where I was going with that. So, that’s… I don’t know. Oh yeah, so I’m recovered in the sense that I realize now, my senses, I’m back to understanding that I can’t drink. I shouldn’t drink, it’s not good for me. My past experience was that I would end up in jail, it caused me problems at work. It caused me problems with relationships. So, drinking is something that I should stay away from and I know that, and I also know that there’s something that seems to happen with me physiologically once I put alcohol in my body, which makes it really difficult to stop. And so in understanding that, I just feel like, okay, so now I have recovered because I’m no longer in that state of mind where I think, “Oh, a drink won’t hurt me.”

14:05 Jeremy P: Okay. That makes sense because I hear a lot of people on these podcasts and occasionally in meetings that I’ve been to say… Some people make reference to the Big Book obviously, and the doctor’s opinion in The Big Book, which basically says that you have an allergy. Not you, but a person who is an alcoholic is different from a regular human in some ways. And these people are a band apart because unlike normal people who can have a couple of drinks and don’t get this allergic addictive reaction, there is this special band of strange people almost, who are alcoholics because they have this allergic reaction and that makes them helpless before alcohol, so… And that has implications for their recovery in the sense that they can’t do it by themselves, or in fact, their will is almost unnecessary to the process of recovery because they have to give themselves over to God or a higher power in order to facilitate that recovery.

15:28 Jeremy P: Now, if that’s right, or… I suppose my interest in that is, so is AA for me, because if that’s correct then it feels to me like that’s not helpful to me. I feel like I do have some agency in terms of not drinking, and I don’t want to do muscle-in on a special group of people who have this problem that isn’t like mine [chuckle] because I might be unhelpful to their recovery and they might not be helpful to mine in the sense that we need to do different things to get to a path where we’re happy with our amount of drinking that we do, be it none or some.

16:15 John S: Yeah, well, it’s unfortunate that we’re still using the same book that’s now over 80 years old because when it was written, that was that doctor’s understanding it back in 1939. And I think that we’ve learned a lot more about how this works. I think that you’ve read Catherine Gray’s book that I recommended and she talks about alcohol being, and problems with alcohol really lying on a spectrum and people have degrees of problems and maybe it worsens over time, maybe it doesn’t. And I think that more and more it’s being looked at that way. It’s really kind of, it’s like a spectrum disorder. It’s on a scale of bad and there’s not necessarily one solution or answer or treatment or support that works for just across the board for everybody. I think it really depends on each person but yeah, unfortunately in AA, they’re going to get out that book that was written 80 years ago, and they’re going to read Dr. Silkworth’s opinion about this being an allergy and how we’re different than other people.

17:23 John S: And I think that science is learning that might not be really true. That again, I’m not a scientist at all but the doctors I’ve talked to that are experts in the field, it seems like the theory seems to be that addiction to drugs and alcohol seems to be a problem with dopamine levels in your brain that gets spiked when these chemicals enter your brain. And one of the doctors I spoke with said that most people have the gene that would trigger this problem but that with everybody, it’s different for what triggers it. So, in other words, one person might… That gene might go into effect after their fifth beer and someone else, it might be their 300th beer [chuckle] before it kicks in. That’s just one theory I guess, but I do tend to think that, yeah, I think that alcohol probably affects all human beings essentially pretty similarly, but I do buy into the idea that that’s probably on a scale of degree of how bad it is, but it’s interesting in some countries, and I’m learning about how about it is in the UK, and in Russia, for example to. Terrible alcohol problems just across the board in society from what I understand. But it’s pretty bad here in the United States too. We also have a really bad drug problem here.

19:06 Jeremy P: Sure. I was reading, I remember we talked in emails about Holly Whittaker who’s just done the book, Quit Like A Girl. And when she was in another sort of existence, she ran a website, called Hip Sobriety I think. And came out with an article that I really liked, which basically said, I think it was called, Hi. My name’s Holly. I’m not an alcoholic brackets, because there’s no such thing.

19:38 John S: Right. Right.

19:39 Jeremy P: And there was a real quote in that, that I wanted to read you to see what you thought of it. And she says, “We’ve created a separate disease called alcoholism and forced it upon the minority of the population willing to admit that they cannot control their drinking. That instead of looking at the insane amount of alcohol that we consume as a country, we’ve instead systematically labeled anybody you can’t hang in that insanity as having the problem.”

20:15 John S: Yeah. I think she’s right. I think that I think it’s wrong to say that there’s a distinct group of people that have this and that other people aren’t going to be affected. I think that everybody who, any person who drinks alcohol has it within them to develop a problem at some point in their life. Just the substance itself just isn’t healthy to ingest.

20:49 Jeremy P: No.

20:50 John S: And even if someone is maybe not… Look at me for example, when I was, I had my last drink when I was 25 years old. So the problems that I was having with alcohol were legal problems. I was drinking and driving, I was blacking out, that type of thing. But I wasn’t having DTs, I wasn’t having, if I stopped drinking, I wouldn’t go into seizures or fits as some people will. So would I have ever progressed to that point? I don’t know. But I just see it as, I really just see it as wherever you are on the scale at any particular time, and you can choose to address it however you want to at any time that you start, one might start thinking it’s a problem. So for me, it was when I was 25 and I was having a lot of life problems and it seemed like alcohol was pointing at all of them. So that’s why I made the decision at that time that I needed to stop. But yeah AA kind of a strange thing though. It is kind of a, it’s kind of a sub-culture and they have their own customs and traditions and ways of talking about things, and then really reading that book. That’s I think the biggest problem is hanging on to reading the same doctor’s opinion from the 1930s when that really should have been updated like 500 times since then. [chuckle] But.

22:28 Jeremy P: I mean it did fascinate me, particularly coming from being English, I was surprised, I have to say when… Because AA is one of the, if you go to the National Health Service website, and say and type in, “I have a problem with drinking,” One of the… There are a number of things that it suggests that you do and blah blah blah but one of the things that it recommends is Alcoholics Anonymous. So it’s right there on the list of things that the government says you should think about doing if you have a problem with drinking, right? And I was really surprised when I started to investigate AA, how much God there was in it. And particularly coming from an English culture, which I think is probably more godless than any other culture I can think of. I’m just… The differences between… I’ve worked quite a lot in the US. And I love the place, I have to say I’ve even been to Kansas.

23:40 John S: Oh really?

23:41 Jeremy P: Kansas City.

23:42 John S: That’s where I live. Yeah.

23:44 Jeremy P: Yeah. And had a very extraordinary experience there. Not to do with alcohol, but to do with a very large taxi driver and his gun.

23:55 John S: Oh no.

23:56 Jeremy P: But that’s maybe for another story for another time.

24:00 John S: Sorry about that. I apologize on behalf of all the Kansas Citians. [laughter]

24:03 Jeremy P: No lovely place. And the people I met in the office I worked in for a day were charming individuals. But one of the things I remember when I first started working there was I had a meeting and there are about 20 people in the room, and we were having some disputes of a property nature with a church, that was kind of had a car park next to ours and it was all very… We were having a big argument. We were just going to dig a big hole in this car park to do some tunneling work. I can’t even remember what it was about. We… But I made some disparaging comment about Christians kind of not being very Christian and kind of pulled a face and we kind of laughed and if I had done that in London, or pretty much anywhere in England, people would just kind of smile…

24:56 John S: Right.

24:56 Jeremy P: Or just not thought anything of it. People were absolutely scandalized, that I had made some kind of anti-Christian comment in this meeting. And this was in New York, I wasn’t in like West Virginia or something, it was in Manhattan and someone took me aside after. And sort of said, “You can’t say bad things about God. This is America.” And I went, “Okay.” And I took it on board and I never made a sarcastic comment about Jesus or his ilk are ever again. But it brought home the contrast for me and I sort of thought, “Well that maybe AA kind of makes more sense in the US, because it’s much more godly and people kind of just going to fall in line with this stuff, but here it really jars. And one of the things I have noticed in the not very many AA meetings I’ve been to and mostly they’ve been secular, thank to via you guys I’ve managed to find those meetings which have been great but even…

26:03 Jeremy P: The God thing is clearly a problem for a lot of people and there was one poor guy who was doing 90 meetings in 90 days the kind of classic thing that people do and they are really in trouble and he was saying, he’d been to six meetings prior to this secular meeting over the last five days and in each one of those he was saying people were telling me that I couldn’t do it without God and blah, blah, blah and as an atheist that was really problematic for him and he was relieved to find a secular meeting in London and that made it much easier for him to come to terms with his condition I think so I was very really surprised as I said when I found out just how Gody it was.

27:04 John S: And I think that my theory is that even in the US, many of the people that are sitting in AA meeting aren’t particularly religious or if they are they don’t make a big deal about it in their everyday life but when they get into AA and you’ve got this book, there’s God everywhere, the steps, God everywhere, I think AA itself becomes their religion and they become very rigid in that you really need a higher power or you’re not going to… That says here in the book on this page you can’t do it on your own so I really think that they tend to make AA itself a religion and that’s why maybe in the United Kingdom where people really aren’t religious at all and probably do identify as secular when they get to AA it’s the program that they are getting dogmatic about and that’s become their religion I think and now I’m just diagnosing these people in England that I’ve never met [laughter] I think that’s how I feel about it. When I was going to meetings I think about these people and they wouldn’t really talk about their going to church or anything but based upon their life drinking and drugging they didn’t really seem like very pious people but boy when it came to AA they sure were and I was too myself, I fell in line myself so I do think that there’s that and if we would I really believe that the biggest problem is clinging to that book.

28:56 John S: I’m not against old books, I think that it’s great to have an old book because it’s a marker in time where you can say yes, this what’s the thought in the 1930s but it becomes a problem when you take that book and rather than appreciating it for what it was in it’s time you start applying it to your existing time when much of it isn’t relevant, that’s when it becomes a problem. And I think that’s why we’re having so much success with these secular AA groups because if you look at a secular AA meeting what distinguishes it from other meetings here in North America anyway is, first of all, there’s no Lord’s prayer, there’s no prayer at all during the meeting and we tend to stay away from that literature and it’s not…

29:50 John S: And I think that’s just a natural thing for us because unfortunately, the literature isn’t kind to atheists and agnostics so it’s natural for us not to want to read it but we still find some, I guess we still find some use from the community and being with like-minded people who support us in our desire to not drink so we find some utility there but there’s that book and I find it very interesting to the people that I see that are coming into our group here in Kansas City who are much, much younger than me and they look at the book and I think that their impression of it is a lot different than mine was when I was their age. I think it looks more ridiculous now in 2020 than it did in 1988 when… In 1988 it was 50 years old, it was pretty old then but now it’s 80 years old. I couldn’t imagine back in ’80, what if they gave me a book when I was needing to get sober and here it is 1988 and they gave me a book that was written in 1898 or something like that. I don’t know man, the language changes so much I don’t know if I would want anything to do with it so…

31:14 Jeremy P: I can get that.

31:16 John S: Yeah, but I think that’s a big problem but to AAs credit, every group has the right to do its own thing so we don’t have to use that book if we don’t want to and I think that is where we might win in the marketplace of ideas is if these secular AA groups take hold and become more popular than the other type of groups then maybe we’re going to see some change in AA but even if that doesn’t happen there are all the time more options available for people; SMART Recovery, LifeRing and just well, Hip Sobriety, online connections that people are making, yeah, that’s really… That might be the future, that might just be what people do.

32:10 Jeremy P: Yes, yeah, I wanted to talk to you or ask you about the kind of the steps if I may. One of the things, so I was listening to the Plymouth group of AA, not Plymouth in the US but in the south-west of England, a podcast they did recently and they seemed quite kind of hardcore old-school and there was a lot of talk in that meeting, and in that, it was a speaker meeting, I think it was like they did eight different speakers because it was their 20th anniversary of a particular group down there, which sounds as though they’ve had some tremendous success with people. One of the things that they kept saying was, I went to meetings for a very long time and if you think you can just turn up to meetings and not do the steps, then you’re deluding yourself, basically, you’re still… You’re a dry drunk and you need to get yourself a sponsor, go to telephone two people a day, work the steps, etcetera, etcetera. Do you kind of buy that… Do you think…

33:44 John S: No, I don’t, and I think that that kind of attitude is going to ultimately destroy AA if that’s what people are going to hear and I think it’s kind of immature and not really very thoughtful. I guess I can understand it if what happens, you fall into doing what everyone else around you does, you start parroting what everyone else says and does and I certainly did that, I just started speaking the way everyone else was speaking, and I was accepted in doing that and it’s really difficult to go against the grain. And when I started going against the grain, as I realized I was an atheist, people were adamant. Oh no, the time and place is going to come that people will fail you, you will need God. So, unfortunately, you do have that, but it’s totally… And from my point of view, it’s false. The steps are interesting because first of all, what exactly are they? They’re a list, I guess, but in my opinion, they are a description of an experience that a specific group of people had back in the 1930s and a list of things that they did because of that experience, and they put it in that particular language, because they kind of got this idea from this religious movement, that they all belonged to and were relying on some basic religious principles, I guess. So anyway, so basically…

35:25 Jeremy P: The Oxford group, isn’t it?

35:27 John S: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, thank you, England.

35:28 Jeremy P: Yeah.

35:29 John S: So anyway…

35:30 Jeremy P: Sorry about that.

35:31 John S: It’s alright. So anyway, so yeah. But if you look at the steps though, the first step is what, it’s a natural thing I think for anyone who’s grappling with addiction, if you’re thinking that you have a problem, if you’re ready to get help, usually, there’s something that triggers you to say, I need help and I think that’s essentially the first step. It’s this admitting that there’s a problem here, and that second step is nothing more than after realizing that there’s a problem, you come to understand that there are places to go for help. And then that third step is nothing more than a decision to go and seek that help, that you know is out there, whatever that might be. So those are just experiences that people have and you could put it in any way that you want to, and there’s no way to actually work those things. How do you…

36:27 John S: You can probably read books, and maybe try to understand the experience more, but those are really experiences that just happen and the steps, I guess are ways that you can relate that experience but unfortunately, it’s hard for us to relate to it because of the way that it was written, it was probably easier for those people to understand in the context of the Oxford group that they belonged to and then the rest of the steps are some actions that you can actually take. And again, the way that they’re worded is kind of odd, but kind of religiously oriented, but yeah, it’s just a matter of taking stock of yourself.

37:04 Jeremy P: No, you need to, you need to just a little and not have these horrible chaps tell you how rubbish you are.

37:13 John S: Oh, I know it. I had terrible self-esteem problems and that humility thing was a real struggle for me and I think it did some damage to a certain degree. I find myself just being afraid to ever acknowledge anything good I’ve done, or because I wouldn’t want to appear as being bragging or any… So it’s just, it’s a bit too much. I think it’s okay to feel good about something that you do, to talk about it. Anyway…

37:47 Jeremy P: Well, you should feel good about this podcast because I’ve listened to a large number of them…

37:53 John S: Well, thank you.

37:53 Jeremy P: And I really have got quite a lot from it.

37:57 John S: Oh, I love doing it, I absolutely love it. There’s nothing better. I’ve enjoyed this conversation immensely and I wouldn’t have had this opportunity if not for this podcast. So it’s pretty cool. So, Jeremy, I’m going to play a sat with our outro music and do our little exit thing here and see if this works. One thing I like about podcasting is I’m discovering my inner nerd and I’ve got this really cool equipment now. So that’s it for another episode of AA Beyond Belief, the podcast. I hope you enjoyed the conversation. I certainly did, thank you, Jeremy, that was a lot of fun. So for those of you out there who might be considering supporting our website and podcast, that would be appreciated, you can do it in a couple of different ways. You can go to Patreon, patreon.com/aabeyondbelief, or through PayPal at PayPal.me/aabeyondbelief, or just go to our website and click on the donate button if you can. Jeremy, it’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for sending the email and thank you very much for participating in the podcast today.
38:23 Jeremy P: Thank you.