THE DISTINCTION IS NOT TRIVIAL
As I wrote in ArenA last month, news of another “death of despair,” this one a young woman who drank herself to death alone in a Geneva hotel room, evoked despair that health care professionals (HCP) can understand – or effectively treat, alcoholism.
It’s been 35 years! since the American Medical Association categorized alcoholism as a disease. Yet in Switzerland and other EU countries, the medical establishment classifies it as an illness, not a primary disease like cancer. The distinction is not trivial.
OCCAM’S RAZOR vs. HICKAM’S DICTUM
Recovering alcoholics (and to be fair some HCP) apply the principle of Occam’s razor, i.e. the simplest interpretation of a phenomenon, (like an alcoholic’s irrational self-destructiveness) is most likely the right one. A.A. members are well aware of these phenomena. We experience them as cunning, baffling and powerful symptoms of one overarching common malady: alcoholism.
But today’s medical schools and universities suggest a different explanation for the “issues” problem drinkers profess. Many subscribe to what is called, “Hickam’s dictum.” Posited as a counter-argument to Occam’s simplicity, 20th-century physician John Hickam said, “patients can have as many diseases as they damn well please.” Little wonder HCP persist in treating an alcoholic’s litany of symptoms, instead of first helping a patient get and stay sober.
THEY DON’T CARE ABOUT A.A.
JS is a former pharma sales exec, fired after a 25-year career due to his drinking. I heard his share in a Basel zoom meeting on his 3rd sobriety anniversary how he got sober. Later, I asked for his input to influence HCP in outreach campaigns. Up until we spoke, I presumed (naively perhaps), health professionals, like problem drinkers, just needed to be informed of our life-saving solution.
After listening to me recite the generic mantra “.. carry the message to those still sick and suffering ..” JS pulled no punches and basically said, “Joel, health professionals don’t care about A.A. or OUR ideas. Their only interest is THEIR patients and what you can do for them.” His distinction is not trivial.
A NEW MESSAGE FOR PROFESSIONALS
It’s also industry standard, he explained, that the medical profession relies on support groups for chronically ill patients. Doctors recognize such groups’ role in long-term patient treatment and are predisposed to their value.
For example, below is a text copied from a UK cancer charity. Change “cancer” to “alcoholism” and it could have been lifted from an A.A. pamphlet.
“Local support groups are based in communities all over the UK. If you are living with cancer, they offer a safe and supportive environment for you to talk about what matters to you. Each group is unique, but they all include people who have been affected by cancer. There are more than 900 groups across the country.”
As the lightbulb grew brighter in my brain, JS and I created a slide deck exclusively targeting local HCP with the message that A.A. groups are an ideal support community for HCP patients and clients.
He also pointed out medical sales reps bring evidence a product does what they claim. No competent doctor will simply order 100 boxes of pills or prescribe medication without data to prove its efficacy. For our proof we surveyed our respective fellowships in Basel and Zurich, compiling hard data showing A.A. membership and meeting attendance does correlate to long-term sobriety.
Despair shows us the limit of our imagination. Imaginations shared create collaboration, collaboration creates community, and community inspires social change.”
— Terry Tempest Williams
The tragic death of despair in Geneva exposed the limits of imagination. But then JS shared his experience, leading to our collaboration, and now a community of outreach volunteers are forming. If you, your group or IG are willing to begin carrying a new message to local HCP, contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) for resources and support.
Joel B. – Health Liaison Officer
Continental European Region of Alcoholics Anonymous UK