The Methadone/AA Link

Here’s an interesting follow-up to my post about the Newsweek article.

This in an excerpt from a lecture by Vincent Dole, a pioneer in methadone maintenance:

In the early 1960’s I was honored (and puzzled) by an invitation to join the Board of Alcoholics Anonymous as a Class A (nonalcoholic) trustee. Under the Constitution of AA only seven nonalcoholic persons could occupy this position, while several hundred thousand regular members of AA had entered the Fellowship the hard way, by being alcoholics. I was afraid that they might have made a mistake, and so before accepting the position, I discussed my research with executives of the Fellowship and raised the question as to whether this appointment might involve a conflict of interest, or at least the appearance of one. Would it embarrass the Fellowship to have an investigator of chemotherapy for narcotic addiction included in the Board of AA? They insisted that they saw no problem since the objectives were parallel-namely providing the best treatment available to sick persons. They also pointed to AA’s Fifth Tradition, which states that the mission of AA is solely to help alcoholics, and firmly rules against taking a position on other issues. They were right. There never has been a problem in my association with AA, and my admiration for Bill Wilson and the dedicated AA members that I came to know has increased over the years.

Needless to say, I have gained far more from AA than the Fellowship did from me. It was my privilege to witness the healing force of personal service, group support and humility, while my only serious responsibility was to serve on a few committees and be an alert observer. As an organization, AA is the purest form of democracy. Major questions are submitted to the membership at the annual meetings of delegates representing all groups. Ultimately, questions of policy are resolved in a statement of the Group Conscience. The headquarters of AA, the General Services Office, is just what the name states. The secret of AA’s strength is service. It is a secret that certainly should be shared with the medical profession.

Throughout most of my time on the Board I continued to be puzzled by the original question: Why had I, specifically, been invited to serve? If a physician experienced in treatment of alcoholics had been needed for professional opinion, there were many persons with better qualifications than I. If an administrative advisor was sought, I would be near the bottom of any search list. My only qualification was caring. One answer gradually became clear: In the early years of AA Bill and the original trustees were acutely sensitive to the danger of the Fellowship being distorted by aggressive persons with dogmatic opinions. During my time on the Board, I never detected any sign of this happening, but perhaps that simply reflectedthe success of the Traditions in the mature organization, keeping the Fellowship on track. Anyway, I assumed that I had been brought in as sort of a smoke alarm, a canary in the mine.

A more specific answer, however, emerged in the late 1960s, not long before Bill’s death. At the last trustee meeting that we both attended, he spoke to me of his deep concern for the alcoholics who are not reached by AA, and for those who enter and drop out and never return. Always the good shepherd, he was thinking about the many sheep who are lost in the dark world of alcoholism. He suggested that in my future research 1 should look for an analogue of methadone, a medicine that would relieve the alcoholic’s sometimes irresistible craving and enable him to continue his progress in AA toward social and emotional recovery, following the Twelve Steps. I was moved by his concern, and in fact subsequently undertook such a study.

Until its closure this year, my laboratory sought an analogue of alcoholism in mice so as to be able to test potential medicines that could benefit human alcoholics. We failed in this, but the work is only begun. Talented investigators in other laboratories are working on various aspects of the analogue problem. With the rapid advance in neurosciences, I believe that Bill’s vision of adjunctive chemotherapy for alcoholics will be realized in the coming decade.

Now let me describe a coincidence that linked my work with Bill’s in an unexpected way, and perhaps explains my reaction to the scenes on the 125th Street 30 years ago. In Bill’s biography, he recalls a time in the winter of 1940 when the future of AA looked bleak. There was no activity in the newly opened club on 24th Street, and he was resting upstairs. Someone called up that a bum had come in, asking for Bill. Stumping up the steps was a stooped man with a cane who identified himself as a Jesuit priest. He said that he had come to meet Bill because of his admiration for the Twelve Steps. They were, he said, remarkably similar to the precepts of St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of his religious order. As Bill’s biographer put it, “thus began a conversation that lasted 20 years.”

My association with AA came much later, but my contact with Edward Dowling, the priest in this story, antedated Bill’s meeting with him by 15 years. He was my classroom teacher in first year high school at Loyola Academy in Chicago in the mid 1920’s. At that time he was a slim and vigorous young novitiate with jet black Irish hair and an intense manner. Among other subjects he discussed ethical conduct, not as an abstract thesis, but as a practical obligation toward others, and as a service that brings its own reward.

In his subsequent busy career as a priest Father Dowling lived what he had taught, friend and advisor to people in trouble, to young families, to students, to alcoholics. I saw him only infrequently in later years, but remember most clearly the contrast between his continued intellectual force and his deteriorating health. Medically, he had severe rheumatoid spondylitis. He became progressively more stooped, white haired, limited in travel. Yet he did not even seem to be aware of his disability. He was too occupied with the problems of others.

Marie Nyswander, Bill Wilson, and Edward Dowling are no longer with us, but their inspiration remains. For each, life was a continuing Twelve Step. They cared for people who suffered and especially those with the double jeopardy of being sick and being rejected. They left a positive record of success in dealing with these problems. It is my privilege, as their student, to greet the Society for Addiction Medicine, and transmit the expectations that they surely would have had for its future. They would have welcomed the strength and scientific discipline that you bring to the field. They would expect you to study and debate the technical details of treatment while being united in compassion for addicts. They would look to you for leadership that rises above special interests and prejudice. They would hope that you could lead the way to rational measures of prevention, and a variety of effective, nonpunitive treatments for various addictions. Certainly they would expect you to be concerned with the enormous public health problem of addiction: tens of thousands of drug addicts and hundreds of thousands of alcoholics who still remain untreated. It would be their fervent hope that you succeed.

This lecture was published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research in 1991.

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2 responses to “The Methadone/AA Link

  1. Robin J Foote

    What a wonderful story. I have never heared of this connection before. Wonderful!

  2. Geo

    It is interesting to mnote that Naltrexone, an antagonist has been used in opioid addiction and now in Alcoholism under the neme Revia. Ther are other medications for alcoholism. George Medically Assisted Treatment Advocate