In January of this year, Johann Hari published an article that went viral: “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think.” The article put forth the idea that the “disease model” the addictions industry has embraced might not be the panacea its propped itself up to be. Citing some intriguing research, Hari presented the idea that “the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It’s human connection.” He states, “what I learned on the road is that almost everything we have been told about addiction is wrong – and there is a very different story waiting for us, if only we are ready to hear it.” Apparently, a lot of people were ready to hear it, since as of this writing, well over 1 million Facebook readers have “liked” the article. That doesn’t include the multitudes promoting it through Twitter and other platforms.
Within days there was a strongly worded rebuttal by Alastair Mordey, Programme Director of The Cabin Addiction Services Group. More rebuttals by leaders in the Addictions Industry followed.
This month, the Atlantic published a similar article by Gabrielle Glaser called “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous” which claims “Its faith-based 12-step program dominates treatment in the United States. But researchers have debunked central tenets of AA doctrine and found dozens of other treatments more effective.” It’s an edgy article that has enjoyed tremendous popularity.
Within days, another powerful rebuttal was published by Tommy Rosen, in which he makes several good points to expose broader dimensions of the issue. Perhaps all of it can be summed up by this one statement: “And by the way, AA has no desire to defend itself.” Although it may be accurate to say that “AA” has no desire to defend itself, there is indeed plenty of defensiveness going around. That, in itself, is interesting.
Dr. Lance Dodes has made a name for himself as the man 12 steppers most love to hate. He’s dedicated a good bit of his professional life to debunking the notion that the 12 steps are the end-all-be-all of treatments for addictions. The LinkedIn discussion threads about his work can get pretty ugly. But it makes you wonder: why all the hatred over a simple point of view? Are we not all trying to help people win their lives back? What can we offer to the millions for whom AA doesn’t resonate? Do we simply cast them aside?
To suggest that AA doesn’t work at all would be foolish. AA works very well for quite a lot of people. Millions. There are many people who cannot succeed through any path other than 12 Steps. The articles that are meeting so much rabid opposition are simply stating that it is faulty to insist that primary addiction treatment must be grounded in the 12 Steps. Researchers are saying there is a significant population that do not respond well to the 12 Step Program, and treatment needs to be broader. So then, why all the rebuttals?
Evidence-Based or Faith-based?
Every treatment center on Earth, and all proponents of the 12 Step model will assert that they have an “evidence-based” model of success.
Indeed, there is plenty of evidence that certain components at the core of the 12 step program are very effective. There is evidence that being a part of a supportive community is good for a person’s mental, emotional, and physical welfare.
There is evidence that focusing on keeping a daily inventory, maintaining a Gratitude List, daily prayer and meditation actually activates the growth of new neural pathways in the brain. There is evidence that re-languaging one’s experience from “victim & blame” to “accountability & appreciation” has an effect on one’s overall functioning.
There is even evidence that a strong “faith” in something, even if that something is a placebo, has power. So where is the line between “faith” and “science”? How about this: faith is the basis for science.
The dilemma , however, is that none of the research about 12 Step-oriented treatment, as compelling as it all is, suggests that these variables can happen only in the rooms of AA. We know these same strategies can be found in one’s church, or community, or even one’s family.
There’s more than enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that plenty of people who leave the rooms go on to enjoy sobriety without AA. Some find “recovery” in other arenas, and some go on to enjoy moderate social drinking.
One friend described her experience in a way that echoed what I’ve heard from countless clients who were “resistant” to “treatment:”
“One of the reasons AA didn\'t work for me is because the goal of AA is more AA, ad infinitum. AA is the endgame (step 12). It was a big turn-off for me. I didn\'t enter the rooms so that I could become a lifelong devotee to a program; I entered the rooms so that I could find liberation from a life that revolved around drinking. I saw people in the rooms whose whole lives revolved around AA – and not just newbies, either; people who had been sober for years. My home group had its own building, and there were people who had no jobs, no money, no hobbies, etc., and all they did all day long was sit around in that building, gossip, go to meetings, play cards, drink the free coffee, and smoke cigarettes... because they had arrived at their destination: lifelong membership and devotion to a group. That was the endgame for them. I remember thinking to myself, I want a program that works as simply a launchpad for me to get my shit together and then go on with my life and become a productive, contributing member of society. I don\'t want a program where the endgame is the program itself. That\'s not to say that I think I\'ve \"arrived\" now and I don\'t have any desire to help others around me who might struggle with something; it\'s just that I have no intention of living a life devoted to a rigid, specific program. But of course, that\'s not the AA philosophy, and if you leave the rooms, you are immediately deemed a failure. I ran into one of my home group members in Walmart a few months ago, and he was literally shocked that I was still sober. He told me that I was talked about quite negatively when I left – not surprising, and it didn\'t really offend me, because I don\'t have anything to prove to them. But it\'s too bad that the AA community has put so much stock into a ‘program’ that it cannot allow for the possibility that something else might work better for someone than AA.”
As we move toward broader and more effective mechanisms for facilitating recovery in our culture, the question before us is: what will it take for us to come together and agree on an “end game” that supports individuals right to choose their life path? Perhaps this is a challenge that must play out within the ranks of AA itself. Indeed, within the 12 Step Program there are multiple layers of consciousness which express different brands of recovery. In some regions, the model is confined by a rigidity that alienates large numbers of new-comers. In other places, and perhaps in later stages of recovery, people are embracing new-thought leaders like Dr. Joe Dispenza. The time is now for these more enlightened recovering people to begin expanding their influence within the culture of AA. At this time in history, 12 steppers have the power to influence what “recovery” means to the broader culture. If defensiveness and rebuttals continue to dominate the national conversation, AA risks becoming irrelevant to everyone but 12-steppers. It is a trademark of all healthy institutions to exhibit an openness to outside influence. While some recovering communities demonstrate an openness to pop-cultural gurus with eastern spirituality leanings (Deepak Chopra, Pema Chodron, Jack Kornfield, Eckart Tolle), too often there is an unwillingness to be open to alternative concepts about sobriety and recovery. If AA is to survive in a healthy way so as to serve the greater good of all, the best of its members need to be willing to speak up in ways that are inclusive and inviting to “outsiders.” In other words, change the End Game. For the good of ALL.