Imagine being diagnosed with cancer, going through a regimen of chemotherapy only to have the cancer return within months, and being told by your doctor that there must be something wrong with you and that he can’t treat you unless you let the chemo do its work.
Unfortunately, if you replace the cancer above with addiction, the chemotherapy with the 12-steps, and the doctor with 12-step dogma, you have what we know as the ________ Anonymous model (fill in your favorite blank). It’s even written in what 12-steppers call The Big Book (officially called “Alcoholics Anonymous”) and often read as part of the “How it Works” section.
“Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves… They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty.”
Well, as far as I’m concerned, this is where the 12 steps lose credibility with me. In any other field, if one treatment doesn’t work, another one is tried, and another. Different people with different conditions may need slightly different approaches. If no known treatment works, experimental ones are attempted. This is how medical science advances. Still, the notion of a physician blaming the patient for a treatment not working is ridiculous. There’s an entire field built around intervention research and I’m pretty sure that simply dismissing the patient as constitutionally dishonest isn’t a common technique.
Treating chronic conditions
In diabetes, like in addiction, there is a rate of compliance with prescribed treatment. And just like among addicts, that rate is relatively low, averaging around 30% or less. Relapse is also pretty common in other chronic conditions like diabetes, asthma, and hypertension, and rests around 50%-60%, not far from estimates for addiction.
Some patients are better at following one regimen while others do better with a different schedule, different doses, or different treatment methods altogether. Similarly, while some addicts respond beautifully to CBT, it seems to help some very little. The same is true for the 12-steps, religion, and a host of other practices. As far as I’m concerned, this means that when an addict seeks treatment, their provider should take a good assessment of the issues, prescribe the treatment that seems to fit best, but if that one doesn’t work, try another method, not throw them out because the favorite approach didn’t cut it.
12-step Dogma Vs. Progress
And therein lies the problem with the 12-steps, whether supporters acknowledge the religious nature of the program or not is tangential, the important thing is that they cling to a book written decades ago much like believers hold onto a bible. Both are collections of stories and messages passed on that no one is willing to re-examine and, if needed, change. Medical texts, and indeed any textbook seeking to stay relevant, stay current by issuing new editions that incorporate new knowledge, but the 12-steps haven’t been touched since 1939, or since the beginning of world war II!!!
Advancement requires flexibility
1939 was an important year, with the 3rd Reich beginning its exploits, Steinbecks’s “Grapes of Wrath” seeing its first publication (another book without major edits since), the first stocking ever sold, and the emerging use of penicillin. I think many of us would agree that there have been some serious advances since that time.
When it comes to addiction, those advances include our vastly improved understanding of the neuroscience, genetics, and general brain function involved. Additionally, the development of very effective treatment modalities, like Motivational Interviewing (MI), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and Contingency Management (CM), has given providers a much more complete toolbox with which to deal with addiction problems. Unfortunately, many within the 12-step community have never heard of any of these methods, or of the use of medications (like Bupropion) to help with cravings. Personally, I think that’s just sad.
How it works. Really.
It’s time to dust off the covers, and incorporate the 12-steps into the bigger picture of addiction treatment. When 12-steppers wonder why people can’t just see the value of the program, I automatically think of the preacher who sat in on of my addiction class and kept yelling that if only addicts accepted Jesus into their lives, they would be saved. Laugh all you want, but not only did the 12-steppers dismiss him, they missed an opportunity. He had a point- those who accept Jesus into their lives fully may succeed in recovering from addiction on that basis alone – but those who fail to do so should be given every other treatment tool available so that they may also.
This is supposed to be the age of inclusion, a time for Change with a capital “C.” Let’s make ourselves proud and help those suffering by making sure that we’re offering every treatment option possible.
I’m not a devout 12-step believer, though I think that AA and the offspring programs have some serious merit, especially when it comes to addiction treatment aftercare. In this discussion, I’m talking about all group-support based programs, including Smart Recovery and others. I’m personally a fan of non-religious groups, but that’s just me.
Chronic conditions require long term care
I’ve already talked about my view of addiction as a long-term, chronic condition. Regardless of the “disease” moniker, I think it’s undeniable that, at least for some people, addiction treatment needs to continue long past their initial “quitting” phase, regardless of whether they went through an inpatient or outpatient treatment (or quit alone at home).
Without getting hung-up on my misgivings about 12-step programs (I have a few), I’d like to talk about some of the factors that make me believe in the system as a continuous aftercare resource:
It’s free – Most people, especially given current insurance limitations, can’t afford ongoing outpatient help be it through a psychologist or an addiction-treatment provider. While the latter two are can be superior in their knowledge about recent developments in addiction, they cost money.
It normalizes behavior – One of the difficulties many addicts share is in talking to non-addicts about their problems. They feel ashamed, misunderstood, or judged. Being with like-minded individuals can eliminate some of those issues. Nevertheless, people often find understanding only regarding the specific issue a program deal with and therefore find they need to attend many different support groups to address all their issues.
It provides ongoing support outside of meetings – The social connections people make in meetings can often help them outside the rooms. Your psychologist isn’t likely to do the same.
It keeps the focus on relevant issues – When following the 12 step rigorously, one is always working on bettering his/her program. That sort of attention can help catch problems early on before they develop into real difficulties.
It keeps people busy – Some addicts need to stay occupied to keep out of trouble, especially in the transition from their acute treatment back to everyday life. Attending social-support meetings can make the time go faster while providing a relatively safe social environment.
Even with all these advantages, I can’t help but object to some of the AA dogma, especially when it comes to religion and to the unwavering resistance to adapt their system as it was handed down in the late 30s. We’ve learned a lot since and I think 12-Step programs could benefit greatly by incorporating recent knowledge. In fact, reviews of studies regarding the effectiveness of AA find it no more useful than other interventions overall. This is why I believe that 12-Step programs are best used along with, and no instead of, additional treatment options.