Revisioning Recovery:
A critical look at the 12-step movement

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing, Atlanta, 1997)

"The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom."

-- William Blake

A few months ago, in April, a bouquet of flowers arrived at my house. My partner sent them. I had no idea why.

Later, I got the explanation: "Isn't this the anniversary of your sobriety?"

I was stunned. I had completely forgotten. Indeed, 15 years had passed since my last drink on April 9, 1982. On that night, I had one of those classic experiences of "hitting bottom." In a sordid little drama that involved iced-tea glasses of liquor, an explosion of anger and intervention by some (very kind) policemen, I was delivered into the hands of Alcoholics Anonymous.

It astonishes me now that I went to AA meetings daily, often more than once a day, for nearly 10 years. Because what I am about to say here is going to be critical of some aspects of the recovery movement in America, I want to acknowledge at the outset that AA did provide me a means of giving up alcohol and drugs. I never relapsed and I am thoroughly indoctrinated. The very thought of taking a drink of liquor or a toke of marijuana still frightens me at a visceral level.

And yet for several years I have found attending the average AA meeting an experience of unbearable boredom. The "program" -- AA is anthropomorphized in the same way the church is personified as the maternal "she" -- has all manner of explanations and remedies for this. The diagnosis is always a failure of gratitude and the prescription is always deeper invovlement in the program itself.

The latter's meaning takes various forms but generally means increased engagement with the 12 steps themselves, a path of Christian-based idealism. The development of personal spirituality in relationship to a "higher power," confession, testifying and service to other alcoholics are central. If you don't at least attend meetings, the conventional wisdom goes, you're going to end up drunk again.

Now, we make a great deal out of the idea that AA and the uncountable other 12-step groups work, where other forms of treatment, like applied psychology, are usually failures. Of course, the actual success rate is unknown. We do know that the vast majority of people who enter 12-step programs resume using. The "failure rate" is often placed at over 90 percent. At the same time, a growing number, like me, know simply on the basis of lived experience that departure from AA does not necessarily mean the end of sobriety. It may mean that AA becomes inadequately interesting for regular participation.

And that is what I would like to question for a moment. Without sacrificing acknowledgement of AA's effectiveness for many, I want to ask what it is in the experience of (what we call) addiction that is so compelling and remains inadequately addressed even in the 12-step programs.

First, nobody has ever quite adequately defined "addiction." Pure etymological examination turns up something interesting. The word is from a Latin root meaning "surrender" or to "give over to." I say this is interesting because the first of the 12 steps requires surrender to the fact of one's powerlessness over alcohol and then to "god." Thus, as many people have long intuited, the surrender to AA is quite accurately described as the assumption of a new "addiction" in the classic meaning of the word. One is not in control in either case.

But this definition of addiction doesn't exactly explain what is being surrendered to prior to surrender to the god one imagines in AA. In order to surrender, to give ourselves over to something, there must be a "something" asking our surrender. We say that this "something" is alcohol or drugs or sex or the "codependent." Could this mean that these substances and behavior have a consciousness of sorts to seduce and overtake the addict? That is, etymologically at least, what is suggested.

But if you ask someone in the field of addictionology how this "something" -- alcohol or drugs -- can demand anything of a free-thinking person, you will be told it's not that way at all. Alcohol is just a liquid, afterall, with psychoactive properties, granted, but without a will of its own. You'll be told it's all an internal phenomenon. Something in the psychological and/or biological life of the addict, you'll be told, makes one vulnerable to "abusing" these substances or predisposed to a behavior like sexual compulsion. People in the program themselves usually echo this sentiment.

And yet if you listen to the stories of alcoholics, particularly of newcomers -- and "testifying" or story-telling is the main therapy of AA -- you get a very different sense. What you hear is the story of being overtaken by alcohol. This is the lived experience of every addict I know. One promises not to drink, to embarass the family, and -- boom -- you are throwing back scotches and transformed into a raving poet on a barstool. Indeed, the shared experience of advanced addicts is the "blackout," when all memory is obliterated, when the will is completely given over to the power of the drug.

The Greeks, of course, didn't even question that alcohol had consciousness. To be drunk was to be possessed by Dionysos. Most cultures have in fact celebrated the potentiality of alcohol, "spirits," and drugs to overtake and alter consciousness. The peyote ceremony is a Native American acknowledgement of the consciousness within the plant that wants to share itself. The alteration in consciousnees can be ecstatic or it can be endarkening. But, in this view, something is being served in the human need to be overtaken and in the substance's need to overtake. "The whole world wants me to be drunk," Rumi wrote.

Now, many in AA will find this an outrageous idea. And yet, in suggesting surrender to a higher power, they are themselves (rightly) imbuing the invisible with consciousness and will, the power to overtake and alter. Why could it not be precisely the same with the god of alcohol and drugs, Dionysos, and with the god of sexual desire, Himeros? Why should these gods be any less real than the god of Chrisitanity? The Eucharist itself changes wine to blood. In Christ is both Dionysos and Apollo, no matter how much we attempt to puritanize Christianity.

So, in AA one attempts to exchange the "spirits" of alcohol and the earth for the "spirits" of the transcendent. Work the program diligently enough, people tell you, and "it will get better," thanks to your new higher power.

Better" is about as much as it gets. For, again, when you listen to the stories of lived experience, Dionysos and Himeros do not fade from the lives of "recovered addicts." If they are as real as the god of AA, how could they fade away? Many, especially those who are vulnerable to puritanical fantasies of complete recovery, disappear from 12 step programs when this recognition or experience occurs. But among those who stay, time and again you hear about the "spontaneous" arising of "new addictions," usually a few years after the "true believer" has mastered alcohol abstinence. The recovered alcholic, having managed to reconstruct his finances, is suddenly at Macy's, breathless from running from cash register to cash register, overtaken by the gods of consumption. Or the recovered "erotomaniac," happily married, becomes a "workaholic."

@Body:It is at this juncture, where a new depth of experience is needed, thatthe 12 step programs as both a social and a personal movement fail to serve the individual and the world.


When the addict discovers that abstinence from one addiction may precipitate the arising of another compulsive behavior, the program responds that the addiction must be a symptom of an underlying problem. In other words, it is a personal psychological problem. (Thus, as I quoted Carl Jung in a column a few weeks ago, "the gods become diseases," personal diseases.)

At this point, program people often engage in an interesting shift in their stories. The story, often funny in its early telling, becomes a morality play. I don't mean that humor is completely sacrificed. But the exploits of the addict turn dark in recollection and AA becomes salvational.

I know this quite well from my own life. During my first five years of recovery friends would often ask me if I didn't miss the pure fun of drinking. In my absorption in the salvational fantasy of AA, as I was possessed by addictive behavior after addictive behavior, my memory actually reconstructed my drinking experience. The truth, including pleasure, retreated from my salvational hopes. "No," I'd say, "none of it was actually very fun."

"Well," they'd say, "what about that time we got drunk and danced all night and drove to the beach the next day?" My eyes would narrow.

"No," I'd say with complete conviction, "that wasn't that much fun."

This astounds me now. In truth, I had a hell of a good time while I was drinking. In fact, I even loved drinking alone. "The exquisite architecture of my pain," as I used to quite self-consciously call it, made sitting in a chair with a bottle of scotch, a joint, a book of poetry and a stack of Billie Holiday records delicious to me.

Is it at all clear what I am suggesting?

The 12-step programs for a time virtually require a withdrawal from the world of soul, of the painfully ecstatic and dark adventures (except as moralized recollection of one's "story"). Everything becomes spiritualized. This denial of the full range of pleasure even in memory -- an interesting inversion of AA's own preachiness about denial -- even eclipses the capacity to grieve what is lost, perhaps necessarily, in the rejection of the Dionysian seduction. Every addict who recovers must, it appears, conceal his appetite for the Dionysian for a time -- but eventually a way must be found to fully welcome the gods of pleasure back into life, with all their power to shatter puritanical and salvational fantasy.

Prayer, meditation and selfless service to other alcoholics are valuable practices but they are ultimately ineffective defenses against the Dionysian impulse for pleasure and radically altered states of consciousness. Even AA's (canonized) founder experimented with LSD and kept a mistress -- facts whispered at meetings or dismissed as aberrations characteristic of the founding years' struggles. In fact, they speak to the basic human need for a radical experience of love and altered consciousness (not that prayer isn't such an experience for the AA novitiate).

So, how might one maintain sobriety and still engage in a deep experience of soul-enriching pleasure free of puritanical fantasy?

First, addiction must be viewed as an active phenomenon in the world. Whether you imagine it, like the Greeks, as Dionysos or in Terrence McKenna's way, as the consciousness of plant life acting upon us, something in the world itself wants to destabilize and alter our consciousness. This is a healing impulse.

Second, we must realize that the extent to which this consciousness exerts itself as compulsion or addiction will be symptomatic of the culture's repression of it. We live in a manic society whose gods are consumerism and work. Is it any wonder, then, that alcohol -- a depressive drug -- exerts such a strong influence. It is, in a sense, a "corrective" to the manic culture. It sabotages all of the values the society holds dearest. In a sense, addicts suffer on behalf of the entire culture.

Thus, third, we must recognize that addiction, as a paralyzing state, holds addicts apart from societal values and insists on a radically altered way of living. The 12 step progams already recognize that there is no returning to mainstream society's manic values. Thus it offers a Christianized set of values as an alternative. But this does not go far enough.

Fourth, the failure of these new values to sustain the sobriety of most people in the world and to accommodate their need for the Dionysian, is not just a failure by addicts to "work the program effectively." It is also a failure of the program to address the cultural basis of addiction in terms of thinking and service.

Thus, fifth, the notion of service must be extended far beyond the community of (symptomatic) alcoholics to address not just the underlying personal problem but the underlying social problem that is being expressed through the addict: the sacrifice of beauty and pleasure to the violence of manic, economic values.

So, sixth, the addict has a responsibility to return pleasure, a sense of the ecstatic, to his life and to the world -- to promote beauty in the world. To absorb oneself in a salvational, puritanical fantasy in order only to rejoin the world of economic productivity as a Christian ethicist is to reinforce the cultural basis of addiction and probably insure it's continued domination of your life in one guise or another. I am speaking here, of course, of an effort that must occur after abstinence is learned.

My own journey through sobriety has been torturous. It was years before I could admit and grieve the losses I suffered in giving up alcohol and drugs. This "hole" left in the psyche, to use AA's common term, is supposed to be filled spiritually. But my own journey through meditation and study of all forms of spirituality ultimately led me back to the recognition that bliss must be found in the body. This is a journey of the soul, as much as of the spirit. I close with a favorite quote from Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul:

"A soulful personality is complicated, multifaceted, and shaped by both pain and pleasure, success an dfailure. Life lived soulfully is not without its moments of darkness and periods of foolishness. Dropping the salvational fantasy frees us up to the possibility of self-knowledge and self-acceptance which are the very ground of soul."

Copyright 1997 by Creative Loafing | Published 1997

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