A critical look at the 12-step movement
by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of
"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
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
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
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
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
@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
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
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
"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
Archetypal Advice |