I was once on a drug policy panel with a distinguished feminist lawyer. She told me, "If AA saved only one person, I'd support it." Well, there you go. AA has worked for many people. But, as I make clear in my new book with Ilse Thompson, Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life with The Perfect Program, it fails far, far more than it helps, and many times the number of both its failures and successes simply never go to AA or enter 12-step treatment. The vast majority of people recover on their own, just as the vast majority fail at the 12 steps. (All this is also evident in Lance Dodes's forthcoming book.)
We might ask 12-step supporters like that law professor, "What if AA or the 12 steps killed one person, or ten people, or thousands of people, or hundreds of thousands of people" (as it has through creating the zero-tolerance, abstinence-only mentality in America that has impeded implementation of clean needle exchanges for injecting drug addicts)? But we don't hear about those 12-step failures. When we do, scorn is heaped on them (like Lindsay Lohan) or (like Amy Winehouse) they are blamed for the failure of their treatment. Meanwhile, Philip Seymour Hoffman was in NA while he killed himself.
Here is the tale of one such failure as viewed over a period of years, through Alfred's story of his girlfriend/the mother of his child, Cathy. (Names have been changed, along with other identifying characteristics.) What is most remarkable about this failure is Cathy's refusal to seek alternative treatments at the potential cost of her life and her child.
From the start, as a not died-in-the-wool American, Alfred was puzzled by his girlfriend's reliance on AA, NA, and their programs. He tried to get her involved in alternatives, but she wasn't biting. And, so, Alfred reluctantly left off touch with me. That is, until he recently e-mailed me after five years:
Long time no speak. I was in contact with you several years ago when I was busy fighting the 12-steppers. That only went so well. They're still out there in force, talking the same nonsense.
At any rate: The woman I (perhaps foolishly continue to) love with all my heart continues to struggle with substance abuse. Cathy is now nearly dead from heroin. After years of dabbling in various opiates in pill form, and whatever else she could get her hands on, her life has gone almost entirely into the toilet. She has developed a full-blown heroin addiction and seems to barely escape death with alarming regularity. It is not good. Especially because she is also the mother of our beloved five-year-old son, who family services is in all likelihood about to remove from her mother, after she was caught shooting up in our home. Losing contact with her son will kill her for sure. I am certain of it. The situation is dire.
She keeps on going to rehabs, hospitals and 12-step meetings. Of course it is not leading to any results whatsoever. The one time she was clean and sober and non-drug oriented was when we went to my seaside home in England for two years. No AA/NA there. Just fresh sea air, good people, an occasional glass of beer or wine and healthy living. That's when we had our son. Now we're back in the States, and things are absolute hell.
Alfred and Cathy's situation is like an experiment, one in which exposure to AA and the 12 steps is the cause of a descent into the worst form of addiction. Of course, I offered to put Cathy in touch with the best alternative treatment models. Yet, Cathy rejects this option. Here is why:
I have tried to sell her on you and your program and comparable alternatives forever, but she scoffs at these choices. I believe she thinks taking one of these options would be a betrayal of the steppers. I have tried and tried, believe me. Just the other day I gave her your stuff, and she said she would look into it. But of course she hasn't. She's been to several 12-step meetings and nearly overdosed since then.
Obviously, I can't offer my services to someone who has rejected me and other alternative addiction approaches, even under the most dire circumstances. It would seem almost to call for an intervention, an intervention against 12-step meetings and rehabs. In the meantime, however, what Cathy seems to be saying is that she would rather die or lose her child, rather than to disappoint her 12-step cohorts.
What is that called? A cult? Denial? An addiction? So, we may wonder, what do we do if the 12 steps kill more people than they help in a society that is addicted to it?
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