AA, NA, Waiting for Godot, and The Iceman Cometh

Philip Seymour Hoffman is a typical 12-step story

Posted Feb 24, 2014

What is most amazing about the Philip Seymour Hoffman story, but what gets the least coverage, is that he died as an active member of Narcotics Anonymous. He was all in about being an addict: "At Sundance, a magazine publisher who did not immediately recognize him asked him what he did. Mr. Hoffman replied, 'I’m a heroin addict.'" Hoffman totally accepted his 12-step, addict identity

[March 1: Despite PSH's involvement in treatment/NA, he did not act consistent with a recognition of risk factors.]

As Ilse Thompson and I write in Recover! Stop Thinking Lke an Addict and Reclaim Your Life with The PERFECT Program, what the 12 steps most reinforce is the following view of yourself.

At this moment you may have some very negative beliefs about yourself. You may believe that your true self is somehow corrupted or deviant. You may think that you simply do not have an identity outside your addiction—that you are not distinct from it. You may believe that you have behaved in ways that disqualify you from positive participation in society, or that any engagement with the world beyond your addiction is a tedious masquerade.

This is the life Hoffman was living:

Mr. Hoffman had admitted to a drug relapse at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in December, where a leader asked if those in attendance were counting their time sober in terms of years, months, weeks or days. Mr. Hoffman said, “I am counting days,” according to a person at the meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the group’s rules.

Hoffman was wracked by guilt over his drug use and drinking (which he was also doing excessively):

It was a struggle he took seriously. “Phil was sober for over 25 years and conquered it to the greatest degree one can, given the nature of it,” said David Bar Katz, a playwright and friend who was one of the first two people to discover Mr. Hoffman dead. “He was against every aspect of drug use.”

So how does someone who feels that way succumb to all-out, unrestrained drug use and drinking, as Hoffman had?

As Mr. Hoffman returned from Atlanta, his condition was such that Theresa Fehr, a home warranties executive based in Houston, mistook him for “a street person.”  Ms. Fehr was flying home, like the actor, from Atlanta that day. She noticed a man — not immediately recognizing him — being escorted to the security checkpoint by a Transportation Security Administration agent. “I just thought it was really odd that this street person was at the airport,” she said. “He put his shoes on the belt and just threw his belt there. You could tell he was very intoxicated.”

Is this behavior due to a brain disease, as David Sheff informed us in Time?  Sheff actually proclaims that Hoffman -- who died near his buprenorphine prescription -- would have been saved by recognizing that his brain disease made him a helpless addict whose only hope was to receive medical treatment in the form of anti-addiction pharmaceuticals like buprenorphine!

In fact, as we say in Recover! the greatest prompt to abandonment of hope and all-out relapse is the guilt and powerlessness people learn in disease groups.  Ilse Thompson and I describe the case of Renee, who after six years of abstaining had a bad night that resulted in her arrest, loss of a job, and divorce:

This horrifying story didn’t have to occur, as we will see in the relapse prevention section of The PERFECT Program. However, even taken at its worst, Renee drank too much one night in six years. She had a lot to make up for, but she didn’t drink again for another four years. Getting drunk one night in a decade is about as good a record as anyone could hope for (recall the analogy of spilling a bottle of wine in the ocean). This story is not meant to make light of Renee’s suffering and guilt. It is meant to put in perspective what a violation of an abstinence vow should actually mean and how it should be handled.

Instead, as an AA member responded to a column I wrote about all the deaths in AA/NA groups:

One thing your article didn't stress enough is the idea of relapse shame. We are told in AA that to have one drink is as much of a relapse, failure, and loss of status as a week-long binge. And we are told that once we have the first drink we cannot stop. Is it surprising that a person who takes that first drink is quite likely to go on to consume a huge quantity of alcohol/drugs? If you are going to lose your "time" and have to "start over" and face shame in "the rooms" you might as well get your humiliation's worth, and they said you couldn't do any different anyway.

Here is one comment by someone who attended AA/NA to my earlier post on how our approach in Recover! differs from that in AA/NA:

I was in AA for 27 years before leaving several years ago. I haven't had a drink in nearly 30 years, at first because I believed in the abstinence model and afterward because I take certain chemo drugs which don't mix with alcohol.

I would like to address the critics of Stanton's column about Mr. Hoffman.

If you are in AA/NA/etc. for any period of time, you know someone who has died from suicide, drunk driving, accident, murder or overdose. You don't like it, but, if you stay long enough, you accept it as a part of life.

People in programs die most frequently after a "slip." Why? Because they feel hopeless. They feel like failures. And, you know as well as I do, that half of the people in the rooms, help them feel that way by narcissistically saying that the slip helped the people in the room "stay sober" and treating the slipper like an object lesson.

Imagine that you have been doing drugs after 23 years sober. Imagine going into your home group and telling the people you sponsored that you've been getting high. Imagine the gossip, the innuendo, the bull that gets said about you. Do you REALLY think that you are going to feel good about yourself by going to a meeting, or do you think you are going to feel hopeless and helpless?

There are people like Mr. Hoffman in AA every day. They aren't famous and they die. Is AA a success for them? Is it helping them? Or does it have such a stranglehold on the treatment business that it shames them into thinking "why bother?" and buying 70 glassine bags of heroin?

Mr. Peele is the man with compassion. Open your minds.

Is this description of people waiting around for eternity in a state of ennui and stasis, like Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, or hoping for some miracle worker to come and rescue a bunch of barflies, like Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, far-fetched?

Not according to the view of AA/NA groups presented in an article in the Times entitled: "His Death, Their Lives":

For Some in A.A. and Other Addiction Recovery Groups, the Death of Philip Seymour Hoffman Hits Home.

In the first hours and days that followed Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death from an apparent overdose of heroin, there was an outpouring of grief on Facebook, on Twitter and in columns by recovering addicts and alcoholics like the journalist Seth Mnookin and the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin about their own struggles with sobriety and the rarely distant fear of relapsing back into the throes of active addiction.

There was also a palpably visceral reaction in the meeting rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, where, according to some in attendance, many discussions since last Sunday quickly turned from the death of a great actor to the precariousness of sobriety, and the fears of many sober people that they could easily slip back into their old ways, no matter how many years they have been clean.

AA and NA have created a cadre of the living dead.

This is the opposite of the approach Ilse Thompson and I adopt in Recover! where we see that "all addicts have some kind of alternative, non-addicted identity waiting to surface," which our book works to have people first, believe, and then to materialize.

When people overcome their addictions, they are not transforming into completely different people. They are merely surfacing another side of themselves, an alternative persona, one that has been hidden and yet that represents their true, abiding self.

Being addicted means that you identify so strongly with your addiction, you are so consumed with the never-ending task of patching that flimsy screen that keeps your true self from emerging, that you have forgotten how to imagine yourself living without it. You would be empty inside or a complete stranger to yourself, someone without an identity or soul, you may now believe. Recover! and The PERFECT Program tell you: This is not true. The real you is, in fact, able to reassert itself and to take charge.

So, take your pick -- the AA, NA and brain disease model, or the one predicated on the fact that most addicts recover, far and away most often without treatment.

Stanton Peele has been at the cutting edge of addiction theory and practice since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has developed the on-line Life Process Program. His new book (with Ilse Thompson) is, Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life with The PERFECT Program. He can be found online on Google+, Facebook, and Twitter.


Mr. Peele, I really

Submitted by Anonymous on February 24, 2014

Mr. Peele,

I really appreciate your efforts to bringing to light another form of recovery. I am 2 years sober, and I went to a rehab that taught specifically the brain disease model. I sit around scared the other shoe will drop. One thing I never find is some who recovered without the 12 step model. Probably because they are out living their lives not worrying about it. Can you provide instances or examples?

How about Bode Miller and Drew Barrymore—untreated recovering addicts and alcoholics actually outnumber treated by 7:1.  And, of course, read and discuss my book at your AA meetings!

How about me?

Submitted by Anonymous on February 24, 2014

15 years here. Yes, I got started in 12 step (it was impossible NOT to in 1998) but eventually rejected the ideology which I found both illogical and limiting. When I left the program I was told I would surely relapse and die ("signing my own death warrant", as it says in the 12&12), but it has been years now and I'm still doing great. In fact, I'm not only doing great, but better than I was in 12 step programs because I no longer have that feeling that the other shoe is going to drop, or that my decision to abstain is fragile and can be lost in a nanosecond if I am not "spiritually fit" (whatever the hell THAT means). So don't worry: you don't need to buy their dogma and their lies. Leave. You'll be fine.