The 12-step trap

I first attended Al-Anon meetings while in a difficult situation with a drinker. Perhaps the greatest immediate benefit was being able to be upfront about an issue that I couldn’t discuss in any other context. In the rooms, one is assured that everything is confidential – “The things you heard were spoken in confidence and should be treated as confidential. Keep them within the walls of this room and the confines of your mind.” It is good that this is included, although it operates entirely on the basis of a trust system. There is no recourse if anyone at the meeting should choose to ignore this principle. This touches on one of the problems of 12-step programs – the utter lack of accountability – which will be addressed in more detail in future posts.

The above quote is from the suggested closing read at Al-Anon meetings. The passage also  includes uplifting phrases such as “You will come to realize that there is no situation too difficult to be bettered and no unhappiness too great to be lessened.”Absolute though the terms used are, of course no one can really guarantee this – though people might perceive improvements in situations and the lessening of unhappiness as a result of confirmation bias. At any rate, hearing encouraging words can help in cultivating a more positive attitude.

Indeed, the emphasis on the importance of attitude is another of the more positive aspects of the program. The Suggested Preamble to the Twelve Steps states: “changed attitudes can aid recovery” – after having stated that alcoholism is believed to be a “family illness”. It is certainly true that a drinking problem in one member affects the whole family, but here, the language of disease is starting to be used. While alcoholism may be classifiable as a disease with symptoms, not all addiction experts (for example Stanton Peele) or persons who have overcome alcohol problems agree that the disease model perpetrated by AA is helpful. People in the Al-Anon rooms regularly refer to themselves as diseased and recovering, as if they had a diagnosable illness. If so, it is hard to know what the symptoms might be if they are supposed to apply to people in a broad range of situations where there is a friend or family member with a drinking problem. This so-called disease is certainly never defined, though participants in Al-Anon may well glean abundant material that will encourage them to perceive themselves as sick by following the program’s central suggestion that they work the steps. It is also suggested that once someone has gone through all 12 steps once, they start again on Step 1, so that the top is never reached.

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I saw the Al-Anon group that I had first found change over the years. Catalyzed by new people who arrived in town, there was a tendency for the meetings to become less relaxed and informal. New meetings started including those of different programs, and vocal individuals were keen on close adherence to the so-called Big Book, even though this is AA literature and intended for alcoholics rather than their friends and family members. There was a general impression that this practice represented the purest and most effective way to work the program.

Except that it doesn’t seem to be effective. I think this is why people get stuck working the steps, and working them again with heavier reference to the Big Book, talking about themselves as if they were alcoholics as described in that book. The portrayal is not very favorable and there is certainly no reason to assume that this is a true reflection of all alcoholics, let alone their friends and family members!

Ultimately, the so-called tools of the program boil down to step work and attendance at meetings. There is also the practice of discussing problems with a sponsor or other members, which can of course be helpful, though no one is a professional. Lip service is paid in the rooms to the need to consult professionals as appropriate – but I’ve seen the recommendation issued to many a member in times of crisis that they attend 90 meetings in 90 days. The general impression is that if someone finds they aren’t getting anywhere, they need to put more effort into it.

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I will go into some of the issues raised here in more depth in future posts. As always, I welcome suggestions for topics!