My own thoughts in response to John Stewarts ‘Dear John’ letter to AA.
OK, let’s get myself out the way first.
- Former apparently helpless/hopeless drug addict? Tick
- Multiple attempts over many years to try and stop killing myself and hurting others? Tick
(OK, I’m flattering myself here, for a long time I was far too self-centred to see the effect my addiction was having on other people.) I felt bad enough about myself, ‘god’ forbid I’d have to acknowledge the harm I was doing to those who cared about me!
- Long-standing attitude of “12-steps? It’s not for me” A belief, heavily enforced by misinformed, opinionated, professional drug/alcohol ‘practitioners’ working within the ‘recovery’ field? Tick
- Willing to try almost anything to stop using drugs in a harmful fashion (apart from abstinence obvs) while maintaining a desire to try and drink successfully and perhaps ‘use’ drugs as I once had, i.e. heavily but ‘recreationally? Tick
- Terrified that my life would be boring if I stopped using drugs and alcohol, while at the same time unable to admit that sitting, begging outside a kebab shop in Stoke Newington wasn’t exactly the most satisfactory lifestyle ‘choice’ available to me? Tick
Oh yeah, that word, ‘choice’, I’ll come back to that later.
- Comfortable in the company of other drug addicts but petrified of ‘normal’ people, the ‘real’ world and its inherent responsibilities? Tick
- Utterly incapable of sincerely asking for help but adapt in emotionally blackmailing people when I needed money to score? Tick
- Devout in my conviction that a ‘troubled’ childhood was the root-cause of all my problems and if I could come to terms with that, all would be well? Tick
- Desperate to talk about my ‘troubled’ childhood to anyone who cared to listen while at the same time apparently unable to be honest about my willingness to actually address it? Tick
- Confused for many years about my apparent inability to ‘fit-in’ to both my own skin and the world around me? Tick
- Too ashamed to admit I enjoyed using Heroin because it seemed to be the ‘solution’ to the previous statement? Tick
- See what I just did here? 12! Clever huh?
So, Dear John Stewart,
I read and re-read your marvellous piece in The Guardian and no! I’m not being sarcastic; I genuinely think it’s great. It’s great because it’s a well-written article which has ignited an interesting debate, both on the website and my own Facebook page where I posted it yesterday. It’s also great because you are writing about your own experience, unlike many, (but not all) of those who have commented on it. Many of those people have also chosen to avail us with statistics and opinions from ‘clever’ types with letters after their names and years of experience in the addiction field. It certainly makes for an informed debate, even if it’s (statistically) possible to prove pretty much anything, with statistics.
I was also delighted to read various comments by individuals such as you and I who have first-hand experience of wanting/needing 12-step recovery and those who have found other methods to be fruitful in their attempts to find a happier existence. After all, isn’t that the whole point of ‘recovery’? To move away from being,
“So desperate to get sober, that something could have been anything, I would have prayed to Lord Xenu, if that’s what it took.”
To perhaps replacing desperation with gratitude and not feeling press-ganged into believing in anything you/we no longer actually feel the need to?
In that respect, you’ve clearly ticked the box too.
I’m of the ‘opinion’ that if anybody gets to the point where they feel the need to attend a 12-step fellowship to gain support, then if they chose to stop attending because they eventually no longer feel they need it, job done. Nobody I know skipped into meetings like a lottery winner who’d ticked the box declining publicity prior to their windfall. There is a passage in a piece of Narcotics Anonymous literature which states,
“When at the end of the road, we find we can no longer go on, either with, or without drugs, what is there left to do?”
So yeah, welcome to the last-chance saloon, in case you hadn’t noticed, happy hour finished a long time ago. Of course, where an individual has voluntarily walked into a meeting, it’s highly unlikely they won’t have noticed this already!
I agree with your statement that 10% of drinkers have some sort of over-zealous ‘receptors’ that enjoy the effects of, (let’s just call it drugs shall we?) in a way that other people don’t. I’m also one of that once happy, then fucking miserable, band of brothers and sisters. To use and oft-quoted line (sic) I’ve heard in NA,
“I love drugs; they just don’t like me very much”
True, sad but true, I could murder a decent pint of Guinness sometimes.
So why don’t ‘they’ like me? Why am I one of that 10%?
I don’t know and over the years, I’ve been less and less inclined to care, were anybody able to provide empirical, conclusive evidence as to the exact nature of addiction, they’d probably have more money than ‘Shorty’ Guzman (look him up) could ever have dreamed of.
You mention, early on in your piece, ‘rock-bottom’, I know a fair bit about those, I have also attended far too many funerals for a man in his 40’s, for people who also knew a great deal about ‘rock-bottom’. Sadly experiencing rock-bottom was clearly not necessarily a method of avoiding the ultimate one for many of my friends. I’ve heard much wisdom and plenty of absolute nonsense while sitting in meetings over the years, one of the most pertinent ‘slogans’ to somehow penetrate my selective hearing was,
“Every rock-bottom has a trap door.”
I like that one almost as much as I like much of what I’ve experienced as a result of working the 12-steps, to the best of my ability of course.
You want to know about my rock-bottom? You can read all about it here.
Yeah, I also got to the point where I’d have let Wayne Rooney bum me without any ‘lube, if it’d had meant I could start to feel better about EVERYTHING.
I’d like to think my ‘spiritual’ reward, or certainly one of them, as a result of reaching that particular depth of desperation, was being at Anfield a few years ago to witness my beloved LFC knock Utd out of the F.A cup. I think it says somewhere in NA literature that
“Spiritual awakenings come in many forms.”
So a Dirk Kuyt winner is just as valid as any other manifestation of this particular idea, which is for me, one of the most attractive aspects of the 12-steps. It’s my recovery and my experience of it is as valid as anybody else’s, it’s a personal thing.
Like you, I also struggled with the whole ‘praying’ thing, I’m an atheist, usually more fervently on a cold, wet winter morning when my dog has left an early morning ‘surprise’ on the carpet. Truth is, as time has gone on in recovery, in tandem with not really caring as to why I’m 10%er, I also seem to care less and less as to what ‘god’ is, or isn’t. I love a heated debate with those of a religious persuasion, but that whole bunfight is about as likely to be resolved anytime soon, as is the ‘addiction’ argument. I found it interesting to read though, that after your initial reluctance to ‘get with the program’ you became an evangelist. I’m going against an oft-repeated suggestion in recovery meetings to look for the similarities, not the differences here, because I didn’t.
I’ve never been much of a tub-thumper about anything, O.K. maybe when I had a decent batch of pills to shift back in the day, I could get a bit ‘E’vangelistic (excuse me) and I have a tendency to go to great lengths when extoling the benefits of listening to The Jam’s entire recorded output over a weekend, other than that? Horses for courses and YES, The Jam were ‘better’ than The Clash.
Aside from my lack of Taliban-style “My recovery is better than your recovery” (Jam/Clash again) I share you experiences of early recovery and all that entailed. Camaraderie, shit coffee, stale biscuits and candle-lit meetings in church halls, the sum total of which being, I found people I identified with and for the first time in my life, began to ‘fit-in’ with me too. What’s not to like about that?
Did I feel ‘spiritually awakened’ as you say you were? Well I certainly felt a lot better than I did injecting heroin and crack into my neck, turning yellow and smelling worse than the lump of poo my dog left for me on the carpet this morning.
You write about what you consider to be the ‘emotional subjugation’ inherent in AA, which you view as an admittance of ‘powerlessness’ over anything an individual may achieve/experience in recovery. According to your interpretation, everything that happens in recovery is therefore ‘gods’ will leaving us without any real say in the matter? That’s quite a big, nay, huge statement and aside from it meaning that it was ‘god’ not Dirk Kuyt, who provided one of my spiritual tickles in recovery, it suggests also that god is a ‘must-have’ accessory for those seeking a way out of the horrors of addiction? I’m going to have to challenge your interpretation of this facet of the 12-steps for no other reason than I agree with you, sort of. I don’t think finding ‘god’ is in any way an absolute requirement, it’s not really ‘necessary’ and should never induce the madness we see in people fighting over a cut-priced shit TV on black Friday is it? I’m quite happy with the 2nd step which clearly states,
“We came to believe, that a power greater than ourselves, could restore us to sanity.”
Like many people, the groups I attended seemed to fulfil that task effectively, my ‘understanding’ of all things ‘god’ has not really changed from it being, for the most part anyway, my fellow bunch of misfits. Why? Because at nearly 10 years clean, it hasn’t had to.
I recoil when I sometimes hear
“It was ‘god’ who kept me alive during my addiction.”
To me, this suggests that ‘god’ is happy to randomly throw around his ‘mercy’ and spare some lives and the devastation that comes with the loss of a loved one, surely that’s nonsense? Does he also oversee the acquisition of the shit TV for some, not others?
I have plenty of thoughts about a religious god; you can read them here if you’re interested.
You then go on to talk about the ‘Sinclair Method’, which essentially promotes the use of a chemical to ‘disinterest’ the alcoholics ‘receptors’ in their appreciation of grape and grain, isn’t this somewhat contradictory to your earlier soundbite about us 10%ers? Are you planning on having a drink and anytime soon? Have you got a stash of Naltrexone somewhere? I’ve benefitted from all sorts of ‘treatment’ over the years, including CBT, but none of that seems to make the slightest difference in my attempts to beat my on/off struggle with nicotine. The only progress I make is when I don’t ‘try’ to smoke at all. I ‘don’t know, maybe I’ve just not surrendered and admitted I’m powerless over it yet? As for AA/NA being the first-line of treatment in the UK? I worked in the ‘recovery’ field for 5 years and have to say, it’s anything but that. The majority of prescribing nurses I worked alongside, had no idea at all about 12-step recovery, for the most part, they seemed happy to dole out methadone or other substitute medication to people presenting with opiate addictions. My own experience prior to getting ‘clean’ was exactly this. “You’ve got a problem with illegal drugs? Here! Have some quite expensive/profitable ones to help you stop using the ones the government can’t make any money from. For the record, I’m not apposed in the slightest to substitute prescribing, when delivered in tandem with other clinical and holistic practices, I’ve not worked in the ‘field’ for a number of years now, so perhaps things have changed, I sincerely hope so.
I am in total agreement about the problem with predatory behaviour in 12-step groups, you are entirely correct when you say it needs to be addressed. In the same way an individual may not know the intentions of the person chatting them up in a bar, we also sadly do not know who we sit next to in meetings. Just because someone has got sober/clean, it does not mean they have morphed into a decent human being. The fact there is no ‘door-policy’ at meetings, coupled with the practice of forcing people to attend meetings as part of a probation order, meaning people are there for entirely the ‘wrong’ reasons, can sometimes lead to the most appalling behaviour. All I can say, is that it needs to be addressed, as to how that can effectively be done? At my own ‘home-group’ we have a female ‘newcomer’ rep and a male equivalent, people new to the ‘program’ are strongly advised to stay close to those of the same gender until such time as they have developed or re-discovered the ability to maintain their own personal boundaries and see through the ‘operating’ of the slime-buckets who sometimes enter the meetings.
As for the overall ‘effectiveness’ of 12-step recovery? I’m never sure exactly where the stats used in this slice of the pie (chart) come from. There are as many articles written about its success rate as there are its apparent lack of such. So, speaking entirely from my own, hard-won’ experience I’d say this.
I went to my first NA meeting in 1989; I’d been living (and dying) in Los Angeles and had developed a serious problem with crack. I returned to the (then) crack-less vistas of Weston-Super-Mare, where my family GP mentioned something about a group of ex-drug addicts going to support groups. I was young, the country was bouncing the sound house music and there were lots of lovely E’s to be had. In my ‘opinion’, I didn’t have a problem with drugs, per-se, I had a problem with crack. As I’ve already said, there was none to be had anywhere I knew of so that solved that and after the first person at the meeting I attended mentioned god and total abstinence, I was off. I didn’t return for any ten years, by which time Oasis were making records which seemed to make my, by then, debilitating heroin addiction actually seem like a pleasure in comparison. I think this says more about the creative (cocaine-induced?) downward spiral of my Mancunian friends than it does the ‘stats’ relating to the success rates of 12-step recovery. I wasn’t anywhere willing or ‘beaten’ enough in the late 80’s, nor was I interested in abstinence until I tried every other possible alternative. Like I said at the top of this piece, I love drugs and alcohol, but they don’t like me. My early ‘recovery’ was similar to trying to move on from an ex who’s run off with another partner and is definitely (maybe) not coming back, it took a while for the penny to drop for me. I have many friends who also dived, nose/vein first into the narcotic slush-bucket during the 90’s and beyond. Most, thankfully managed to navigate their own way out of that particular chemical (brothers) conundrum, however, many are dead, some, as good as and some, like me, eventually staggered into the rooms of recovery.
The ‘rooms’ of recovery have many guises though, some are full of other people, trying to ‘work’ the 12-steps, others in different groups simply availing themselves to the support of people with similar stories, if not similar beliefs. Some ‘rooms’ are smaller, just a ‘professional’ and client, talking their way to a better, happier life.
I was recently attending the funeral of a much-loved, long-time NA member, who sadly lost his life due to a medical condition directly related to his long-term addiction. While it’s obvious that those of us in the fellowships do not have the monopoly on dignity, I have to say it was impossible to not be moved by the presence of so many of his fellow recovering addicts. Those of us who have, for whatever reason, cheated an early death, cannot fail to be touched in a truly profound manner when we congregate to pay our respects to a departed friend. It was clear to his family, that he was a much loved and highly respected man, demonstrated by the huge turnout for his funeral. We may well have our detractors, we may well also need to ‘manage’ our fellowships better than we sometimes do, but, when the planets align and we are at our best, I can think of no finer collection of people, with whom I’d wish to share my life.
Nobody has the right to tell me to not go, that it doesn’t work, or that I’ve somehow been conned, nor should ‘we’ tell anyone they should come because they are ‘missing’ out on something. In my experience, I chose to ‘learn’ how to take drugs from other people who took drugs; it’s my decision to learn from other people, who’ve found one of many ways, to not take them anymore.
At the start of this piece I mentioned the word ‘choice’ and said I’d come back to that later. For me, the jury’s still out on whether I had much ‘choice’ during my active addiction. For me, it falls into the same bracket as why I am one of the 10%ers John Stewart talks about in his article. I’m of the same opinion insomuch as it doesn’t seem, to me at least, to matter, I certainly have choices today, I might even decide to go to a meeting later!
Just for today, of course.