Earlier this year, I sat in a yoga room with Tommy Rosen, the founder of the Recovery 2.0 conference series, and author of the book, Recovery 2.0. He had just taught us a Kundalini class, and was beginning to give his lecture.
Tommy is a 12-step guy with a twist. He eschews some of the traditional AA rhetoric, he's not "old school" or "book thumping" or whatever terminology means that he isn't an AA fundamentalist. He believes that full recovery MUST include different modalities and complements like yoga, meditation, nutrition, EFT, energy work, therapy, etc. He also will tell you that the 12-Steps are necessary in recovery from addiction to alcohol and all other addictions (he might as well have "IT WORKS IF YOU WORK IT" tattooed on his forehead), that meetings are crucial, that finding a sponsor is paramount. I deeply disagree with his insistence on the program as a necessary part of the solution. Deeply. But I read everything he writes, count him as one of my teachers, plan to attend a retreat with him, and find him to be one of the most important voices in the recovery space. In other words, I take the parts of Tommy that work and I leave the rest.
That day, Tommy opened his lecture by asking who of us had worked the 12-steps. Lots of hands went up. He then asked if anyone hadn't worked the steps, or if there was anyone for whom the 12-steps hadn't worked. "Don't be shy…we're all friends." My hand flew up, along with one other girl. To which he said "I've found there are two types of people. Those who love AA and the 12-Steps because it saved their lives. And those that hate it because it failed them." I let out an audible "psshhaw!"
He was wrong on both counts.
First, I don’t hate AA. At all. It's a decentralized organization that offers its services for free. It is a respite and a refuge for many and clearly, it works for some. Hating AA feels like a really boring and gigantic waste of time.
I also don't believe AA failed me. Because that would mean that I went to AA to get clean, had used it as a treatment modality for my addiction, that I had actually tried to work it, and had been unsuccessful at it.
Far from hating AA or feeling failed by AA, it's more accurate to say that I am critical of how we look at alcohol, alcohol addiction, and recovery from alcohol addiction in America as a whole, and that because AA is so deeply woven into the fabric of how we observe those three things, that I am critical of AA by association. As a thought system and influencer, mostly. As our default treatment system, secondarily. As a treatment modality, thirdly.
Tommy's comments stirred me deeply that day. Deeply to the point of being angered. For the same reason an article by my friend Gabrielle Glaser tiled The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous stirred Marianne Williamson and many others. Because Tommy's words and Gabrielle's words are divisive. They are an us vs. them mentality, and they lead us to a place where either AA is right or AA is wrong. And so we are stuck fighting about whether AA is good or bad and blowing holes in each other's conclusions, while millions of American's struggle with addiction without access to appropriate treatment, and millions upon millions more develop addiction without preventative measures being put into place. While our jails fill up. While people die.
We have so little in this space. Addiction is left out of the healthcare system for the most part, and where it is included, it's under-funded, under-researched, under-insured, and deeply misunderstood. For large part, addiction treatment has been left up to the fellowship of AA or the legal system. There are of course costly rehab facilities that run from $30,000 a month to $85,000 a month, and other free modalities like SMART. But for the most part, we've got AA and jail.
In order to solve the addiction crisis in America, we MUST start with what we have and work with what we have. Keep fundamental Alcoholics Anonymous. Evolve Alcoholics Anonymous. Create new recovery modalities that are kind of like Alcoholics Anonymous. Create new recovery modalities that are nothing like Alcoholics Anonymous. Create pre-addiction and addiction screening. Get the heatlhcare system to care about it. Kill the war on drugs. There's SO MUCH TO DO and there is a foundation laid to be built upon. So let's do that. Together.
Please leave comments below and as always, remember that these are my opinions. Take what you will, leave the rest, or of course suggest something better.
All my love.
10 Ways To Evolve AA.
1. Flip our idea of the need for willpower. One of the things that had always terrified me the most about the prospect of quitting drinking - before I had ever seriously thought to quit - was that I would never have enough willpower to do it or keep up a lifetime of meetings to maintain that willpower. And isn't that what keeps most of us from quitting in the first place? That fear of not just what our life will be like without it, but how HARD it is going to be to fucking do it? I'd seen way too much Law and Order, I knew people died trying to quit alcohol, constantly battling their will. A life owned not by drinking but rather a life owned by the desire to drink.
I knew myself too well. When it came to quitting anything my willpower had proven to be crap. I had tried for years to quit smoking cigarettes using willpower, I had tried for years to maintain vegetarianism using willpower, I had tried for years to maintain a size zero using willpower. And none of that ever worked because at the end of the day, I was a bit too smart for willpower. I knew how to get around myself if I wanted something enough. No matter how strong I would start off in my resolve, the times I had used willpower to stop a behavior only led me back to that behavior on my knees, binging on bacon and American Spirits Yellow. Willpower was not going to save me if I wanted that whiskey neat. Nothing was going to save me if I WANTED that whiskey neat.
The willpower loophole (as I now call it) first came to me from The EasyWay - where I began to understand that we only have to use our willpower when we are trying to prevent ourselves from doing something we WANT to do. That the way around having to use willpower is to NOT want to do something. This was a huge shift for me in thinking, and what empowered me to try sobriety on in a very painless way. Instead of seeing it as a struggle I saw it as a relief - and not over time as I came to enjoy a life without alcohol. I found this relief and joy immediately. Sobriety BEGAN as an empowering choice - not a consequence of my inability to control alcohol.
I never thought that there were those lucky normal drinkers - I came to believe all drinking was as insane as smoking or eating Big Macs. I didn't fantasize nights out getting drunk or mind it as I went out with my old group of friends and remained the only sober one. I didn't even mourn it as I vacationed in Italy. There was no struggle here. No need to be talked off a ledge. There was a conscious decision to not drink, and a commitment to NEVER QUESTION THE DECISION* (NQTD, a tattoo now on my arm). The option to drink was no longer there. (*Please remember that I backed up that decision with a lot of self work).
For this point, it's hard to draw a distinction between how I approached willpower, and how AA approaches willpower. There are parallels that align - that abstinence is the only way, for instance. That life without alcohol is infinitely more enjoyable. But on the whole, because AA says alcoholics are different, alcoholics will forever be tempted, alcoholics are one drink away from being a drunk, alcoholics should keep coming back to maintain their determination in sobriety, alcoholism is a life sentence…and simply that alcoholics are alcoholics…to me this says "you will always want it and will always battle your will."
2. Shift the idea that it's normal to consume an addictive substance with ease, and abnormal to not be able to. A while back, a dear friend who had stopped drinking posted that "she has a body that cannot handle alcohol" to which I replied "NO body has a body that is meant to handle alcohol." And that is 100% true. Alcohol is a drug, an intoxicant, and no human body is designed to tolerate it with ease. The organization asserts something entirely different. That the fault lies with the human being who cannot. That it is normal to drink, that it is abnormal to be unable to. Rather than looking at the obvious, which is that NO ONE should be able to tolerate alcohol, we as a society firmly hold on to an idea that drinking alcohol is safe, a rite of passage, what we do. We accept binge drinking and hangovers and DUIs and a whole host of individual and social ills that come along with our one legal drug and tell ourselves that all of this is okay, just as long as we don't become alcoholics. Just as long as it doesn't completely ruin our lives. Doctors smoked in the 1950s and suggested it to patients, even appeared in cigarette ads endorsing their favorite brand. Just because they did that doesn't mean they were right. It just means that we accepted it as being right. It just means we didn't question.
3. Stop requiring people to identify as an alcoholic. There's a lot that can be said about this one. First, it's a simple barrier to getting help in the first place. For me personally and for MANY of my clients and friends, the thing that stopped us from seriously considering whether our drinking was problematic was the simple fact that the last thing we wanted to be was "one of them" - and a lot of time was spent trying to prove to ourselves that we were in fact not "one of them". While some can and obviously do come to accept this and find relief in this, for the majority of human beings who suffer a problem with drinking, this is a HUGE barrier for getting help - especially in the early stages when it is just a developing dependence.
Second, labels are dangerous. Labels absolutely influence and perpetuate behaviors and beliefs because we are - in fact - what we think we are. In his book "To Sell Is Human," Dan Pink gives an exceptional example of the effectiveness of labels. He tells an account of a study done in the 1970's in a Chicago public school on the power of labels. Three fifth-grade classrooms were randomly assigned to three groups. The first classroom was told they were extremely neat - the neatest in the entire school - and were given no instructions on how to keep their classroom clean. The second class was told nothing about their level of cleanliness. They were simply assigned chores to keep the room clean. The last was told nothing - they were left to go about their business. For one week, the messages were reinforced by janitors and teachers alike, and at the week end, the neatest room by a landslide was not the one where chores were assigned nor the one where nothing had changed. The neatest room was the first - the kids who had been labeled neat. In other words, the kids that were told they were neat actually BECAME neater than the other kids.
Apply this same logic to the use of the word alcoholic in AA. The definition of an alcoholic is someone that suffers from alcoholism, a chronic and progressive disease that includes an inability to control your drinking, being preoccupied with alcohol, continuing to use alcohol even when it causes problems. It's also a highly stigmatized word, and to many, synonymous with drunk, drunkard, lush, wino, inebriate, and addict. By holding on to this label, we are saying "we are this, and we will always be this." Over and over and over and over again. We have a disease. We will struggle more than others. We are different. We are alcoholics.
Taking the label alcoholic perpetuates an identity rather than breaking it, creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, and keeps us stuck in our past.
4. Move away from the idea that there are only two types of drinkers - "Alcoholics" and "Normies". According to AA, there are two types of drinkers. This doesn't align with reality. Some 40% of those who consume alcohol abuse it. And of those who struggle, only 10% classify as clinically addicted or what we'd call an "alcoholic". This means is that the majority of people who struggle with alcohol and who need help, don't qualify as an "alcoholic". This poses a few gigantic problems. First, most people are left without appropriate treatment options. Second, it conditions us to only seek help once it becomes full blown addiction - once our lives become unmanageable - and dismiss our shitty drinking behavior or engage in an idea that it's not a problem until it's a problem. Third, because everyone who comes to AA is seen as having the same level of addiction - regardless of where they are on the spectrum of abuse and addiction - the same level of treatment is offered. It's one size fits all.
5. Accept that there is more than one solution, and REJECT the idea that "the program doesn't fail, people do". Directly from the Big Book, "Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates." Imagine for a second that we have one drug on the market for cancer. One. For some, this drug cures them of their cancer. We praise the drug for its success. For those who the drug does not work, we instead of saying "hey this drug doesn't work on this person, let's find another" say "you didn't take the medicine right." When AA doesn't work, this is what we do. We blame the human as having failed - not the program.
For me, this wasn't a big deal as in "God I suck at AA" because as I mentioned, I never felt like I failed at AA. But it was a big deal in my life. There is an inherent suspicion in your sobriety if you don't attend meetings or work the steps, and not just by AA members. By society in general.
6. Move away from the idea that addiction is incurable. A few months after I had stopped drinking, a friend and certified sugar addict who was about 50 pounds overweight at the time looked at me with sad panda eyes and said he was sorry for the way I turned out, with the alcohol addiction and all. Without missing a beat I snapped "you've got a fucking food addiction, genius."
I know that has nothing to do with incurability, but it has everything to do with why I started investigating the shit out of how addiction actually works. Because people said stupid things, and me being me, I wanted to make them feel stupid for saying stupid things. (Yoga has helped tone this down.)
From the moment I began exploring my own addiction, I had an almost preternatural sense for certain truths. That it wasn't incurable. That it wasn't genetic. That it could happen to anyone given the right circumstances. That it had much more to do with why we drank in the first place than the fact that we drank. That I wasn't special or different. That everyone struggled with addiction. But outside of Allen Carr's grandiose claims, I hadn't anything to concretely back up these thoughts.
The first evidence came in the form of David Scheff's book, Clean. This allowed me to understand addiction to alcohol wasn't just some genetic anomaly. That it far had more to do with what happens to us in life than it does our genes, far more to do with how life in America impacts us than our DNA. But his work still left me with a sense that once an addict, always an addict. The next evidence came from my dive into how meditation works, specifically Kundalini. That we can reparttern our brain, strengthen our frontal cortex, re-set our endocrine system and nervous system, and overcome all sorts of malady through different ancient techniques (Meditation as Medicine is one of my favorite books on the subject with lots of reference to various studies.). The Talent Code helped me to understand that highly targeted, error-focused practice of a new skill can create new neural pathways that are dominant over old ones. The Genie In Your Genes helped me to understand epigenetics, and that our genetic makeup fluctuates by the hour and minute and that "genetic determination" is in large part bullshit when it comes to alcohol addiction - it's environment, thought, energy, and a whole host of other things that over time create who and what we become, and that over time, can be changed entirely. Integral Recovery taught me that a holistic life practice can help EVERYONE live in optimal states and that recovery is not just for those who are addicted to alcohol and drugs, but for everyone who lives and breaths. Gabor Mate helped me to understand addiction as a symptom of an original wound, and that everyone suffers it to a degree. And finally, Pleasure Unwoven helped me to understand HOW addiction works in the brain and becomes a medical disease.
Now, none of these sources says "addiction is curable." But all of them pulled together show me an irrefutable big picture - that we reach for addictive substances not because we are born that way, but because of what happens to us once we are born. That there is a small amount of predetermined genetic influence, but it is minor compared to how our experiences and environments influences our genes. That all humans are wired for addiction. That we reach for a number of substances and behaviors for relief from what has happened to us. That depending on what we reach for to relieve what has happened to us, we can become physiologically and mentally and emotionally dependent. And that even if we become physiologically and mentally and emotionally dependent on alcohol or drugs, that we can not only recover from the addiction, not only fix the underlying cause, but also re-pattern our neural pathways, our brains, our nerves, and our genetic make-up so that we are not returned to how we were before - not just cured - but are left better off.
7. Kill the second A. Let's be honest, society judges addiction. Society specifically judges alcohol and drug addiction. We're a nation rooted in puritan virtue, and any sort of "moral" failing or dysfunction of our pleasure sense is seen as shameful. Sex, drug, alcohol, and food addiction are some of the most humiliating addictions to suffer. The anonymity factor in Alcoholics Anonymous was put in place for good reason - because people needed to protection from this judgment. But it was also put in place for a much different reason - "the need to embrace humility and a sense of one's own powerlessness" (David Sheff, Clean, page 219).
I agree that protection is essential. But it's also a double edge sword. Because it perpetuates an idea that there is something inherently shameful about struggling with alcohol. It also perpetuates a whole host of social ills - such as the fact that in real life, we don’t know who each other are. I compare this to my mother's experience battling cancer, where once diagnosed it was announced to our circle of friends and family, and her phone rang off the hook with suggestions from other cancer survivors. As David Sheff points out in Clean, there is a correlation between the openness of a disease and successful healthcare. Improvement in cancer research, funding, and treatment correlates to an increase in discussing cancer freely.
In the 1980s, AIDS was known as the "gay plague" and those who suffered it were deeply stigmatized and judged harshly, and the disease was deeply misunderstood and underfunded. A group of activists began the Silence = Death campaign, and with their efforts increased awareness, funding, research, and destigmatized HIV and AIDS. Their efforts turned HIV and AIDS from a death sentence to a disease that can be managed.
The same is true for alcohol addiction. Silence equals death, stigmatization, isolation. Silence equals suffering. Silence equals archaic treatment methodologies, severe lack of funding, and far worse, a society whose ignorance of addiction and treatment is deeply disturbing. (Most of this comes from Clean by David Sheff.)
8. Incorporate a feminine approach along with the inherent masculine approach. Successful white men created AA in the 1930s, which is clearly demonstrated in the 12-steps where almost every one of them has some aspect of ego-deflation. This works if you are an ego-inflated masculine individual addicted to alcohol. However, if you are a woman in the 21st century who is addicted to alcohol or struggling with a chemical substance, you will most likely not need to be broken down any more than you have already broken yourself down or have allowed others to break you down.
I didn't need to admit to anyone the nature of my "wrongs" and make amends for them - I had been admitting and apologizing to everyone for as long as I can remember for everything I had ever done and been. So steps 5, 8, and 9 were done. And steps 6 and 7? Being ready to have God remove all defects of character, and humbling asking Him to remove my shortcomings? I'd been doing this my entire life. I was well aware of every single defect of character and shortcoming I had, and had been asking God to take them away since I learned how to ask God for things. Knowing what was wrong with me, asking for it to be different, apologizing for being who I was and everything I had ever done, these were things that led me to drink in the first place. I was well versed here.
What worked for me was in fact understanding that I had personal power. What worked for me was understanding that I was perfect as I was and worth being loved. What worked for me was finally understanding that it was okay to be flawed, that it was okay to make mistakes, that it was okay to not be perfect. What worked for me was finally being free to love the imperfect messy human-ness that I was and not wish it to be any different.
I - like many many females - needed to be built up. Being broken down and humbled was from where I came and what made me sick in the first place.
9. Stop linking alcohol addiction with morality. Step four requires a fearless moral inventory of ourselves. This reinforces an idea that addiction is a moral failing, that there is something shameful or wrong going on, and that those who suffer are morally defective. The truth is that because we live in a society rooted in puritanical value we tend to see anything that is defective in our hedonistic sense or pleasure related senses as moral failings, rather than what they are - an impairment of those senses. An great resource that dives into this distinction is the documentary Pleasure Unwoven, which pulls together all the latest scientific research on addiction into one holistic picture, proving not that addiction is a moral failing, but rather a dysfunction of the pleasure sense, similar to how deafness is a dysfunction of our hearing sense. We must do away with correlating addiction with "bad behavior" or "moral failing".
10. Incorporate a more holistic solution. Here's the thing that AA and I are superiorly aligned on - spiritual awakening is necessary. This doesn't mean that you have to go religious or believe in God, but I fully believe that you need to believe in something greater than yourself, and find connection to Source, to find meaning in life. I believe in the woo shit. I also believe it goes much deeper than spiritual awakening or fixing relationships or having a community or truth telling and that a whole host of practices and treatments and considerations and educations not provided for in Alcoholics Anonymous go in to recovering from addiction.
The idea that meetings and steps are not enough is - in fact - what Tommy Rosen (the guy who believes that AA is THE way...) has made a name for himself perpetuating.
By far the best treatment modality I have found (and what my own modality is based off of) is Integral Recovery by John Dupuy. To say it's fucking brilliant is an understatement, and it also is AA agnostic (meaning regardless if you go to AA or not you can fit it in). In the simplest of terms, the recovery modality breaks you into four parts: 1. Body and Wellness, 2. Essence and Spirituality, 3. Relationships and Society, and 4. `Livelihood, Lifestyle, Environment, and Systems. So, a treatment plan will include exercise, yoga, mediation, therapy, mental health (drugs if needed), vitamins, nutrition, energy work, self care, community, relationships, financial health, home environment, ritual, and so on. It takes into account the latest scientific research and understanding, metaphysics, spirituality, and so on. It's also evolutionary and it's a life practice that you build upon as you evolve.
This is the fourth installment of a 9 part series. You can use this link to find the entire series if you want to follow along.
Outside The Rooms. Hip Sobriety & Alcoholics Anonymous: A 9 Part Series.
1. Hip Sobriety & Alcoholics Anonymous: A 9 Part Series, Introduction. // February 18 //
2. My AA Story, Part 1. // February 19 //
3. My AA Story, Part 2. // February 20 //
4. 10 Ways To Evolve Alcoholics Anonymous. // March 26 //
5. Guest Post by Laura McKowen, Why AA Works For Me. // March 30 //
6. Outside The Rooms. Through AA Colored Glasses: How We As A Society See Addiction. // July 10 //
7. The Real Cause of Addiction + Why The AA Debate Is Useless. // November 18 //
8. How To Navigate Recovery In an AA Dominated Culture. // TBD //
9. Dear America: Here Is How We Fix Addiction. // TBD //