In a Nutshell


I have been ranting and raving against Reeducation in a comments thread for two days now. I have had a couple of small illuminations. I have said virtually everything I have to say. I am tired of the topic. After this recapitulation, I am dropping it, although I do not promise never to mention it.

Reeducation took my academic self, which is the strongest and most longstanding piece of me, and smashed it against the wall, again and again, until I was so bloody I could not walk. I then had to use every ounce of intellectual and soul power I could muster up to begin to face the world and walk again. I understand rape and torture victims more deeply than would otherwise be possible because of this. I did not die, fortunately, but convalescence took years, and I resent the theft of my time.

If I had a horse and a lance, I would gladly meet Reeducation in mortal combat. But really, I do not wish to engage the matter again. Life is so much larger, and the world, so wide. There is so much pleasure and joy about and ahead. I understand trading in luxe, calme, et volupté for the sake of illuminating ascetic practices, or in service of humanity and the Revolution. I do not understand trading these in for anything else.

Reeducation was a walk on the dark side. This is Friday, Oxalá‘s day. Look to the light. The best of the Reeducated also do that. I do not know how Reeducation led them to this, but I have seen it; perhaps they are very new souls and needed the information, or perhaps they brought very old souls to it and were able to see beyond the negativity. I am on my own mountain path, where the sages sit and birds rustle in the underbrush.


I apologize to any supporters of Al-Anon who have read my anti-Al-Anon posts, or the comments thread after Nickel Bag, and not enjoyed the experience. It is not my intention to criticize you or the program which gave you peace. This blog is not against you, but it is definitely for me. These are my experiences and opinions only.

My father is an alcoholic and Al-Anon would not believe I did not have all of the problems they felt I should: road rage, a drinking problem of my own, a desire for drama, and so on. I was in denial not to have all those problems: I must only be hiding them. Alternatively, it was arrogance and class privilege which had enabled me to sidestep them. This was cruelty to others on my part. I was refusing to be equal. Everyone with my background has these problems. Who was I to say that, rather than scrape the barrel for problems I had never had, I ought to focus on the ones I actually did? I needed to “get more humble.”

This last in particular was one of the things my father had most screamed at me when drunk. Indeed, there was altogether too much in Al-Anon which replicated life in an alcoholic family and then called this health. You had to toe the family line, and repeat the party line. You were encouraged to drop your old friends, make new friends in Al-Anon, and keep the family secrets, as it were, within the family.

I went to Al-Anon because a therapist I had engaged to learn about and deal with verbal and emotional abuse said I should. What I found there was an alcoholic atmosphere laced with yet more verbal and emotional abuse, and masquerading as a cure and a program for life. The problematic nature of this was exacerbated because the therapist agreed with Al-Anon’s assessment of me. Under my own steam, I would have merely thought it odd and left. I understand that Al-Anon may have saved lives but it almost lost me mine, and I think that for people who are considering going into it, that is just as important to know.


More than ten years later I visited Al-Anon a second time, for different and, I think, more appropriate reasons. The people I found then were quite different, and had a far healthier and less competitive outlook on life than my original group or my therapist. I will give Al-Anon that. I certainly see why a person in crisis who came to a group like that one would be grateful for Al-Anon.

I still have strong disagreements with the 12 step paradigm. From early childhood I have been taught to identify my defects – defects which, although I did not know it at the time, were often not real and not my own – apologize and make amends for them – ask for forgiveness – and hope that they would be removed. In those days I realized I had absolutely no power over anything, and I sat quietly, waiting to see what the people who had power might do.

Outside the house, life was different and more innocent, and I looked to that. When I left the house, I learned to live more happily and innocently, as the vibrant people I had seen were doing. Initially I was concerned that I might not be allowed to do this, an invisible wall might come down and bar me from it, but I met no resistance. It does me no good to return to the old days.


Of course, if I had actually been as arrogant as Al-Anon thought when I first went, I would not have given them the first chance at me. I really did take them seriously as persons, but they called me “arrogant” because I had already moved on from the bad old days. They could not conceive of anyone doing this without them. Like the Yahweh who I can tell from the way they discuss him is their real G-d, they were jealous.

At the same time my therapist thought I was arrogant because I was better educated and more independent than is appropriate in a woman. He had a number of destructive things of his own to say under that rubric. Everything, however, was cloaked in that (I think – it is where I first heard it, anyway) Al-Anon term, denial. All my life I had heard that little successes and joy and happiness were signs of health, but now I learned that they were symptoms of denial, if you had not come from a perfect background – unless, of course, you had begun to exhibit them after spending time in Al-Anon.


Obviously, the fact that I fell victim to verbal and emotional abuse in this way shows that I was right all along: it was that vulnerability I needed help with. I did not need to learn that my happiness was denial and my successes were failures. That was, however, what I learned from Reeducation, and it is what I am unlearning now.


Al-Anon said: because you have X in your past, we know exactly what you are. Any disagreement with what we say, only proves us right. To find that illogical is but a further confirmation of your illness. These rhetorical pirouettes are Guantánamo Bay interrogation techniques. I will never call them good.


Al-Anon people often claim to have been very overbearing in the past, and to have given that up. Many are really nice as individuals and I find it hard to imagine they have ever been that self-righteous or that pushy. I do notice, though, that many who enjoy being sponsors are quite authoritarian, and that the group as a whole can be very overbearing as it cites its ideology and stifles qualification and dissent.


21 thoughts on “In a Nutshell

  1. And, I just had a realization about this while driving.
    A commentator on an earlier thread said he had learned from Al-Anon that he was not a god and this had been very useful.

    That points to the problem I had with them: one of the issues was that I already did not believe I was a god, and they could tell, *but* they thought this had to be “denial,” because I had not come to Al-Anon believing I *was* a god. How could I have any alcoholics in my past and not believe I was a god?

    So it does come down to this: the insistence on formulae, and willingness to do anything to make a formula fit.

    Anyway: I have after all this time finally realized what to do about it – stop wondering, and just declare myself NOT GUILTY !!!

  2. And now I realize: the reason I even saw the therapist, who sent me to Al-Anon, was because of being bullied by overbearing and messed-up persons, and not knowing how to handle this.

    In Al-Anon the people were like the ones I was already having trouble with, very judgmental and authoritarian, with a tendency to intrude on others’ lives. But they were also in great pain, so you wanted to cut them some slack. In addition, they had an arsenal of tools to criticize other people with (we were in denial and so on).

    Also, it was all so Puritan and apocalyptic. “Your father is an alcholic, so we will put a scarlet A on you and pillory you for the rest of your life! If you ever think a mentally healthy thought, we will say you are lying or being false! You can only be ill, otherwise you are in denial, and morally that is even worse!

  3. P.S. I am not yet writing this as an independent post, although I would like to, because I have not figured out how to do it without talking too much about my mother, who might see it and feel too exposed. Notes toward it are:

    1. Al-Anon may be OK and in some cases even good for people who are dealing with addicts currently, or who *really* fit the description of the “codependent” which has been developed.

    1.2. Caveat: NOT everyone does fit that description, and this is one of my main objections to Al-Anon – its insistence that everyone is always exactly the same.

    1.3. Special to Al-Anon acolytes: I have no objection to fitting a paradigm if it does fit, but I do object to being mutilated so that I can fit. Your belief that the affirmation of individuality is “arrogance” and that the feeling of having moved on is “denial,” is abuse and tyrrany.

    1.4. Just because I do not believe in Al-Anon and you do, only means you are different from me. It does not make you superior to me, more knowledgeable than me, or more advanced than me. Please do not assume that I am merely “in denial” because I disagree with your analysis, or condescend to me because I have not joined the fold.

    2. Al-Anon is, however, particularly bad for people who have grown up oppressed by a “codependent.” It is exactly what people like ME do not need. The reason for this is that it is dominated by these codependents, who are very judgmental and overbearing, and now, they have even more weapons to criticize and silence other people with: the accusation of denial, etc., etc.

    3. Even without points 1 and 2, the Twelve Steps are pernicious – guilt-driving and authoritarian.

  4. P.P.S.

    I have just realized, by the way, why the Al-Anon people are so insistent on idea of giving up power, and declaring that one is powerless and/or does not know what one is doing: many of them are in fact overbearing, and do in fact have a tendency to think they know what they are doing when they do not. In that context, deciding to relinquish excess feelings of or desire for power is fair enough. What I find unfortunate is that so many of them actually want others to give up legitimate power, while they retain the power of haranguing people with the Twelve Steps.

    At that point I become really irritated at their dishonesty (dishonesty, of course, being something else they claim to have given up). They have not relinquished power at all. They just say so, and then use the power of the group / the 12 steps to beat people over the head with. And they have the group to hide in, so it wasn’t anything they did, oh no.

  5. But…why throw you into Al-Anon in the first place when you aren’t an alcoholic? It’s like sending your own kids to be cured because you yourself have an addiction to painkillers. That in itself is mighty faulty urging on the part of that therapist. The only conceivable reason (and I use that term loosely in this case, because it all seems unreasonable to me) for you to go to an AA meeting would be to find some sort of empathy for any kind of detox and recovery process your father might have gone through. It sounds like your father never went through this process, however, or if he did, it didn’t take.

    This is also smacking of Nazism’s Final Solution, in which Judaism was defined as a race, so that any person who had any kind of traceable Jewish ancestry would be defined as Jewish no matter what. Alcoholism as a racial determination – if that isn’t some sort of further emotional and verbal abuse, I don’t know what is.

  6. Ah – because Al-Anon is for the families and friends (originally the wives) of alcoholics. The idea is, they also are having a rough time living with an alcoholic, and could use some support, and also, if you look at alcoholism as a family disease, they also may be playing a role in it (like, bailing people out of jail one too many times, covering up for them, etc.) that they might learn to step out of, thereby improving the situation.

    At the time, the ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) concept was also very much in fashion. The idea was that if you had an alcoholic parent, you were likely to have a certain set of problems as an adult. The problem I have with all of this is, what if you have already dealt with these problems, or what if you only contracted some of these problems … or what, on the other hand, if the model is flawed and you are not actually condemned to have these problems, or you have different problems? That was what the whole schtick did not and does not seem to me to allow for.

    Alcoholism as a racial determination in the Nazi manner – that is pretty astute. They do in fact say it is a genetic “disease” and there are some advantages to this, but a disadvantage is that this idea, when taken literally, does tend to condemn whole tribes. I found the whole thing quite Kafkaesque: they just knew I was guilty, and I was constantly on trial, but I couldn’t see what I had done. And since not being able to see was in fact one of the symptoms of guilt, the paradigm caught me in an endless circle – d-d if you do, d-d if you don’t.

    Part of my problem in the particular crowd I met, and particularly with the shrink, was just that I was a lot more urban than they. It was very hard for them to believe I could go out to hear music and not be tempted to get drunk, take unwise risks, and so on. I was also engaging in “risky behavior” by doing things like drive by myself to New York and L.A. To them, this sort of thing only proved that I had unresolved trauma I was in denial about.
    That part isn’t Al-Anon’s fault, it’s the limitation of that particular group and also of the shrink who was involved. But I do think there is an authoritarian and even cultish streak in Al-Anon, according to which they always get to be right and everyone else is unenlightened.

    One of the things they like to say is it is better to be happy than right. I notice, though, that they quite like to be right. And where I differ is that I do think it is worth doing the “right” thing for oneself, that this is in fact necessary for happiness, and that the freedom to do what is right is important. I also do not see “happiness” as a goal as much as an epiphenomenon of … health? productivity? … and that what I was seeking was not happiness – I did in fact experience that emotion most days – but freedom.

    The thing that most pains me is that the people who are working the steps, and trying to get you to work the steps, seem to oscillate between extreme self-deprecation and extreme judgementalism, superiority, and preachiness. They say everyone is the same, but at the same time they seem to think they are better than everyone because they are going to these great (Christian, I think) depths of self-abnegation and heights of exaltation of God. This part of my experience may have to do with the religiosity of people in Louisiana, I don’t know.

    Their concept of God is central. They say that they are not a religious program and you can use any God, but the role in which they cast God is still monotheistic, personalistic, and paternalistic. It is assumed that you are now trying to control the universe in a godlike manner, and that you need to leave this to God. That may be true enough of people who are in fact trying to be godlike, but if you are not and then, in an attempt to get with the program, you begin to relinquish personal power you should in fact not relinquish, you can get into some serious trouble.

    So, in sum, the problem I have with Al-Anon is primarily the assumptions and pre-judgments it makes. In the rest of life, you can take assumptions like these into consideration, and decide to accept them or not, but in Al-Anon as I experienced it, not to accept them was “denial” (the assumptions had to be true, and would come back to bite you whether you embraced them or not).

    Interestingly, a lot of what Al-Anon is trying to teach people to do is not to make preemptive assumptions and judgments. I was not the right target for that, though … I even got a play award from one of my classes in the junior year of college, “Least Judgmental Person We Know.” Trying to get even less judgmental meant, in my case, dumping critical capacities that were in fact necessary for life.

  7. P.S. Another insidious evil of Al-Anon is the way their rules and guidelines are contradictory among themselves. That way they can pull out the one they need to whip you around and keep you confused. For example:

    To new people they say “Take what you need, and leave the rest.” That is non-coercive and all. So far, so good.

    Then they start getting more ominous: If you do not get a sponsor NOW, and consult them more about the minor decisions you make in life, the “program” will do you no good and you are just faking by coming to meetings.

    If you do not work the (self-destructive, in my view) steps, you will not get a thing out of the “program” and again, you are not really interested in improving your life.

    If, in sum, you do not “work the whole program” you are “not really being honest” about your situation and your desire to improve it is not sincere.

    That was how I got guilted into swallowing more of it than I thought wise.

    Once again, these are cultish tactics, mind control techniques. They are ridiculous (as, by the way, any decent, non-rote, non-formulaic teacher should know).

  8. When I say this:

    “I understand that Al-Anon may have saved lives but it almost lost me mine, and I think that for people who are considering going into it, that is just as important to know.”

    Al-Anon people tend to say, “but my relative was actually a substance abuser, and could have lost their life to that, whereas you were going to lose your life without drugging yourself, and you did not involve your relatives, so what happened to my relative is more important – if only because it was more melodramatic.”

    I really disagree with that. I think that being driven to the brink by something other than alcohol/drugs is just as bad as being driven by alcohol/drugs. And I really, really gave the whole thing the benefit of the doubt, and really tried for a long time. And it is interesting how people will come to the defense of institutions and traditions far before they will of individuals.


    I would also say of Al-Anon in general that for a group which is constantly insisting that everyone is created equal, its members and particularly its leaders often demonstrate a strong investment in in-groups, out-groups, distinctions, and hierarchies.

    In both Al-Anon and psychotherapy, the two elements of Reeducation, I was particularly struck by the degree of immaturity in the leaders, and their propensity to projection.

    Another thing I noticed, not in real old-timers but in many people who were now sponsors, were very great feelings of entitlement – despite a lot of discussion of (faux, in my view) “humility.” They always seemed to want everything both ways, have cake and eat it too, and they had convoluted ways of justifying this … and then they would exhort newer people about the need for resignation, sacrifice, limitation, and so on. This part of things was rather transparent and kind of ridiculous.

    And, people, do not think I am a neophyte – I was open to and overly patient with this crowd off and on, but mostly on from 1991 to 2006, and that is 15 years.


    This, meanwhile, is a description of a good meeting and you can see that much of what I complain about here does not go on there at all, and in fact, many of the messages transmitted are exactly the opposite of what I had dangled at me. My 2006 group was a lot more like this. But I still note two things: these people are actually dealing with alcoholics (I was not when I was first assigned to go), and need, and are getting, support for this, and also, this group is focused far more on mutual support than it is on the (destructive, in my view) 12 steps.

    There are feminist critiques of Alanon, feminist revisions of the 12 steps, etc., and as I keep reiterating, for people who are actually dealing with an alcoholic, especially if they go to a group where people are fairly evolved, then I am sure it can be useful. My main objection, as I keep saying, is to its promotion as a model for life and to the assumption inherent in this, that everyone is “in denial” about their “true feelings” and addicted to drama.


    This is a funny thing to say, coming from an atheist/pagan like me who does not – at least consciously – expect “spirituality” from anyone. Except for my 2006 group, which did radiate a certain positive glow, I always used to come away from meetings with the feeling of having been harangued by an individual or a set of individuals who were far less spiritual and meditative than average. Thre was a lot of spouting of homilies, but beyond this, a huge amount of emptiness. And I am talking about leaders and sponsors, people who really believed they had “gotten” it and were ready to impart wisdom. It was odd. And odd of me to have that reaction, too: “How unspiritual!”


    I realize I am being very mean to Reeducation and Al-Anon, with my unbalanced and partial view. However I was fair and balanced for many years, and it did me no good – and quite a bit of harm. It is a.m.a.z.i.n.g. how much freer I feel now after only a few days of unrestrained ranting… 😉


    And/but always remember: my entire first experience of Al-Anon was utterly mediated by a weird sponsor and a weirder, 12 step aligned shrink! This is why I call the whole package “Reeducation.” And I stand by this analysis: my original Al-Anon experience was unusually poor, *but* even for the best of cases, those 12 steps are oppressive and pernicious!!!


    Perhaps it was my lack of interest in faux or trumped-up drama that made it so hard for me to fit in or be understood. The “true feelings” I was “denying” were, essentially, the taste for drama which was expected … and was then to be untaught. I came in with certain problems, but not that key one, and I was hard to understand therefore. I had already achieved (much of) the desired goal of “detachment,” but since I had done this outside of Al-anon, I was considered “unfeeling.” This accusation was very hurtful.


    Also, the shrink involved, who was a big 12 step advocate, also seemed to think I could and should go back and “resolve things” with my family of origin … would give instructions on this that sounded unproductive … would encourage following them … and would then back up and say I shouldn’t care after all. I had long since decided the best thing to do there was be in touch but also live and let live … but Al-anon and the shrink wanted to start over at square 1 of unawareness, and this was very ridiculous.

  9. Profacero – My experience with AA, which I wrote about on your blog a while back, was very much like yours, although thankfully much briefer. I also did not fit their paradigm. I was told that I was either lying or in denial and that if I did not follow the 12 steps I would come to a horrible end. It is over 10 years later and none of what they said would happen to me has happened. AA was totalizing, hierarchical, authoritarian and coercive. It felt like abuse to me, something I knew all to well from my own childhood. When I think about my relatively short experience with AA, I feel like I am re-entering a nightmare and that I too was lucky to escape with my life.

    So I am wondering, why do we look back on our 12 step experience with a kind of horror while so many others say that it saved their lives? I try not to be arrogant, not to believe that my experience is the correct experience and that any one who believes differently must be defective or deficient. If somebody says a 12 step program helped them I have to believe that it did but if something is gained by 12 steps is something also lost? Is the trade off worth it and if so under what circumstances? This is a complicated issue but I say that your experience and my experience are as valid as anyone else’s and worthy of respect, something that was not given me during my brief 12 step tenure.

  10. Ah, jfr, thanks for your illuminated presence, which reminds me that I am not unique and perhaps not crazy. I know what my Al-Anon critique is, but I still get engulfed with guilt when I am reminded that it “saved someone’s life.” If I had been a better person, I would have liked it and it would have been a good experience, and so on. I have heard that this is how people who are dealing with alcoholics feel about the alcoholic: it is their fault, if they just try harder the person will not drink, etc. I never thought that about my father and I have never been around many alcoholics since then, nor have I thought anyone’s alcoholism was my fault. However, I note that I surely treated the *organization* like that, and feel the sort of guilt around it that they say they feel around alcoholics. And I think the organization *encourages* this, with all of its claims to being a perfect and universal program, and so on.

    I think it saved some peoples’ lives because they were actually dealing with an out of control addict and they got some needed support. I also think it taught some domineering people not to be so bossy, and some drama queens and chaos addicts how to live a simpler and clearer life. But you are a Buddhist, and I am an introspective meditator, and neither of us were involved with alcoholics.

    People tell me that I “just didn’t get into a good group,” but all groups use the 12 steps and in my view, the 12 steps are the problem.

    They also tell me that I “just don’t want to admit that I have a standard problem / a common illness.” But as any decent M.D. will tell you, people may have standard problems and common illnesses, but even these have variations, and people are still individuals. Like, duh: broken bones are broken bones, but each break is a particular instance of broken bone-ness. It is not that I do not want to admit I have a standard problem: were that the case, I would never even have tried Al-Anon. But I do not find it healthful to accuse myself of being someone I am not, or of having done things I have not.

    This is a really interesting question:

    “If somebody says a 12 step program helped them I have to believe that it did but if something is gained by 12 steps is something also lost? Is the trade off worth it and if so under what circumstances?

    It seems to be worth it for people whose original situations were really, really bad and/or who actually have many of the problems Al-Anon is designed to address.

    I have also seen it be worthwhile for people who would never, ever leave their current situations – Catholic wives of alcoholic, womanizing oilfield executives with many children and no skills, for instance. They learn to accept the fact that their husbands are as they are, stop struggling for them to change, stop covering up for them, and get more independent lives of their own.

    HOWEVER: my main point is that there have to be some models for dealing with these problems which do *not* involve the 12 steps. The cycle of humiliating yourself, and then feeling grandiose with God, is just all too Christian and all too narrowly focused on the self. I would so much rather just meditate, listen to the birds, look at the flowers, not take up so much room in my own eyes – just be one of the many elements in the world.

    SOMETIMES I THINK that the reason some Al-Anon people like it so much is, they like to preach, harangue, and put people down. Al-Anon taught them a way to limit this and thus to create less conflict, but also gave them a socially acceptable outlet for continuing it in some form. This is an unkind thought on my part, but it is based on observation.

  11. I have never been much of a joiner. I tend to become a thorn in the side of most groups that demand some kind of adherence to a totalizing belief system. I say “but but but” too often. I was briefly in a particularly brutal 12 step setting but for me too it is the 12 steps themselves that disturb me not any particular group of 12 steppers. My complaint is similar to yours. I was told who I was, what I must have done, what I would go on to do if I didn’t follow the party line. I knew they were wrong. I wasn’t who they told me I was. I didn’t do the things they said I must have done and I didn’t land up going down the path that they predicted was inevitable if I didn’t commit myself to the program 100%. I was not in denial and I was not lying, but they said that both must be true because the program knew more about me than I knew about myself. It is crazy making. I am glad to meet someone whose experience was similar to mine, to know that there is someone else not willing to admit powerlessness and all that follows that admission. One of my favorite quotes is from Cynthia Ozick’s “The Shawl”, “Survivor. Even when your bones get melted into the grains of the earth, still they’ll forget human being.” Why not human being first, not survivor, not alcoholic, not codependent. From a Buddhist perspective, seeing people through the lens of such concepts keeps us in the realm of samsara, unenlightened, deluded, grasping. We are not our labels.

  12. Totalizing belief system – indeed, that does sum up the problem. Interestingly, I have discovered a third person with the same experience, a friend I’ve had for 10 years but didn’t know that much earlier on he’d been called to 12-stepping because of a close friend from college who had gone into Treatment. He said: “They are convinced that you, too, are secretly drinking. They open up your head, turn everything upside down, and then close it back up … and you stay confused for a long time.”

    Realm of samsara, that is very interesting. I sustained at one point a correspondence with a very eccentric writer who discussed people’s personalities not in modern terms, but in terms of medieval humors. It was illuminating to see how the removal of the popularized clinical-esque labels we now have humanized people, and let individualities show through. I should probably do a Foucauldian study of Al-anon, and get some academic mileage out of this. 😉

  13. Also, jfr – I have just realized that the person I know who truly fits what Al-Anon is trying to treat is my mother. This makes sense since she is married to my father.

    Anyway, she suffers, and used to do so much more, and could or could have benefited a lot from these Al-Anon things:

    – learning to stay within her boundaries, give up ultra-control of others
    – dropping the addiction to drama
    – developing a more independent life
    – dropping overblown / false self-esteem, and developing confidence based on the small
    – trusting more in the benevolence of the universe
    – etc.

    The shrink I went to, I went to specifically because of oppression by her and then starting in about the fourth grade, girls and women like her. And then I got thrown into this crowd which was, in effect, trying to convince me, first, that the world really was as my mother believed it to be, and/or that if it was not, I must still first believe that it was in order to then get authorization to believe it was not. This crowd included my shrink, my sponsor and eventually the MD I went to to get drugs to dull the pain of dealing with all of this. They were all, of course, themselves trying to learn the things I’ve bulleted above, but they were not too advanced in this path, as I was to finally understand. They also had, and I believe intended to retain, an incredibly negative view of the world and of everyone.

    My parents had said, when they were young, that that was the “adult” view of the world, but I never believed this. I met that view again in Reeducation, with the problem that Reeducation had far more cultural and social power and many more agents than my parents had ever had. It was horrifying. I said: “So, the worldview I have always rejected turns out to be the true and furthermore, culturally sanctioned worldview – OH NO!” It was terrifying.

  14. It is the promulgation of the 12 steps as the socially sanctioned world view for so many of life’s problems that is truly terrifying. There are so many errors of logic involved in this acceptance of the 12 steps. The fact that some people are able to remain sober or free themselves of “co-dependence” or better regulate their food intake by using the 12 steps is neither here nor there. The fact that it works for some people some of the time in no way implies that it works for all people all of the time. To say that if it is not working for you you are in denial or you are non-compliant sidesteps the empirical issues presented by the failure of 12 step programs to work. Whether 12 steps works, under what conditions it works, the reasons why it doesn’t work, these are all empirical issues that can be studied.

    Another logical error that is made by some proponents of 12 step programs is the assumption that not only does the 12 step program work but it is the only program that can work. Even if all 12 step programs worked for all people all of the time for now into eternity, that would still not be proof that it is the only program that can work. The possibility of other ways of accomplishing the same end is always out there.

    Finally, 12 step programs tend to be focused on very narrow ends. It makes sense to ask what else do 12 step programs do beyond what they are trying to do. Antibiotics have done a marvelous job of eradicating infections, however there has been an unintended consequence to their use which is antibiotic resistant bacteria. 12 step programs certainly do not address the social conditions which produce the behaviors which they are designed to control or change. Perhaps they even foster a disregard for these overarching issues so that while helping individuals overcome individual problems, by turning attention away from their causes, they may increase the likelihood that these causes will continue to exist thus increasing the likelihood that the 12 steps will continue to be needed.

    I have only a passing knowledge of Foucault but from the little I do know, it seems to me that an analysis of 12 step programs from his perspective would be useful for the 12 steps are certainly being used by the state to regulate its citizens.

    The fact that my neighbor has been sober for 20 years due to following the 12 steps in no way implies that my 2 month addiction to xanax could only be overcome by my adherence to the 12 steps and I have lived to tell the tale.

  15. “It is the promulgation of the 12 steps as the socially sanctioned world view for so many of life’s problems that is truly terrifying.”

    YES. And this comment is so key that I am considering making it more visible by copying it up as a guest post. At some point – right now I’m in a work crunch, but as you can tell, I revisit all of this periodically. The logical errors are staggering, but if one points these out, one is told one is using reason when one should be using feelings. (This confuses reason and rationalization.) But if one says, “this feels wrong and every instinct I have tells me this is a dangerous path,” one is then told that because of having had an alcoholic ancestor, or whatever, one’s feelings are also necessarily wrong. It is crazy-making indeed.

    I suspect, though, that the reason they say it is for everyone may be that at least in the past, those who most needed the Program tended to say they were too good for it, that there was nothing wrong with them, and so on. To get these people to feel all right with facing their issues, it became necessary to say everyone had these issues, we were all equal. I don’t know, but I’d bet this was the original reason for the universality thesis. Now the universality thesis has taken on a life of its own and is utterly out of control.

    Also, one of the biggest problems I have with the seeping of 12 step ideas throughout society, is that so many people have picked up a part of them and use them to justify their own passivity and egocentrism. All sorts of people claim they cannot do anything about things it is in fact their job to do something about and then cite the 12 steps to justify their quietism. To the tune of “I cannot help this old lady who has fallen down in the middle of the road, because this would ‘enable’ her helplessness.” There was a bone-chilling post at the G Bitch a while ago, about “tough love” programs, in which apparently, now, being mean to kids is totally justified because being at all tolerant or cutting any slack at all was “enabling.”

    One thought I have is that the 12 steps may really be directed to people who are all caught up in social power and privilege, power and superiority. That may be why the Al-Anons keep saying, give up power. I just wrote this comment elsewhere, to a white guy struggling with whiteness and race. He was criticizing white people for being racist, and berating himself for being white, and also expressing anger at people of color for bringing racism to his attention, because thinking about it is painful. He was very much focused on himself. How, oh how, can I live down being a member of the exploiter race, asked he? I said:

    “It has just always been pretty clear to me that the whites are the exploiters and I am one of them, and I cannot really change that history, but I can choose to run my life differently and work to change a few things. This is why I don’t get all p.o.’d at an individual level.”

    Then I realized how Al-Anon-y it sounded: “I’m flawed, the world is flawed, I do not have magical power to change these things all at once, but I do have choices about how I live, and I may be able to change some part of these things. Knowing this, I am serene.”

    The thing is, I was like this before going to Al-Anon. Their insistence that I could not possibly be that way until *after* working with them for a good, long time, was what was so confusing.

    And – by the way, in case any 12 step advocates are reading – I do not mean to suggest I am better than anyone else just because I already knew a lot about how to handle life when I first appeared at Al-Anon. Heck, if you want to call “codependency” a disease, there are all sorts of diseases I do not have. I do not feel superior to those who do have them, just more fortunate.

  16. More random thoughts, for anyone but especially jfr:

    * The 12 steps encourage beating yourself up. That right there is an indication to me that they are a servant of the System.

    * The peace people say they come to after accepting “powerlessness” looks all too much, to me, like the peace of Winston Smith after he came to love Big Brother.

    * If “powerlessness” means dropping egocentrism and caring better for the self – which is a good way to live – then that is fine. And it may be a good antidote for people who believe they have more power than they do, if that’s a problem for them. But powerlessness as a key to life, how depressing.

    * People who defend the 12 steps always do it in the same terms, as though they had memorized it from a script. Perhaps they have. That is scary. On this I can say much more – because you can put that redemption narrative on almost anything, and convince yourself you were a lost sheep saved by amazing grace, but I notice that the people who pray not to be bitten by mosquitoes also use citronella.

    *On another note, I think we are over-paranoid about addictions. I’m the first to say that actual addicts can be a real drag … especially when people give them power or try to say they aren’t addicts and nothing is wrong. But now it seems that any use of any substance is called an addiction, and it was the sentencing of my students to Al-Anon for having a nickel bag which occasioned this most recent firestorm of posts on the 12 steps. At the same time, certain antidepressants, and certainly Ritalin and other mood alterers for kids are massively pushed by the medical, pharmaceutical, and even recovery industries. In that context, the “drug-free” ideal is hypocritical. I could say more on that.

  17. A recent tutoring session I had with a kid who is bright, but is waaay out of his league in an accelerated math program, showed me that the early labeling of some of these kids may well be because too much is expected of them too soon. They might well be losing interest not because they are attention-deficit, but because they are turning off to certain teaching techniques and certain concepts that are a bit beyond their cognitive level.

    However, so many are buying into the “one curriculum/one pill fits all” sort of situations. We are so swamped by work telling us what to do that piling on what our children’s schools are telling us to do is considered to be more of the extra weight than our jobs’ demands are. We still need food, clothing, and shelter, and changing our child’s learning capabilities won’t satisfy those needs at this point in human history.

    Very sad, really.

  18. Now, in schools apparently, everyone is supposed to be in lockstep, it seems. The ones I went to weren’t like that, and it felt much freer. I think a lot of “ADHD” is due to what you’re talking about, to being distracted for good reason – look at the state of the world and of families – to lack of exercise – to the food.

    Accelerated math – my brother was put in that, way accelerated math, because the school the year before had moved more quickly than the new school, so he was ahead. They thought it meant he was a genius. He’s bright but it was rough being expected to be a math genius in second grade and not quite being one.

  19. The more things that get labeled addiction the more justification there will be for the state to exercise its powers over someone. And now the word “addiction” spreads out beyond the usual suspects of drugs alcohol and cigarettes to gambling, shopping and playing video games. This bothers me on a number of fronts. It’s a kind of sloppy use of language where diagnosis occurs by analogy perhaps so as addiction is used to refer to more and more behaviors, experts, people with credentials, are needed to diagnose them. Then the courts order them into court sanctioned 12 step programs, so someone who once had some freedom to choose to enter a self help program now is forced into the programs that are entwined to some degree with both the court system and the hospital system.

    Then there is all the implicit if not explicit sexist stuff in the 12 steps. Men tend to feel powerful and admitting to powerlessness might be a good thing. Women tend to feel like doormats so taking back power might serve them better.

    I didn’t need a program or a patch or a pill to quit cigarettes. I needed no expert. I needed to decide to take responsibility for my health and then act on that responsibility, trying to glean from stuff I had read what things would help me get through it. It worked without an expert in sight nor a pharmaceutical product paid for.

    We are becoming much too medicalized and much too dependent on experts who seem to have been giving out decidedly bad advice about a lot of things for a lot of years. Now they want to start regulating fat bodies, calling it an epidemic and just this past week suggesting it spreads in social networks like a contagion. This might be a language of literature but what is it doing in science other than to frighten us into compliance. A pox on all their house I say. I might be just a dumb woman who couldn’t even manage to complete her PhD, but I was well trained in textual analysis, and the scientific method and I think I know of what I speak although it is late and I fear I have become incoherent.

    Final line for me is that 12 step programs are supposed to be followed exactly because they already know who you are and what you need by the label that has been attached to you. If it is a good program many people might find that they are a good fit and it helps them. This almost never works for me because I am almost never the person they are describing, plus I don’t tend to take things on faith. I need to understand why I am being asked to do something and if it feels either irrrelevant to my needs or downright dangerous and I want the right to refuse. I will not be coerced.

    I have gone on much too long and in the morning will probably wish I had waited to read it over before I hit send.

  20. Voluntary self-help versus non-voluntary, state ordered, very important distinction.

    On labels: naming things is valuable, so when labels and descriptions fit, that can be good / clarifying. But when they don’t…

    The element of coercion in all of this is also huge.

    And on quitting things without the 12 steps – it occurs to me that I would not dream of using them to quit anything, they load too much onto it. It seems much easier to simply decide the cost of the habit is more than you want to bear.

    I think I may have just quit my “addiction” to 12 step oppression and confusion by using a version the first step and the first one alone: “Trying to conceive of life in these terms is too stressful and destructive, my life has become unmanageable. I will therefore stop trying to use just a little bit, and dump the thing wholesale.” 😉

    My worst problem is still with the universality issue – the insistence on the one size fits all model – and way accusations of “denial” are used to convince actually healthy people that not feeling ill is proof that they are.

    My current mantra is: I am not guilty, and I do not have to suffer. That is what I would have said before Al-Anon, and it is what I am saying again.

  21. P.S. On the extension of this addiction / 12 step model to all aspects of society – and the spread of *especially* the ideology of powerlessness – I think it is pernicious because it helps to naturalize and legitimize statements like this: “I am powerless over my racist conditioning. I cannot change it. I therefore get to continue exercising it.”

    I realize that is not what the 12 steppers mean by powerlessness, or would recommend. But I think the wholesale exaltation of powerlessness as a virtue needs to be contained. This is one reason I am against the wildfire spread of 12 stepping, and the adoption of its theory by people (like my original shrink) who adopt it in its most perverted form. All too often, people decide they are “powerless” in ways that permit them to remain in a position which, while unethical or worse, remains advantageous to them. Others are told they are powerless, or should accept powerlessness, by people who in fact want them to remain oppressed as women, minorities, and so on. All the AA people really meant by it, originally, if I have it right, is that they couldn’t trust themselves with alcohol and they admitted it. That is not a grandiose statement. Getting up and telling everyone else they should feel powerless about almost everything, is.

    I know the 12 steppers say you need to change what you can, but it often seems to me that the effect of the proliferation of the “powerlessness” ideology is to protect the status quo, and to allow those in positions of power to remain lazy / avoidant / passive agressive by saying, “But I am powerless, and remember, it is virtuous of me to acknowledge that limitation and that vulnerability, so do not ask for more.” That is another reason why I am against the institutionalization of the program, and its conversion from an ISA to an outright organ of the state.

    Also, the “one size fits all” nature of the program is problematic not only because it shoehorns people into boxes and reduces them to labels, but also because all of the homilies and slogans have to be read and reread for their “deep meaning,” or individualized to you, or whatever. For me it would be a lot easier to read more sophisticated, more situation specific texts, than to spend time working all these homilies up into something useful. Most importantly, all the work that requires also requires absorbing, or at least looking too long at some bad lessons. It was because I was making a good faith effort to understand the program that I got trapped in it.

    On quitting addictions: I’d never use the 12 steps for that, I don’t think – it would make things too complicated, pile too much onto something that’s already a little rough. But then although I’ve smoked and so on, I’ve never been addicted to a substance that caused my life to become chaotic and unmanageable. So I don’t know – if things got that way, maybe I would need a lot of steps (although not these twelve). Both of my abusive relationships made my life unmanageable. It was hard to understand what was happening and see my way out, so I can sort of understand what it must like to be caught in an alcohol fog.

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