“I can see the beauty of glass objects fully
at the moment when they slip from my hand.”
Since going public with our addiction/recovery experience on this blog, I’ve received a lot of correspondence from people who find themselves in a similar situation. Some have come from family members or close friends, but often the notes come from people I barely know. The theme is universal: “I don’t know who to turn to, but I’m at the end of my rope. I’m worried and scared. This is destroying me.” These are people looking for a life raft.
Each and every time I read one of their stories, I’m flooded with the sense memory of all of those same feelings. I understand the desperation because I lived it… not for a day or a month, but for years. I know the feeling when frenzied chaos becomes the new norm, the warped filter through which everything is viewed. I know what it’s like when those feelings stop and numbness, no less desperate, begins to rule to the day. So when these people write to me, looking for anything that might be helpful, I understand.
And yet, I feel ill-equipped to offer a real solution. I usually talk about the importance of taking care of yourself, even in the midst of a loved one’s addictive free fall (prioritize mental/emotional/physical rest, eat even if you don’t feel like it, don’t be ashamed to seek out anti-depressants, consider seeing a therapist on your own), but invariably, in my rambling prescription of something — anything — that might help, I mention twelve step programs. Maybe if their addict loved one would be willing to attend a meeting or perhaps you could find some people in the same situation in an Al Anon gathering, just for a sense of “you are not alone,” might those things help? Sure, I guess they might. However, I also know based on everything I’ve read and, even more importantly, my experiences with twelve step groups, that these programs are not the actual answer to much of anything, certainly not long term. [A recent Salon article on the subject, found here, details a lot of my concerns.]
Early in my wife’s quest for sobriety, we encountered a whole host of different counselors, therapists, and “experts.” Almost without exception, each and every one of them recommended that my wife attend twelve step meetings (AA, NA, and the like). In fact, some of those experts required it as a condition of continued treatment. This is not uncommon. Additionally, it was routinely communicated that if I, as the non-addict spouse, wanted to “be a participant” in my wife’s recovery, I should “commit to a program,” too. Pursue my own “recovery,” I was told. For either of us to do otherwise would indicate some sort of moral failure or, at the very least, a sign that we weren’t somehow willing to do the work.
To her credit, my wife eagerly committed to the rigorous — “90 meetings in 90 days” is commonly suggested — schedule of meetings. She fully immersed herself in the schedule, the dogma, the literature, and the anonymity. Her life was filled with meetings (two and three times a day, if needed), phone call “check-ins” with fellow recovering addicts, faux-counseling sessions with her sponsor(s), and group study sessions to review/read/discuss the various twelve step texts. There were reading assignments and homework to be completed, too. It was all of the time and it was always under the veil of anonymity. It was, in my estimation, a (secret) religion.
Soon, after years of feeling that I might lose her to her various addictions, it now became clear that I would lose her to sobriety. Throughout the process, I was cast as the outsider, someone who wouldn’t (couldn’t!) understand. Perhaps I was even someone who was holding her back from the sober life that she could have, as long as she stayed in the program with the people who understood her and continually “worked the steps.” Everything else (read: our marriage) and everyone else (read: me) was but a distraction in her program-approved quest for wholeness.
When I’ve talked to friends at length about our journey, I’ve often said that, at least for me, the first year of my wife’s sobriety was worse than all the years of her addiction combined. “It gets worse before it gets better,” I commonly tell people on the cusp of a similar journey. I think that’s true for a variety of reasons, not the least of which involves an addict trying to navigate his/her way through every (usually amplified) human emotion without the numbing power of substances, often for the first time in their adult lives. However, in the case of our marriage, it also got substantially worse due to the influence of twelve step dogma, some of the specific (damaged) participants in those programs, and their unflinching focus on brokenness and its corresponding prescription of separatism.
Let me be clear. I know people who swear by AA (and similar twelve step organizations). Some of these people believe their sobriety hinges on their continued participation in “the program” and, as much as I might disagree with that sentiment, I acknowledge the value of sobriety over a life of addiction. I also know people who credit twelve step programs for turning their lives around, all while managing to strengthen existing family ties. It’s worth noting, though, that I also know people who became less of themselves because of their involvement in these same groups. I know people who would go on to eventually lose their fight to addiction, despite years of dedication to various meetings, programs, and rehabs. To say that results vary is an understatement.
I’d like to believe my wife would have found her way to sobriety even without those first few agonizing months and years in twelve step programs, but I can’t be sure. I do know there was no real healing for us, or for our marriage, until her involvement in them ended. Even still, I am hesitant to reject their potential positive influence completely. I realize that for some, these programs seem like a tether to a new life, sometimes the only tether within grasp. More than anything, I understand that when times are desperate — if you know someone who is losing a battle with addiction before your eyes, yes, times are desperate — you’ll try almost anything to stem the tide. Maybe that’s a value of the program that I can recommend: it’s something to disrupt the vicious downward spiral of addiction.
The next time someone asks for my advice, I will undoubtedly be faced with the same dilemma. Do I mention twelve step programs as a potential life line, even though everything in my being and in my experience tells me something to the contrary? The truth is that I probably will. At the end of the day, if I know nothing else, I know that addiction is a formidable and complex enemy, requiring a formidable and complex response. As such, a prescription of whatever works — whatever keeps the addict alive and encourages a life better lived — is all I have to offer.
For more information on this subject:
Salon | The Pseudo-science of Alcoholics Anonymous
NPR | With Sobering Science, Doctor Debunks 12-Step Recovery