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Alcoholics Anonymous Benefits - Critique of Pros and Cons (part two)
For all my criticism of the disease model of addiction and the twelve step programs, I think the strengths of these programs outweigh their weaknesses, at least for the right people. For perhaps no other reason than “it amuses me”, I will classify these strengths with words that begin with “C”.
There can be little doubt that the first positive “C”-word provided by the twelve step programs is a sense of community. Another “C”-word I have sometimes heard applied to such groups is “Cult”. While a cult is certainly a sort of community, I generally dismiss such definitions of twelve step groups as betraying the personal biases of the person who applies such definitions. It is a harsh, reactive sort of word, and doesn’t seem quite justified unless one has a personal vendetta.
On the other hand, a positive experience of community is available in twelve steps programs. Here, one may find fellow-sufferers who understand them in ways that no non-addict possibly could. Such people are able to provide friendship, emotional support, and even a swift kick in the butt if that is needed. I have always found people in these groups to be more than willing to extend their hands in friendship, some even making themselves available by phone literally 24/7 to virtual strangers. They are willing to give you a ride to meetings if your license is suspended, or if you have no car. They are willing to just sit down and have a bite to eat with you, and listen to whatever you may need to say. That is community: having people who are there for you.
If you are a nihilist, then you probably take a term like “cosmic orientation” to be synonymous with “psychosis”. However, if you are like me, you are not willing to rule out the possibility that there is some sort of meaning to be found in existence and life, beyond whatever momentary meanings we may choose to give them. In fact, I, and many others, think that searching for and/or aligning oneself with these greater meaning is of tremendous value. Personally, I think that living according to a higher purpose is one of the most effective ways one may improve their prognosis as concerns their addictions. I would go so far as to say that some addictions would be impossible to overcome, save for some type of divine assistance. My only real argument for this notion is that I found it to be the case for me personally, and for others I know. And while I realize this makes me psychotic, I am rather comfortable by this point with being psychotic.
The twelve steps are well-designed to direct the addict to a higher meaning/purpose. Steps two and three involve first believing we can be helped by a higher power, and then turning our lives over to the care of that higher power, respectively. Step eleven stresses the importance of prayer or meditation (both of which have many proven health benefits), and the importance of being aligned with a divine power. You can read all twelve of the steps at the end of this article.
I like how the twelve steps leaves room for personal beliefs by always referring to God as “God as we (individually) understand God”. The reason I like this is that, although I have a particular conception of God, I don’t think that God treats any person differently according to how they perceive Him/Her. God’s blessings, healing, and mercy are available freely to all.
The word “catharsis” comes directly from Greek, and means “purifying” or “cleansing”. The twelve steps programs provide this in two ways. First, they provide catharsis in a psychoanalytic sense. Within the psychotherapeutic tradition, catharsis involves the relief of psychological/emotional tension or pain by making the source of this pain exposed and expressing it. Twelve step groups put a great deal of emphasis on having people share their personal stories, lives, and experiences openly in the group. This kind of expression may very well foster the sort of catharsis that is sought in psychoanalytic therapy. There is considerable challenge to the psychoanalytic valuation of catharsis from the cognitive-behavioral school of thought, which tends to value ignoring negative thoughts or emotions rather than expressing them. However, that debate is enough subject matter for a different discussion altogether. This author, in any case, believes that digging within for sources of emotional pain and then openly expressing that pain to others can surely serve as one step in the healing process for many individuals, and that twelve step groups can facilitate this.
In a moral sense, catharsis involves the purging of guilt. The twelve steps also provide for this with steps five, nine, and ten. (see below)
Finally, the twelve steps and the groups that form around them encourage people to take personal responsibility for their actions towards others. The higher meanings provided by the steps are not only cosmic in nature: they are to be expressed practically, in everyday life, towards other people. The steps prescribe that we do this not only by making amends to people we have wronged, but by proactively “carrying” the message of the twelve steps to other addicts. In twelve step groups, veterans with years and years of sobriety will often tell newcomers that their own sobriety “depends” on these newcomers. By this they mean that, in order to stay sober, they must take every opportunity to support and aid addicts who still suffer. By doing this, they are passing on to others the good that they themselves have received. Thus, the twelve steps helps us stay sober by giving us the chance to contribute something.
So in summary, I think that the twelve-step groups provide the following benefits: a sense of community, a cosmic orientation, catharsis, and the chance to contribute.
The 12 Steps
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol/drugs—that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God's will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics/addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.