Hello, my name is Chris and I have a substance abuse disorder. “Hi Chris!” say the chorus of other addicts and alcoholics. I say a bit about what is going on in my life regarding recovery and I pass to the next person. This is how almost all 12-Step programs conduct their meetings.
“But Gonz, you’re an atheist,” you say. “How can you function in a system that requires acceptance of a higher power?”
I came into my recovery program in 1997 and, except for three or four bad days in 2010, have had no alcohol or opiates, the substances I absolutely cannot control. I came into this program in Harvard Square, Cambridge, , Massachusetts, the most enlightened zip code (02138) in the US. I will admit, Cambridge meetings are more accepting of free thinkers than those in most other parts of the country but the basics of the program are the same.
My Relationship With A Higher Power
Tellis Lawson, my sponsor from the day I came into the program until the day he died in September 2011, told me early on in my recovery, “About god, “you just need to remember, gods exist and you aren’t one of them.” A good friend of mine who started about a month after me back in 1997, said he used Eric Cartman as his higher power; I chose the acronym “group of drunks” (G. O. D.) because, as a humanist, I believe that a group of people is stronger than an individual and, also as a humanist, I believe that most good things that happen to humans comes from the effort of other humans.
A good friend of mine who celebrated 42 years of sobriety in June 2013 and also an atheist told me early on in my recovery to appreciate Harvard Sq. meetings as, when he first started, “You could pick any higher power you liked as long as it was Catholic, Protestant or Jewish.” Of course, that was 1972 and things have changed a lot.
Last August, I came out as an atheist humanist at a meeting in a church next door to Harvard Law School. I felt especially cranky that day and, when I heard some other drunk say, “God saved me when I got shot…” I raised my hand. When the chairperson called on me, I first said that I had to come out as an atheist as atheist is the new gay and then I said, “If your god loves you so much how come he didn’t save you before you got shot? And, why can’t you simply thank the paramedics, emergency room nurses and doctors, the surgeon who removed the bullet, all of the humans who, over the years, invented all of the tools and techniques used to save you? You were saved by humans not some distant celestial being.”
I continued, “This program was founded and designed by humans. We’re hear enjoying fellowship with other humans helping each other with recovery. Why must we insult the humans by demeaning their contributions by insisting that a god intervened when all of the evidence points to amazing humans doing amazing things.”
When I stopped, the meeting had grown very quiet. One guy, with about 60 days sobriety under his belt, announced, “Would you listen to this fucking retahd!” I wondered just how many people would be offended and wondered if I might be shunned. After that meeting, a number of people came to me thanking me for expressing what they’ve wanted to say for years. One of those who thanked me is a 82 year old woman who claims that X-Celerator, my guide dog, is her higher power.
Even the hardline believers in that meeting accept me and we don’t debate the existent of a supernatural god when together. I needn’t be a full time atheist evangelist. If people want to believe so be it. My dad and mom are Catholics and I learned long ago that you can argue logic and rationalism until you turn blue and you won’t convince true believers to change their minds.
Why choose a 12-Step Program over something more rational and/or secular?
There are three excellent recovery programs that do not contain the higher power component of a 12 step systems: Rational Recovery, SMART Recovery and Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS). Over my 15+ years in recovery, I have attended meetings of all three and benefited from them. Unfortunately, these programs are very small and it’s often hard to find a meeting. Even in enlightened Cambridge, MA, none of these have more than one meeting per week while Alcoholics Anonymous alone has more than 1000 different meetings per week accessible by public transit. If you need to find some humans with whom to commune, the popularity of 12 step programs cannot be beaten for finding fellowship.
The tools taught by SMART Recovery, an organization that formed over a political split among the founders of Rational Recovery, seem to have a higher rate of efficacy than other popular recovery methodologies. It is based in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), especially based in the form of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) made famous by the late Albert Ellis, a personal hero of mine. One can learn these techniques quickly and can apply them in many parts of their lives and one can use these techniques while attending 12 step meetings for fellowship as well.
The 12 Step Swarm
Some very hardline 12 step members will tell a person that they aren’t working the program properly. These people can usually be ignored as the only thing one can truly do incorrectly is to relapse by picking up a drink or illicit drug. Sometimes, these people will tell a fellow member of their program that using psychiatric medications is tantamount to abusing the same drugs that caused one to join the program in the first place. I have personally witnessed the lives of some individuals go really bad after they refused medication prescribed by their highly qualified medical professionals.
This is where I find problems in 12 step programs. Because there are no leaders or professionals, one is left to the care of other addicts. Very few of the others in these meetings have any training in addiction counseling, medicine or any of the scientific disciplines that study addiction and recovery. Hence, it is sometimes difficult for a newcomer to determine what is and not good advice.
A Skeptical View
I am planning an article on the science or lack thereof supporting the claims of 12 step programs. In brief, though, virtually all of the statistical evidence regarding addiction and recovery programs in the past two decades demonstrate that the 12 step programs fail roughly 85% of the people who try to use them to get sober. Twelve step literature reminds us that those who fail in the program do so because of some sort of personal defect and not because the program has problems. Clearly, 85% of the people who try to get sober and fail cannot and should not be blamed for their failures as they are the majority. If the program can’t help most people is it is an efficacious program at all?
As I wrote above, the secular recovery programs are more well based in modern scientific thinking. they provide tools but, because of their size, may not be able to provide the fellowship.
There are two ways to work a 12 step program. You can, like me, ignore most of the steps and systematic ways of recovery presented by 12 step programs as, the evidence shows, they are of little value and embrace the fellowship. I have, as a result, been able to find people, friends I haven’t met yet if you prefer, on four different continents. The people of the program help me in many ways but virtually nothing of the formal aspects of 12 step programs have done much for me but do seem to have helped some others.
As I started off, I’m an atheist who has about 15 out of 16 years of very solid recovery. I’ve never dropped to my knees to pray, never believed in a supernatural higher power and I have friends in these programs all over the country and in many parts of the world. If you think you need help with an addiction, please write to me using the contact form on this site and I will confidentially help you in any way I can. If you need a recovery program and really cannot stand the notion of a 12 step program, I urge you to get involved with one of the secular and reason based programs and do your best to find other like minded people to befriend. Getting clean and sober is very hard and it is made much easier when you have fellow humans to help you with your recovery.