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12-Step Programmes Help Thousands, but Are Outdated and Sexist

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Addiction is everywhere. The drug of choice may be alcohol, or it may be food, sex, romance, gambling or shopping, but the basic problem is the same; the inner void created by a culture that sells us the empty promise that reaching for external things will make us happy. When all that striving for money and possessions, and for status through jobs and relationships, still leaves a gaping hole inside us, many of us reach for the bottle, the chocolates or the credit card - and the cycle is complete.

In an article in the Guardian on May 30, Damian Thompson argued against the disease model for addiction, as developed by Alcoholics Anonymous. The roots of addiction, he wrote, lie in environmental factors, in the fact that "contemporary capitalism is ruthlessly targeting our mental reward circuits." Thompson was careful to point out that AA saved his life, and it saved mine too. But I was always uncomfortable with being told I was 'a sick person' and my 'disease' was always 'waiting outside the door doing press-ups'. This idea didn't feel empowering, and it meant I had to replace one dependency with another - if I'm sick, I always have to take my 'medicine' of going to AA meetings or I will certainly relapse.

The unconditional love and support of AA members was incredibly healing for me at the lowest point in my life, and working on the 12 steps has brought about an internal paradigm shift that has utterly transformed my world; drinking, it had become a dark, lonely and hopeless place, but thanks to AA it is now full of love, healing, evolution, friendship, and music. However, there came a point in my recovery, a few months ago, where I hit a wall. There were things about AA that felt negative and heavy that I could no longer ignore.

The language of the steps and the literature that accompanies them is sexist and outdated. AA loyalists say that this is just semantics, that the programme, pioneered in the 1930s, has worked all this time, so why change it? This viewpoint does not take into account all those people who don't return to meetings, although they desperately need recovery, because they can't accept all the talk of a male, authoritarian God to whom we must submit our "will and our lives" (step three).

When I first came into contact with AA, I gobbled up the stories in the 'Big Book' (the programme's basic text) realising as I read and identified that maybe the boyfriend who left the books lying around wasn't the only one with a problem. Then I read the chapter 'To Wives'. I was horrified. The chapter urges wives of alcoholics "never to be angry", to practise "patience and good temper", to remember that it is "only because he is warped and sickened that he says and does these appalling things", and to regard their struggles with selfish alcoholic husbands as "part of their education."

A wife should never criticise her man or tell him what to do, lest he become angry enough to drink, and/or go off with another woman. Instead, she should concentrate on changing her own attitude, with the help of (a male) God. True, someone who falls in love with an active alcoholic most likely does have their own issues, but I agree with Charlotte Kasl when she writes in her book "Many Roads, One Journey: Moving Beyond the 12 Steps" that the focus needs to shift from finding ways of emotionally detaching from abusive and neglectful partners, to forming healthy attachments with emotionally available people.

Kasl points out that the steps are based on a sin-and-redemption model derived from patriarchal Christianity: we admit we are "powerless" and "insane", turn to a male God for salvation, confess our sins, and identify our "defects of character". The idea of original sin is inherent within this model and I found it permeated many areas of the AA experience. If your default setting is to blame yourself for everything anyway, AA can exacerbate this tendency.

An updated approach to recovery needs to focus on empowerment, not guilt, and on encouraging the development of the inner resources within the individual to move on from addiction, rather than fostering a fear-based dependency on meetings. Fear, writes Kasl, "leads to lives of inner alienation and separateness from others. It may motivate us, but it does not heal." My own experience of recovery, and of helping others in recovery, has shown me that only love heals. Addicts may have done a lot of bad things, but guilt, self-blame, and shame will only beget more suffering all round.

The negative and separatist identity of "we addicts, who are 'not like the normies' also encourages a depressed, insular worldview, and often, self-obsession (Kasl calls it "recovery narcissism"). I've certainly been guilty of this myself. However, if addiction has systemic roots, addressing it requires a discussion of its context within capitalist, patriarchal societies. This, and not endless self-examination, will empower recovering addicts.

If you would like to send me your comments and ideas on this article, you can contact me at: newsobrietymovement@hotmail.com

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