Wild Recovery - 12 Steps In Wilderness Therapy
In substance abuse treatment circles, there is nothing that produces more of a reaction than talking about 12-step recovery. Some people are extreme advocates of 12-step programs with sayings like “It’s all in the book!” Others vilify Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) as a cult using twisted religious ideologies to brainwash people. There are a few words like “powerlessness” and “God” that really get strong reactions. They are much more polarizing and stimulating than terms like “objectivity” and “spirituality” and thus oftentimes people desperately in need of help will reject 12-step support because they don’t believe in powerlessness or God.
For anyone unfamiliar with 12-step principles, I’ll offer a brief introduction. The founders Bill Wilson and Bob Smith met in Akron Ohio while Wilson was on a business trip. Though Wilson had been abstinent from alcohol for a while, he felt that he needed another alcoholic to work with to maintain his sobriety. Smith, a physician, and Wilson were both members of a religious organization called the Oxford Groups. Together, they helped others to get sober and stay sober. Eventually, the collective group of alcoholics published a book called Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939. It was a flop. They gave away most of the copies, but continued to plug away at promoting the founding AA principles. After the Saturday Evening Post wrote a favorable article in 1941, the organization began to get some traction. Since the AA book, called the Big Book because it was originally printed on cheap, thick paper resulting in a “big” book, has sold more than 30 million copies and is considered a seminal book in the development of modern America.
The steps (there were six at first) came out of teachings by the Oxford Groups, ideas from William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience and the experiences of the members including interactions with Carl Jung. The basic ideas are honesty, humility, disclosure, service, openness, and camaraderie. Today the 12-steps have been generalized to drug addiction, eating disorders, gambling, emotions, cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and affected family members to name just some of the offshoots. There are dharma and 12-step groups for Buddhists, atheists’ groups and a variety of other splinter groups that have spun off the original ideas.
Recently, a parent that I was working with, who was deeply distraught over her son’s addiction, expressed how disturbed she was that her son might find help in 12-step recovery. Her concerns were that her son would somehow lose his identity and autonomy to a delusional dogma. Her son had recently related that really liked AA and felt that it was helping. Mom had been trying desperately for years to help her son to slow down or quit drinking to no avail. She blamed me for putting her and her son into this terrible situation, namely that the solution might be worse than the problem. Several months later, after her first Al-Anon meeting (the family support group that is an adjunct to AA), she declared “It was amazing! People were so kind and understanding. I felt at home and very much accepted. I just had to tell you.” She began to attend regular Al-Anon meetings and started to recognize that her work was not to get her son sober but to detach from her son’s issues and learn how to take care of herself.
This is not everyone’s experience. Sometimes people encounter a 12-step group that is rigid and members who are harsh and uncompromising. Each group has a different flavor and each member is responsible for their own recovery experience. The unique thing about 12-step recovery is that it is largely unstructured – the group conscience can decide to run their group anyway that they so desire. It just happens that many of them decide to use a standardized format because there is comfort in the familiarity, and there are very notable exceptions. There are 11th step meditation meetings, crosstalk meetings, professional’s meetings, gender-specific meetings, gay meetings, young people’s meetings and just about as many different kinds as there are different social groupings.
My personal experience is very much in-between the extremes. First, I got sober in 12-step recovery so I have an inherent bias. Yet during much of my early abstinence and resistance to working the steps, I balked at the same concepts as many others. “I’m not powerless”, and I had no faith in the religious God of my childhood. I had lots of exceptions, exclusions, and questions. It wasn’t until much later that I learned to start using the program in a way that fit me and my own conception of spirituality. Then eventually, everything clicked.
Still all along the way, the support, camaraderie, “Good Orderly Direction”, and a practical program of action were important to my well-being. I witnessed others around me getting better, and then one day I woke up and realized that I had not thought about using substances in weeks. It was a profound shock. I had spent much of my life consumed with the idea, the need, to self-medicate and then I didn’t. This is the miracle that people in 12-step recovery talk about.
In my therapeutic practice, I use 12-step recovery materials and principles because they work. They are exceptionally useful for people struggling with both substance use and process addictions.1 Most importantly, there is a built-in support community for people who want to quit or explore alternatives to their addictive behaviors outside of therapeutic programming. The reasoning that I share with clients is that if they want to build something new and different in their lives, they might want to have all the tools available to accomplish the work. 12-step recovery is one of those tools.
1 Process addictions are behaviors like gambling, gaming, pornography, binge-eating, shopping, and other compulsive activities that do not include substances.