I can remember when I was struggling to find a path to sobriety in my own personal journey, over 12 years ago.
I was very frustrated at that time because I was so scared of having to face AA meetings. I did not like the tension of sitting in a meeting and feeling like I might be expected to say something. Even having to say “I’m just listening today” was much more attention than I wanted on me. I guess you could call that anxiety.
So when I would talk with counselors and therapists back then I was very discouraged because all of them told me that I had to overcome this fear and just accept AA as my solution. This was based on talking with maybe two or three different counselors and attending 3 different addiction treatment centers total. All of these people and all of the help that I received told me to just suck it up and go to AA anyway, in spite of my anxiety and fear. They all told me that it was the only way to overcome an addiction.
Since then I have learned that this is not necessarily true, that there are other ways to overcome an addiction. Some of them are pretty interesting too. And I think that science and medicine are definitely pushing hard in this area to try to discover and learn some new things. They are not just going to settle for the idea that addiction is a near hopeless problem in which all we can do is to basically steer people towards spiritual conversion. Science and medicine will not settle for that answer because, frankly, there is no money in it. That may be a bit sad but this is just how economics works. The drug companies know that if they can come up with a medication that really makes a difference in controlling addiction then they can tap into a brand new market and increase their profits. Simple as that. Of course if they can do that it does not necessarily make the big corporation evil; people would obviously benefit from this medical advance as well. But just realize why they are motivated to tap into such a market: they have economic motives.
My belief is that we are going to see addiction recovery evolve over the next few years. In the past I would have said “decades” rather than years but the rate of technology and adoption seems to have accelerated. They bring new ideas, new medications, and new therapies to market much quicker than even ten years ago. So the rate of change has increased and I think that addiction is still a very ripe problem to be solved. Even if no one comes out with a slam dunk of a “cure” I still think that medicine and science are going to keep pecking away at this particular problem, because it is such a difficult nut to crack. Practically no progress or advances have really been made since the development of AA. And so basically you fall into one of two camps: You either believe that more progress can be made some day, or you believe that AA is the ultimate solution and nothing better could ever possibly come along to help with addiction. I tend to believe that we could do better some day. Based on our current rates of success (using any or all of our knowledge) I certainly hope this is the case. The idea is not necessarily to disregard AA or to prove it ineffective, the idea is to help more addicts and alcoholics. Period. Too many struggling addicts and alcoholics slip through the cracks. Possibly as many as 8 out of every 10 alcoholics never even seeks treatment. My goal for this planet is to step up our efforts on this front and somehow get some better numbers in the treatment game. There has to be a way.
Having said that, I think it makes a lot of sense to explore our current efforts. There is more than one way to get clean and sober.
The traditional route is 12 step based recovery
As we all know, the 12 step program of AA (or it’s counterpart NA) is pretty much the default solution. If you ask for help and go to rehab there is about a 9 in 10 chance that you will be exposed to the 12 step program as your solution for recovery.
This is not necessarily bad or good, it simple is the reality we are living in. For some people the 12 step program works wonderfully, and these people cannot imagine what it wrong with others who will not embrace it. Their solution is to change the person rather than to change the program. If someone is struggling to get clean and sober and that person rejects the 12 steps, then it is the person’s fault and not the program’s fault. Such people have elevated their 12 step program to a level of absolute perfection and it is not to be questioned. This is much like the way in which religious people will defend a sacred text such as the bible. They will not allow themselves to question its teaching.
If you look into this phenomenon I believe you will find something called “true believer syndrome.” So what happens is that such people who are vehemently defending AA as their salvation are no longer using logic or reason to make their arguments. They are only using emotion and they have flipped off that part of their brain that will even consider logic or reason when it comes to AA.
Why do they do this? Because they were desperate for help in their life and nothing worked until they tried AA. So in their eyes it was as miracle and they will now defend that solution at all costs. You cannot convince them of anything at this point. AA worked for them and they know that they were a hopeless case, therefore the program should (or could) work for anyone, so long as that person is willing to make the same effort that they made.
This is both good and bad. It is good because such a person has found a solution that works for them and they are living a better live in sobriety because of it. I don’t fault them for that. The problem is that such a person would never hear of making any sort of changes to the program, or attempting to innovate in any way. They are stuck forever. If you go to lots of AA meetings you will hear a phrase repeated often: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” These people don’t want change. They have found a solution that works for them and they do not want to adapt it to anyone else’s needs.
I am not necessarily suggesting that AA needs to change. Another solution may evolve in the world and eventually replace it altogether. My problem is that I know the numbers and I have studied the data over the last 12 years. The success rates that we have today are not good enough for me; I want better. I want to give more hope to the struggling addicts and alcoholics of the world. The 12 step program works for so very few. My thought is that our energy should be spent seeking new solutions, or on improving existing solutions. But as it is now, organizations such as AA are firmly set in their current mold. They ain’t changing for no one, and I see this as a problem.
The popular alternative route is religious based recovery
As I mentioned above, if you go to 100 treatment centers then roughly 80 to 90 of them will offer 12 step based recovery. This is the default solution. But what about the other 10 to 20 rehabs? What do they offer?
Mostly religious based recovery, and more specifically, Christian based recovery.
I have mixed feelings about this because such a solution will never become the default path for the masses. In essence, we have the 12 step program and its own brand of “pseudo-religion” being pushed on nearly everyone that seeks help in recovery. Even if religious based recovery could be shown to be more effective, I don’t believe that we would ever (or should ever) push that on to people in the same way that we currently push AA on to people. In my opinion it is bad enough that we push AA so hard as the default solution. I think it would be equally wrong to push a religious solution onto people.
Now having said that, I do not want to take away from the potential success that you (or anyone else) may experience with religious based recovery. If you have a background of faith then this may be the ticket that you are looking for.
I am not trying to bash any particular treatment methods here (though it probably sounds like I am). What I ultimately want is a higher success rate for treatment everywhere. We are not going to get that if we stay stuck with our current setup. We need to evolve and innovate. Religious based recovery has been around as long as any of these other alternatives, and it does work for some people. I am not trying to take away from that and if it works for you then I am happy that you found a workable solution for yourself. But ultimately I believe that the 12 step program and religious based recovery share the same basic premise, that you can rely on a higher power to alleviate your condition of addiction and restore yourself to sanity. If you can make one of these two solutions work for you then it is likely that you could make the other one work for you as well. Therefore I think that religious solutions and the 12 step program are really two peas in the same pod. They are basically the same solution, applied in the same way, and only the details are different.
Based on the numbers, the 12 step program and the idea of religious recovery comprise probably 95 percent of the treatment market or even more. Most of the remainder is just people who are going to therapy or counseling and trying to do things on their own basically, without any sort of support groups.
This is another interesting thing to note, that both of these solutions discussed so far also depend on group support. With AA you obviously have the daily meetings that people attend, and with religious recovery you have a church or a religious community that can provide support from other people. But I wonder if this dependency on groups, communities, or other people is part of what limits these solutions in terms of who they can really help. Not everyone responds well to group settings. There are not a whole lot of alternatives that people discuss that do not include groups, meetings, or communities of some sort.
And maybe that is the problem.
Method 1: Exercise
After several years in my own recovery I was shocked to learn that there is an entire recovery program that is based entirely on exercise (“Racing for Recovery”). In fact I would be that there are now more than one such programs like this, as that one has been around for some time now.
The idea is that you can overcome drug or alcohol addiction simply by dedicating your life to fitness and exercise. An interesting idea to say the least and it is probably not going to work for everyone. But I believe that the success stories out of that program can help to point us towards the real truth about what actually helps people to stay clean and sober.
I am sure that people in traditional recovery programs (such as AA) would scoff at the idea that an exercise program could keep someone sober. But the documented success rate is no different than that of AA, so what gives them a right to scoff at the idea? If anything they should be interested in why it works for at least 5 percent of alcoholics, and what they might be able to learn from that.
I know that there is a huge lesson in there for me, but I discovered that lesson myself independently of any programs. Many of the therapists and counselors in my life were trying to get me to exercise for a long time. I resisted the idea because there was an adoption curve that I did not want to try to power through. Each time I started exercising it got too difficult and I gave up before I had that special breakthrough. But eventually I persisted enough and I stuck with a new exercise routine and suddenly my life changed a great deal.
It was only after I had changed my own lifestyle (to become more active and fit) that I realized how deep the implications were for recovery. This was powerful stuff. Although it is difficult to describe it in words or put an objective measure on the confidence, I can just tell that I am much less likely to relapse now that I have established a more active lifestyle. It is very difficult to convince anyone else of this benefit unless they themselves are willing to get into shape and experience the transformation for themselves.
Exercise can keep you clean and sober. Who would have thought?
Note: This also worked for me in terms of overcoming nicotine addiction. The solution for smoking cessation (for me) was to exercise. Working out provided the same shot of happiness to my brain that the first puff on a cigarette provided. I had to establish a new workout routine before I could successfully put down the cigarettes (not the other way around, interestingly).
Method 2: Replacement strategy
Another method of overcoming an addiction is to replace it with something. Now most people will immediately think that I am talking about another drug or substance, but obviously that is no solution at all. What I am really referring to is the obsession with your drug of choice, and how that has to be replaced with a new, healthier fixation.
Some people would argue that this is all that AA is doing (or religious recovery for that matter). You are trading in getting drunk or high every day for going to meetings. You are replacing an old behavior with a new behavior. I can certainly relate to this explanation because I have seen many people in recovery who are now “addicted” to the meetings, and they have to go every day or else they run the risk of relapse.
To me this is questionable because it does not seem like a very strong path of recovery. If you are just creating a new dependency (even if it is on something healthy, like daily meetings) then what are you really doing for your recovery? Is that the best or strongest path that you could take to achieve sobriety? I am guessing not. But if it works for you then I don’t want to discourage it too much.
What else can become part of a replacement strategy? As we saw above, some people can make it work with exercise. But I have also read books that point to the idea that anything in the creative arts can also be part of a replacement strategy. “Creative recovery” can be just that–someone creating on a regular basis as an outlet for their frustrations–using painting, sculpting, or other creative expression as a direct replacement for their drug of choice. I had no idea that this was possible until I looked up the idea of “creative recovery” on the Internet a while back (a term I thought that I had coined….silly me!).
So there are people in this world who have overcome their addiction through the arts. Through creative expression. They have replaced their addiction with that of creation and self expression.
Again, this is probably not going to work for every single addict and alcoholic on the planet. But it is likely worth studying and figuring out why, and how, it works for some. It should get added into our pool of knowledge.
Method 3: Personal growth
This third method for overcoming addiction is what I currently practice in my own life (and regular exercise is just a subset of this bigger idea).
Personal growth does not have any limits.
AA and religious based recovery seems to have limits, in that they are trying to get you to “grow along spiritual lines.” This is actually a quote right out of the Big Book. They focus exclusively on spiritual growth.
But you have to realize that there are other forms of personal growth, and they can all benefit you in recovery.
Just look at how much physical fitness is benefiting certain people in recovery. For some, it is their entire addiction solution! This cannot be ignored. But in AA and religious based recovery, such a thing is ignored completely. They focus only on the spiritual side of the solution.
And there are other forms of personal growth. For example, I went back to college in my recovery, I started a business, and I found new ways to connect with others in recovery through new venues. None of these things are encouraged or even mentioned in traditional recovery venues, yet they all had a significant impact on my own success in recovery.
So I think that in order to better understand how addiction recovery is evolving, we need to look at all of these little niche alternatives to AA and see what we can learn from them. My hope is not necessarily to discourage anyone from any specific program, but only to improve our overall success rates in recovery. My hope is that we can do better than the typically quoted 5 percent that seems to be the norm these days.