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Because AA came into being at a time when modern methods of medical therapy, clinical psychology, clinical sociology, and professional counseling were all but nonexistent in the field of addictions treatment, AA filled a vacuum. The medical and psychological communities had failed to provide appropriate and adequate care for those addicted to alcohol, and so AA got the franchise. This meant that, for decades after AA's founding, expensive and lengthy addictions treatment programs adopted and offered essentially the same basic philosophy and methodologies as AA. In 1951, the organization known as Al-Anon was founded. It follows the same basic philosophy of AA, utilizing the twelve-step approach, but provides a support network for the recovering alcoholic's family and friends. In 1953 came Narcotics Anonymous, a twelve-step program and support network for recovering drug addicts. Then, through the 1970s and into the 1980s, there was an explosion of twelve step recovery programs. New organizations emerged until the self-help domain had expanded to include just about every compulsive or self-defeating behavior one could think of. It was like an evangelical movement: each program was a part of the larger AA religion, each one reframing reality to conform to the same monolithic culture and belief system. The growth was therefore lateral instead of vertical—a widening application of a single set of ideas rather than a progressive, research-oriented development of new ideas and improvements. With its one-size-fits-all approach, this larger AA movement was entirely formulaic; any self-defeating or compulsive behavior called for the same prescription, the formation of yet another twelve-step program. Though some of these groups offer their own minor variations on the twelve steps, all have the same spiritual-religious orientation. The general nature of all these groups is best seen in the pamphlet "Al-Anon Spoken Here", which I found so objectionable at my first Al-Anon meeting. In it, guidelines for the operation of the meetings are provided. The reader is told that, within meetings, only Al-Anon "conference approved" literature can be read and discussed; sources of information from outside the program are not to be used because they "dilute" the spiritual nature of the meetings. Therapy, therapists, and professional terminology are also taboo topics of discussion, as are other recovery or treatment programs.
Such limitations on freedom of inquiry and discussion are common throughout the wider movement. The twelve-step philosophy is essentially static and resistant to change. New ideas aren't readily embraced and new methodologies from outside any given program are viewed as a threat. The peculiar thing about this is an ironic relationship to the "denial" that is so often discussed within meetings. When AA-style programs discourage objective and critical thinking, as well as new
The first important challenge to this growing absurdity came from psychologist Stanton Peele in 1989. His book "Diseasing of America" questioned the efficacy of the proliferating twelve-step programs and described the movement within the addictions field as "out of control" He included an important quote from Donald Goodwin, pioneering researcher in the inheritance of alcoholism, who charged: "Therapists "invented" the concept that adult children of alcoholics have special problems that can be treated through therapy. They were able to sell this concept to the public and now they are eligible for reimbursement from insurance companies. In short, it was a way for therapists to tap into a new market and make money." And so, in the fall of 1991, at the national conference of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, psychiatrist Steven J. Wolin, a keynote speaker, publicly denounced the ACoA and codependence movements, declaring that "the recovery movement and its lopsided counsel of damage has become dangerous." After this statement, he received a standing ovation from the five thousand members in attendance. When a ranking member of the ACoA movement was later asked by a reporter from USA Today to respond, he answered, "They're just jealous of all the money we're making." The paradox to all this is that one limited segment of the population to which these syndromes actually do apply has not been appropriately addressed or effectively handled. This population was identified by therapist Paul Curtin at both the 1986 and 1987 conferences of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics. Citing the work of Stephanie Brown—who had related the ACoA syndrome to the framework of eight stages of childhood development, as formulated by psychologist E. H. Erickson— Curtin applied the patterns of behavior encompassed within the syndromes to the actual professionals within the addictions field, saying: "Right now when we talk about an impaired professional in the alcoholism field, we mean a counselor who is a recovering alcoholic and who has relapsed. If her work is true, would we not have to say that the impaired professionals in the alcoholism field are also untreated adult children of alcoholics and untreated codependents. The implications of this are enormous."
About that time, other researchers were coming to the same conclusion. Addictions professional Susan Nobleman, conducting a survey on how addictions counselors enter the field, learned that 71 percent of the professionals she surveyed had entered as a result of a personal need for addictions treatment. Kern also noticed that many of the professionals within the addictions field were as psychologically unhealthy as their clients. In this context, it was no surprise that the response of most of Kern's staff to those staff members who didn't conform to the norms of the twelve-step belief system, or who attempted to expose and correct obvious flaws, was to engage in a variety of passive-aggressive behaviors, avoiding direct confrontation, until the nonconformers were "frozen out" and induced to resign. Criticism of the belief system wasn't tolerated; maintenance of the status quo was more important than efficacy.
Emil Chiauzzi and Steven Liljegren, in a 1993 article appearing in the journal Substance Abuse Treatment, took note of this problem, calling the treatment of addictions within the health care field an "anomaly." They named several topics of inquiry considered taboo among health care providers, one of the most predominant being to question either the efficacy or necessity of AA and the twelve steps. This is the nature of the "anomaly." The addictions field is one of the few areas of professional endeavor where the counselors and the patients are drawn from the same constituency, hence the twelve-step bias. It's not just what these individuals embrace in terms of a belief system that's important; it's how they believe it. Their faith in the twelve-step approach is quite literally as if their lives depended on it. True believers recruit other true believers, and the belief system perpetuates itself. This creates an obvious resistance to any other treatment possibilities that might be proposed. One could argue that just because the AA movement has a religious origin and nature, the features of which are significantly tied to the singularities of the founder's recovery experience; just because it is a one-size-fits-all dogma that is offered as a panacea for so broad a range of problems that nearly everyone in the world is thought to need it; and just because most of the people who administer its treatments are also among the treated, that doesn't logically prove that there's anything wrong with it. The AA method could be wonderfully effective nonetheless. But it is not. It suffers from two central problems: it scarcely works, and its cure is almost as bad as the malady. George E. Vaillant, in his 1983 landmark book The Natural History of Alcoholism, describes the natural healing process associated with individuals addicted to alcohol. Without AA, therapy, or any other outside intervention, a certain percentage of the population addicted to alcohol will reach a point when they will, of their own volition, choose to abstain from the drug. Vaillant's question was: does the AA modality improve on this percentage? Compiling forty years of clinical studies, including an eight-year longitudinal study of his own, he was able to determine that this treatment approach produces results no better than the natural history of the malady. Initially such programs do produce dramatic results, as the testimonials attest. However, over the long run, the "cured" population, through relapse, like water seeking its own level, asymptotically approaches the low water mark. With or without the AA approach, approximately 5 percent of the alcoholic population Vaillant surveyed managed to achieve abstinence. Subsequent studies have produced similar results. Therefore, to the extent that AA and other twelve-step programs work, they do so for only a tiny percentage of the addicted population.
Overall, the best hard research evidence available indicates that the most commonly employed addiction treatment modalities in the United States and Canada have questionable efficacy and consistently produce negative treatment outcomes. Extensive research in a comparative analysis of treatment outcomes, conducted and compiled by Reid K. Hester and William R. Miller at the Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse, and Addictions—places Alcoholics Anonymous, educational lectures and films, general alcoholism counseling, and psychotherapy at the very bottom of the list in terms of effectiveness. On the other hand, modalities which include brief intervention, coping and social skills training, motivational enhancement, community reinforcement, relapse prevention, and cognitive therapy—when employed within the context of a client-to-program matching system typically found in Europe— consistently produce positive treatment outcomes. A statement by Miller in the September/October 1994 issue of Psychology Today puts it best: "The drug treatment community has been curiously resistant to using what works." In fact, it has been curiously attached to that which is harmful. Twelve-step groups offer what is, in reality, the antithesis of therapy. There is no cure; the solution provided by such programs entails an endless attendance at meetings. An old slogan says It best: "You never graduate from Al-Anon." And you don't; you become addicted to it, desperately hanging on to the program like a spiritual lifeline in a sea of sin and death. Somewhere within the quagmire of the AA movement and all of the twelve-step programs associated within it, the meaning of recovery was lost. By definition, recovery is a retrieval and reclamation process, not a surrender and abdication. The process of recovery or emotional balance and psychological wellbeing entails independence from addictive chemicals, compulsive behaviors, therapists, and recovery groups. To transfer dependence on chemically addictive substances to emotional or psychological dependence on a group or recovery program is not recovery in the true sense of the word.
Prior to having been expanded, convoluted, and rendered empty, the term ‘codependent’ had meaning in a limited clinical setting for a specific population. In her book Choice'-making, Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse quotes Robert Subby, director of Family Systems, Inc., of Minneapolis, who defined codependency as ''an emotional, psychological, and behavioral condition that develops as a result of an individual's prolonged exposure to, and practice of, a set of oppressive rules—rules which prevent the open expression of feelings, as well as the direct discussion of personal and interpersonal problems." Using this as a base, Wegscheider-Cruse expands her own definition: "Codependency is a specific condition that is characterised by preoccupation and extreme dependence (emotionally, socially. and sometimes physically) on a person or object. Eventually, this dependence on another person becomes a pathological condition that affects the codependent in all other relationships." These definitions are significant in that they describe so well both the nature of twelve-step programs and the relationship of the participants in these programs to their groups.
Reflection Exercise #1