For both of my brothers and myself, 12-step recovery programs have literally been the difference between life and death. My younger brother had recently switched from heroin to crack cocaine by the time he entered the Fellowships of NA and AA; my entire family was quite sure that if a drug overdose didn’t kill him, some of the people to whom he owed money would see to it themselves. Eight years later, he has a wife, a lovely daughter, and a college degree, all thanks to working a 12-step program.
As for me, my drug of choice was alcohol.
I had chronic liver pains by age 26, and my hands shook so badly my mother thought I had Parkinson’s Disease. I needed at least 12 beers a day to feel normal, and a minimum of 24 to make myself forget that I just wanted to crawl into a hole and die. And even then I wasn’t miserable enough, and needed two more years of research into self-inflicted anguish before I’d reached as low of a bottom as I cared to discover. Seven years later, I am clean, sober, healthy, very successful in my chosen profession, and working a decent program.
Can I throw all of that away? Could I or my brothers or anyone else in a 12-step program pick up tomorrow? Absolutely. Drugs and alcohol are everywhere in this country, and plenty of people are eager to sell me my suicide on the installment plan. But relapse is a conscious choice by the individual, not a failing of the program. AA (my program) works 100 percent of the time for people who are 100-percent committed to the program, while they maintain that level of commitment. (The only exception being those who are “constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves.” I interpret this to mean those with severe underlying mental ailments such as antisocial personality disorder. You certainly encounter them in the rooms of AA meetings, but you also find them everywhere else in society.)
The problem is that the disease never goes away; it is only in remission. It constantly informs an addict or alcoholic that he’s not really addicted, that his success in life proves it was only youthful excess or poor surroundings or bad luck or anyone’s fault other than his, that science can and will “cure” him like it has “cured” so many others. The disease speaks from the depths of the person’s own sickness, so the script may vary, but the objective never changes – to get the recovering addict alone and despairing, outside of their program, cutting themselves off from their friends in recovery and in a position where they’d rather resume the full course of their misery than stay in the half-measure misery of white-knuckle, program-less sobriety.
(I will never know why Philip Seymour Hoffman relapsed, but I’ve met people with even more time in recovery than he had who have relapsed and died – or, who almost relapsed, but said a prayer instead and returned to the rooms to talk about it. Was the program a failure if one of my friends chose to stick with it, and one decided to abandon it?)
If I speak of this in harsh terms, it’s because it hits close to home for me. Recovery programs are not social clubs or straw-man scapegoats for snake-oil salesmen touting miracle drugs and secularized rehab. Recovery programs are a triage ward where the successful do what the other survivors do and the failures stop doing those things; by four years in recovery I lost count of the number of acquaintances who’d gone back out and died out there, and I knew three friends who joined them in the morgue. This is the program that keeps me alive in those dark nights and reminds me there’s a dawn.
Another reader, an Episcopalian deacon who is also a recovering alcoholic, was struck by Sacha Scoblic’s statement, “AA is an incredible program and a true American achievement for the millions of addicts around the world who desperately needed help when absolutely no one else was offering it”:
Think about that – ”absolutely no one else was offering it.” I’m a Christian, and enough of a believer in the institutional church that I’m willing to don robes and a stole Sunday by Sunday and hold a chalice full of “the Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation” to the lips of adults and children who approach the altar for the gifts of grace. And yet I am a member of a church that offered “absolutely no help” to alcoholics in Bill Wilson’s day, and even today relegates me and my alcoholic companions to basement meetings. In fact, the (well-meaning) parish I serve is no better than a landlord to the AA group that meets weekly in the bowels of their building complex. They’re no better than the yacht club across town that lets its space for the morning meeting I attend. They’re a good landlord, but too often it stops there.
The Church doesn’t talk enough about addiction. We Episcopalians sometimes joke about our heritage as drinkers: for us, the light-bulb joke is about booze (it takes three Episcopalians: one to screw in the bulb, one to mix the martinis, and one to complain that the old light bulb is better … har har). We are better than this, and I hasten to add that I would not be sober without the support of a few good Episcopalians who say their prayers and befriend me with courage, love, and insight. I’m not bitter. But I often feel discouraged that churches can and should do more.
Anyone who claims the identity “Christian” – anyone who follows Jesus of Nazareth, who befriended people everyone else had abandoned – should do more. Let’s let my alcoholic friends know that there is life for them on the main floor of the church, too.
(Photo of an AA “anniversary coin” marking 13 years of sobriety by Flickr user MTSOfan)