“We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”
That statement could easily come from any Christian prayer book. But many people would be surprised to find out that it’s actually from one of the most popular self-help methods in North America.
But ask almost any alcoholic or sober alcoholic and they’d probably recognize that quote as step three in the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program.
Since Alcoholics Anonymous was founded over 50 years ago, it’s become the default standard for addiction recovery. It is undeniably the most popular method used to achieve sobriety in North America. And AA has spawned numerous copycats to help the downtrodden free themselves from addictions to any conceivable aspect of life: gambling, drugs, food, even shopping.
The message AA sends is that addiction is an illness that you have no power over. The only way to be saved from that affliction is to turn yourself over to a higher power of your choosing (with the guise of simplicity, this “higher power” is generally referred to as God in AA literature). Addiction recovery is all or nothing. If you can’t achieve complete sobriety you’re seen as uncommitted to the program. In order to be accepted back into the group after a relapse, you must admit your wrongdoing and make a renewed pledge to your higher power.
AA contends that if you live the program, it will work for you. Although the language in AA literature is clearly religious and arguably Christian-based, AA adherents insist that everyone, from Aboriginal people to gays, lesbians, and atheists can be cured by the program. And it’s evident that AA members buy into the hype.
“Someone who can’t benefit from AA just doesn’t have an addiction to drugs or alcohol,” says Shawn, an Ottawa AA member. (AA insists that members use only first names.)
“Mr. and Mrs. Everyone”?
It’s a claim that’s especially significant to the queer community, a group many contend is at higher risk of drug and alcohol problems. While there are studies that both support and contradict that claim, Nicholas Little, the men’s outreach co-ordinator at the AIDS Committee of Ottawa, says the conditions queers face create a higher risk for substance use than straight people.
“If we know that queers face poverty at a higher level, it’s not illogical to think that we’re probably also using substances as a coping mechanism perhaps at a higher rate,” says Little.
Florence Kellner, an addictions specialist at Carleton University, agrees that drinking and substance abuse are closely associated with gay culture, particularly because the gay social scene revolves around going to bars.
“Men may go to gay bars to satisfy their curiosity… a lot of people come out while they’re drinking. They associate drinking with coming out, because both are satisfying,” says Kellner.
André Fontaine, who works with addicted seniors at Ottawa’s Centretown Community Health Centre, says that coming out and being able to talk about sexuality is essential to recovery.
“They don’t feel safe enough to talk about their partners, so they don’t feel included into what the mainstream programs are, and that becomes problematic,” says Fontaine.
AA isn’t designed to help individuals, Fontaine says, it’s for “Mr. and Mrs. Everyone.”
“Everyone has to fit into their program,” says Fontaine. “It’s just supposed to be ’28 days and you’re cured.'”
80 percent fail at AA
Despite claims that AA can work for anyone, studies have shown that at least 80 percent of people who try to get sober through AA will relapse.
So if AA’s 12 steps have been co-opted by almost every addiction and incorporated into almost every treatment centre’s program, where does that leave the more than 80 percent of people who can’t (or don’t want to) get sober with AA? Where does it leave people who feel marginalized by AA’s overtly religious rhetoric, and people who just want to be able to drink normally again, or use other substances that aren’t causing them harm?
Courts in Canada and the United States are known to require mandatory AA attendance as repentance for drunk driving charges. These sentences are frequently challenged, and courts have overturned the decision on the basis of freedom of religion.
Studies have shown that doctors are more likely to refer patients to 12-step programs, often because such programs are the most well known and until recently, the only treatment option — not because they are the most effective.
“The medical community doesn’t want to deal with [addiction],” says Florence Kellner, “[because] it’s not something that can just be cured with a pill.”
Religion in denial
When their doctors aren’t able to help them, many people automatically turn to AA. But some quickly learn that AA isn’t the right place for them.
Kellner says that many people are turned off AA because they think it’s “very, very dependant” and can even make people addicted to the program itself. She says some people even accuse the program of being “cult-like.”
Jim Christopher went to a few AA meetings to connect with other recovering addicts and maintain his sobriety, but he says he was quickly turned off by the “oppressive shame” of the group’s approach.
“AA is religion in denial,” says Christopher. “I’m not saying that’s bad or good, that’s just what they are.”
Christopher decided to start meeting with people who wanted to stay sober — and secular. Eventually his idea grew into Secular Organizations For Sobriety (SOS), otherwise known as “Save Our Selves.” And 22 years later, the group is the biggest secular organization for addiction recovery in the world.
Christopher says that unlike Alcoholics Anonymous, Los Angeles-based SOS attempts to make everyone feel welcome and gives people tools (including elements of the 12-steps) to craft their own plan for recovery.
“It’s terrible that the options are pushed under the rug or only presented if you scream,” says Christopher. “[SOS is] still struggling in the marketplace because of the entrenchment of AA.”
Canadians can now take advantage of the SOS approach. A new SOS meeting began in June at the secular organization Centre For Inquiry in Toronto.
The Centre’s director, Justin Trottier, says the Centre For Inquiry would help set up more SOS meetings across the country with the help of their campus groups.
Treatment for ‘different realities’
On a local level, community services like the Lifestyle Enrichment For Senior Adults (LESA) program at Centretown Community Health Centre in Ottawa offer a non-religious, individual approach.
The program’s co-ordinator André Fontaine says there is no judgement at LESA. They consider relapse to be a part of recovery, and they also offer harm reduction programs instead of abstinence-only treatment.
Fontaine stresses the need for GLBT-specific recovery programs that address issues that lesbians, gays, and trans people face when fighting addiction.
“There’s no specific programming for gays, lesbians, and transgendered [people in Ottawa],” says Fontaine. “I really believe we need to gear our services to specific groups like the [queer] community.”
While gay and lesbian specific recovery programs are offered in other urban centres like Toronto, Canada’s capital city doesn’t have an addiction recovery program for gays or lesbians.
“All these communities have different issues,” says Fontaine. “They need treatment that addresses the different realities they face.”
“AA is just one model,” says Fontaine. “We need to see more variety.”
Nicholas Little points out that the queer smoking cessation program at Ottawa’s Pink Triangle Services could serve as a model for other queer-specific services related to substance use.
“It’s based on a lot of research that shows that folks who are queer or who queer-identify do better when the option for queer-specific is available,” says Little.
Treatment that looks at drug or alcohol use in isolation isn’t useful, says Little, because it doesn’t factor in how lifestyle affects substance use.
“If you went into a substance use program that wasn’t a queer friendly space or didn’t take factor in the fact that queer people experience higher levels of poverty, you’re missing a whole big piece of the puzzle.”