Monday, October 1, 2012

Kick the bottle without God

The Doctor sent me a question a little while ago.  She wanted to know what I thought about Alcoholics Anonymous (not for personal use, thankfully) and whether or not there were any alternatives that didn't require religious devotion.  Six of the twelve steps in the AA program explicitly refer to God and the meetings are often very religious so it must be really hard for any atheist who wants to use the program without opening disavowing their beliefs.  I figured that AA was a useful organization that had an unfortunate leaning towards religion but I figured that I should read a little bit about it to see what exactly was up with them.  Upon further inspection I think I should withdraw most of the goodwill I extended towards AA because their success basically hinges on attaching a bad idea to a good idea and marketing the whole thing as an inseparable whole.

The good idea, as it turns out, is to get people struggling with a problem to speak openly about their problem with other people who also have that problem and get support when needed.  It is hard to talk about really rough problems like addiction, depression, or other mental disorders with anyone who has not experienced them.  You just aren't going to understand the emotion if you have not experienced it personally and if you want to offer sympathy or support to someone who is relapsing it helps immensely to be able to talk about that from experience.  Having meetings where alcoholics discuss their problems and try to help each other is a huge win.

The problem is the rest of the program, particularly the part where you admit that you are powerless over the problem and ask God to change you to make it go away.  Calling upon a fictional character to deal with a problem for you is a mess, as is AA ramming religion down the throat of anyone who wants to take part in their services.  Certainly there must be some people who deal well with offloading all of their problems and the blame for their failures onto God but there are an awful lot who need exactly the opposite approach.  It feels to me much like the belief in life after death that Christians usually profess to believe in; they say that they are going to a perfect, wonderful place when they die and yet they are devastated when someone close to them dies and are utterly terrified of their own death.  They claim to believe but their actions show otherwise.  In the same way people might claim that God is the one who can save them from alcoholism but they know better deep down.  They feel guilty when they relapse and they feel ashamed of their addiction regardless of the ostensible blame shifting.

So does AA work?  Well, I found a bit of data that suggests that about 5% of people get to one year in the program still sober.  I personally count that as not a total failure, but hardly exciting, since any time one hundred alcoholics decide to quit in a serious way about 5% of them will be successful over that time frame.  It is probably better than nothing, (maybe not) but it is also probably worse than a program that uses the group therapy portion of AA without the crazy of AA.  Are there alternatives?  Yes, SOS, but I can't say how easy it will be to find a group in any particular area.  SOS's manifesto is below, and I like it.  So yes, there is another way, and yes, I give it my tentative stamp of approval.

General Principles of SOS

All those who sincerely seek sobriety are welcome as members in any SOS Group.
SOS is not a spin-off of any religious or secular group. There is no hidden agenda, as SOS is concerned with achieving and maintaining sobriety (abstinence).
SOS seeks only to promote sobriety amongst those who suffer from addictions. As a group, SOS has no opinion on outside matters and does not wish to become entangled in outside controversy.
Although sobriety is an individual responsibility, life does not have to be faced alone. The support of other alcoholics and addicts is a vital adjunct to recovery. In SOS, members share experiences, insights, information, strength, and encouragement in friendly, honest, anonymous, and supportive group meetings.
To avoid unnecessary entanglements, each SOS group is self-supporting through contributions from its members and refuses outside support.
Sobriety is the number one priority in a recovering person’s life. As such, he or she must abstain from all drugs or alcohol.
Honest, clear, and direct communication of feelings, thoughts, and knowledge aids in recovery and in choosing nondestructive, nondelusional, and rational approaches to living sober and rewarding lives.
As knowledge of addiction might cause a person harm or embarrassment in the outside world, SOS guards the anonymity of its membership and the contents of its discussions from those not within the group.
SOS encourages the scientific study of addiction in all its aspects. SOS does not limit its outlook to one area of knowledge or theory of addiction.

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