Working the Program

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Twelve Step meetings seems to have reached a point where they are viewed at best as a harmless but self-indulgent part of middle-class lifestyles.
Jillian Sandell

Issue #10, December 1993

At meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, fellow drinksters will get angry with you if you won't puke for the audience. By that, I mean spill your guts — really dredge up those rotten baskets of fermented kittens and murder implements that lie at the bottom of all our personal lakes. AA members want to hear horror stories of how far you've sunk in life, and no low is low enough. Tales of spouse abuse, embezzlement, and public incontinence are both appreciated and are people ever going to help themselves if they can't grab onto a fragment of your own horror? People want that little fragment, they need it... [it] makes their own fragments less scary.
— from Generation X by Douglas Coupland

Anyone who has ever been to a Twelve Step meeting of any kind can probably both identify with, yet laugh at, this hyperbolic account of an AA group. Even if you haven't personally attended a meeting, Twelve Step programs have become embedded enough in contemporary life that such a description accurately reflects prevailing cynical attitudes. Conventional wisdom around Twelve Step meetings seems to have reached a point where they are viewed at best as a harmless but self-indulgent part of middle-class lifestyles, and at worst as an insidious practice that encourages people to make a spectacle of themselves and which simultaneously create an addiction to the very spectacle of the Twelve Step program. The motivation for the meetings (recovering from an addiction) becomes lost within the larger drama of self-disclosure. Since the process of honoring and sharing one's feelings is an extremely worthwhile project to pursue, it seems to me very interesting that these programs, which ostensibly aim to 'help' people, should generate such cynicism and ambivalence. What is it about being honest and open that is evidently so scary that many of us may participate in, yet insist on remaining detached from, the process of recovery? In particular, why is it specifically this kind of recovery process, in other words one organized around the collective process, that should elicit this type of cynical response?

Twelve-Step programs have been around since the 1930s and are organized around the process of 'recovery'. However, in the last decade or so, with more and more people seeking out therapeutic remedies for (what they consider) their problems, it has been common to lump all forms of therapy, self-help, personal-growth, and group therapeutic practices in together and call them part of 'recovery culture'. This has led to a situation where all processes aimed at helping people overcome addictive or repetitive behaviors are perceived to be the same, or at least mutually interchangeable. However, this does a disservice to the very real differences that exist between them. Self-help books, therapy and other individually oriented practices have very different ideological starting points and objectives from those of the Twelve Step programs, and it is the collective aspect of Twelve Step meetings that, while generating the kind of cynicism noted above, seems to be worth exploring.

Twelve Step programs are not merely self-help groups that help people with addictive behaviors stop whatever it is they are addicted to doing; they teach and promote a way of life. At the heart of Twelve Step programs are the 'Twelve Steps' and 'Twelve Traditions' which originated over 50 years ago in the Alcoholics Anonymous program. There are now many variations of AA focusing on a wide range of habitual behaviors, with millions of 'anonymous' people participating in hundreds of meetings around the western world. The original Twelve Step programs were heavily organized around Christianity, referring to a higher power as represented by 'God'. However, today many secular and alternative religious programs exist, as well as meetings aimed at specific sub-groups within their target market such as 'Lesbian Co-Dependents Anonymous' or 'Latinos Alcoholics Anonymous'. However, since AA was the original Twelve Step program it is to that particular addiction I will chiefly refer.

Meetings are free, open to everyone (within their target population) and non profit. In other words, no one wants your money and no one has an investment in you being there. The investment is a collective one; indeed, as the first 'Tradition' states, common welfare comes before individual recovery. Some people go to a meeting once a day, some once a week, still others once every few months. People don't need to register, or sign up, or reveal their name, or where they work, or even say anything if they don't want to. Donations are taken but not required and any money raised is merely to cover the cost of hiring the room and coffee. Anyone wanting to go to a meeting can just walk in and sit down. Going to a meeting is part of 'working the program'. So, unlike individual self-help, which is organized around the exchange of money, whether this is with a therapist or in the self-help section of a bookstore, Twelve Step programs are organized quite differently. Where therapy and self-help require the individual to channel him/herself into a client-expert relationship (with the therapist or the author of the book being the expert) in Twelve Step programs there are no experts, or rather everyone is an expert. One goes to a meeting and benefits by 'sharing'. This can be either by sharing one of your own experiences with the group or by listening to another person's 'share'. The commitment is always learning and 'recovering' through coming together as a group.

All Twelve Step programs are considered nominally apolitical. Indeed, one of the 'Twelve Traditions' explicitly states that it is inappropriate for AA (or other programs) to align themselves with any kind of politics or outside organization. This means that anyone can go to a meeting, say whatever they like, believe whatever they like, and so long as they are there with a commitment to the aims of the program they are accepted. No judgments are allowed, no proselytizing, no criticisms. It could be argued, in this sense, that Twelve Step programs do little to challenge the existing norms and values of society, and that by default rather than advocation end up reinforcing and perpetuating the status quo. However, this 'apolitical' stance is problematic for two reasons. First, on a basic level, because those meetings based in the religious tradition are clearly endorsing some form of politics as prescribed by Christianity. But second, and more importantly, these meetings can be considered apolitical only as long as interpersonal relations remain outside the realm of the political. In fact, the advocation of sharing, honesty and understanding as behaviors to foster and adopt constitutes such a radical departure from the existing mode of social relations that it is hard to see such a practice as apolitical.

A central premise of Twelve step programs (and the first 'Step') is to acknowledge the futility of the illusion of individual control. This is a key difference from self-help books and therapy, both of which rest upon the belief in individual power to change situations. Indeed, it is worth just briefly elaborating here some of the premises upon which individual therapeutic practices are based since Twelve Step programs are so different. Self-help books and individual therapy both aim to give the individual a feeling of personal control. They tap into the popular American myth that if we just try hard enough we can be or do anything. This myth has taken on many forms, Cinderella's 'rags to riches' version is one, Abraham Lincoln's 'log cabin to White House' is another, and Marty McFly's 'if you put your mind to it you can achieve anything' (in Spielberg's Back to the Future) is another; but all have the same aim. They allow individuals to believe that certain goals can be realized though hard work, merit or just being a nice person, thereby ignoring the larger societal structures. Issues around class, race, sex, etc. become irrelevant and transcendable. Both self-help books and therapy place all the responsibility of change in the hands of individuals.

It is not that Twelve Steppers think change is impossible, only that it can not be achieved alone. Steps Two and Three go on to say that we need to believe that a 'higher power' can restore us to health and that we need to commit to turning our lives over to god as we understand him/her. This last point is crucial since for many in the program 'god' is simply 'the program' itself. By substituting 'collective practice' for 'higher power' and 'god' the transformative potential of twelve step programs becomes apparent. 'Working the program' relies upon a context-awareness, and that changing one's own behavior is insufficient without looking at relations within family, work, friendships, loverships, and so on. And it is the specific belief that recovery can only happen through the shared commitment to health through collective practice that challenges the American myth of individualism.

However, it is not so much that one gives up a sense of self, but that it is contextualized within the collectivity, and thus individuality remains an important part of this collective practice. Recovering is a process, a way of life to adopt, not a product that can be bought and 'owned'. Each person's recovery is ultimately their own responsibility and so there is a belief in individual change. However, the individual changes are part of a broader collective desire to change and few (if any) in the program would say that any of the changes they have made in their lives would have been possible without the benefit of the collective experience. It provides a way of making sense of the world and making changes as individuals as well as groups. And it is by no means completely reactionary to believe in individual actions making a difference. Take for example the act of coming out, which can be an empowering and powerful moment for the individual. While collective action around homophobia still needs to be taken, coming out as individuals is one small but necessary step towards counteracting culture's fear, shame and misconceptions about lesbians, gay men and bisexuals. This is just another example of the way in which we may adopt a personal politics with which to understand and act out one's life. Similarly, the alcoholic or gambler needs to make that individual decision to change their life, to get themselves to a meeting, and to tell their friends what they are doing. In this way individual acts become central to the working of the collectivity.

Twelve Step programs encourage this kind of interpersonal politics. For example, two of the steps advocate making a list of people you have harmed and to then make amends to them, except where to do so would be damaging for them. This does not mean make a list of people you've harmed and feel guilty about it. As we all know, guilt is extremely unproductive and goes nowhere, so instead the addict is urged to act on their new consciousness about their addiction: to repair damaged relationships, to take responsibility for pain they have caused and to foster new ways of interacting. These kind of 'collective interpersonal' interactions are enactments of the feminist slogan 'the personal is political'. In other words, refusing to remain complicit in the perpetuation of oppressive societal structures by changing our individual relationships. On our own none of us can overcome capitalism, patriarchy, racism, homophobia, or any other structure of discrimination, but these interpersonal actions are still, no less than the more solidified collective process, political.

After acknowledging their addiction, Twelve Steppers are encouraged to 'own' their identity as an addict. This means that someone who has problems around alcohol will call themselves an alcoholic all their life, even if they remain sober. The motivation for this is both strategic and philosophical. Strategically, this policy works because at some level there is a 'reality' to the phrase 'once an addict always an addict,' insofar as merely acknowledging an addictive habit does not 'cure' you of it. In other words, there is a big difference between being merely aware or self-conscious about an addiction and overcoming an addiction. Clearly for many people, even after admitting there is a problem with a substance or behavior, the person may continue to re-enact the addictive behavior for months or years, but simply with more awareness of what they are doing. This self-consciousness hopefully gives clearer insight into how to change behavior, but it is still essential to point out that merely being self-conscious of your behavior doesn't necessarily constitute a material change in that behavior. In other words, being on the receiving end of a battering, or getting dead drunk, doesn't necessarily feel different just because the person is hyperaware of what they are doing. Even when the individual does refrain from using or doing whatever substance or behavior they were addicted to, this 'owning' of the addict label is strategically useful since there are almost always secondary, associated patterns of behavior that can outlive the original, primary addiction (such as being manipulative, dishonest, controlling, untrusting etc., etc.).

But this policy of 'owning' the addict label is also philosophically linked to the central ideals of Twelve Step programs. Being tied to your identity as an addict means being constantly reminded of, and taking responsibility for, your past actions. Certainly it is true that voluntarily occupying a 'victim' status for all of your life is far from empowering, and this kind of fetishization of marginal identities can be extremely divisive in terms of larger social projects. In the Bad Subjects Manifesto (issue #7) the collective made a strong case against this kind of self-marginalization, because of the way it can detract from seeing the complicity such identities may have with dominant culture. In other words, it often serves the interests of capitalism to have people voluntarily adopting a victim identity.

But there is a sense in which a constant recognition of your social identity, and an understanding of how it fits into a broader political structure of society, is to be encouraged. For many people, Twelve Step programs are a set of principles with which they live their life, and in a sense it becomes their life. In other words, they become addicted to them. Just as therapy and self-help books can foster their own kind of repetitive, addictive behavior, so too can Twelve Step programs. Not only in the sense that the philosophy takes over one's life, but also the way in which some people find they cannot live their life without their regular meeting. There are people who are addicted to 'the program' just as surely and completely as they were addicted to whatever substance or behavior it was that brought them to the program in the first place; some Twelve Steppers thus simultaneously recover from one addiction only to create a new one. While I would not want to encourage this kind of 'pathological' addiction to Twelve Step programs, it is possible to see this kind of addiction in a positive light if instead it meant being addicted to operating as part of a collectivity. In other words, if we all became addicted to the collective process, institutionalized oppression would be a lot harder to sustain.

I am clearly not advocating that the way to achieve social justice is for everyone to go to Twelve Step meetings, and to 'work the program'. The most Twelve Step programs can ever provide is a sense of community that is merely a 'lifestyle enclave,' in other words a community based on a shared lifestyle and not on a shared political vision. What I am suggesting is a re-evaluation of the way in which these community based recovery programs have developed, and to take seriously the fact that they encourage and foster exactly the kind of collective, interpersonal politics that is needed as part of any socialist vision.

So, to return to my opening question, it seems to me that one of the things that is so scary about being honest and open in these meetings is that it forces you to rely on other people, and to admit that you can't achieve everything on your own. While working a Twelve Step program is not the (whole) answer, the kinds of behavior they encourage are worthwhile. Adopting the position of a 'cynical spectator' can become just a way of rationalizing the ambivalence we feel about sharing our fears and problems with others. Indeed, this kind of cynicism is often taken by academics and/or leftists with regard to all forms of therapeutic care, including self-help books, individual therapy and Twelve Step programs. This cynical position, or 'knee-jerk irony' (as Douglas Coupland puts it), ends up taking nothing seriously, whether this is on the one hand the disclosures made at AA meetings, or on the other hand the need for interpersonal relations to be part of a political agenda. What is needed is an acknowledgment that we do need to rely on others for help, and that we have much more power to make changes (whether on a personal or societal level) as individuals within a collective project than as individuals out there on our own.

Jillian Sandell is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective. She is a graduate of the Australian National University, and her degree is in Women's Studies and Philosophy. She can be reached at the following Internet address:

Copyright © 1993 by Jillian Sandell. All rights reserved.

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