As Dr. Lance Dodes continues to make his media rounds promoting his new anti-AA book, more and more journalists are writing about something they don’t understand. While these stories continue to pop up, Salon was the first to get in there with a now-much-discussed excerpt from the book about the so-called “pseudo-science” and “shockingly low success rates” of Alcoholics Anonymous. For the sake of discussion, I will assume that Dodes has data supporting the “better treatments for addiction” he discusses in his argument against 12-step recovery. Otherwise it sort of discredits his claims and turns the excerpt into merely an aggressive complaint against this method of recovery. Which is fine, I guess, but given the very personal tone he uses, I couldn’t help but think, “My goodness, Dr. Lance Dodes, who hurt you?”
Not the AA I Know
It’s unclear what Dodes’ exposure to the 12-step programs are or to what extent, but as someone who has been active in this form of recovery for over a decade, so little of what Dodes delivers as fact rings true for me or my experience. For example, the Traditions—which are best describes as universally accepted guidelines amongst AA groups—state that the “public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion,” so I was very confused by the “proselytizing mission” he refers to. Unless, of course, he is talking about how sober alcoholics explain the program to people who have shown up at meetings or rehab asking for help. In that case, I am not sure what to say other than that seems like an odd and truculent choice of terms.
Dodes highlights the case of a patient he once treated, “Dominic,” whose “time in AA had also taught him that his deeper psychological life was immaterial to mastering his addiction.” This claim is extremely perplexing as the whole point of the 12 steps is to look at your deeper psychological issues, like character defects and resentments, and take responsibility for them. And while it’s true that the steps may not delve deeply enough for some, there is no place in AA’s literature or program that advocates against the seeking of outside help—in fact, in the pamphlet on sponsorship, it’s suggested for people who need it. And maybe that is what Dodes gripes with 12-step programs are: that they don’t aggressively promote therapy. Which I suppose is understandable since this is his professional field.
Why So Hostile?
While I completely respect anyone’s desire to challenge something that appears to have a “monopoly” on anything, I can’t seem to wrap my head around the motivation behind the hostility Dodes freely expresses in this piece. Because the reality is that AA doesn’t have a monopoly on recovery. While it’s true that our country’s rapidly growing epidemic of addiction has more recently been exposed on TV shows like Intervention and Celebrity Rehab, these shows weren’t designed to promote AA.
It seems that the main misunderstanding that Dodes has about 12-step recovery programs is they are being prescribed to people as an FDA-approved, scientifically-proven cure for a medical ailment—something which is patently untrue. AA was developed as an alternative method of recovery from alcoholism in hard cases where doctors had resorted to frontal lobotomies or committing patients to psychiatric facilities. And it turned out that the spiritual solution not only worked in some hard cases but also with people whose bottom wasn’t as low but had a strong desire to stop drinking. There really isn’t a scientific thing about it.
Difficult to Quantify Recovery
I understand that Dodes, and possibly many others in the field of medicine, are frustrated that there aren’t better “numbers” when it comes to any form of recovery. And I have always wondered, as many of us in the anonymous programs have, why after so much hard work and dedication to my continuous sobriety, have I never once been surveyed or factored into a statistic. But then again, why would I be? I never went to jail or attended rehab, just like many of the other sober people I know.
But data is important when it comes to science and developing theories so it makes sense that researchers would look to rehabs for answers. Unfortunately, recovery by any method is only going to be successful for the people who want it, not for all the suffering people who need it. And since these numbers only show the success rate of certain rehabs, which may or many not advocate the 12 steps, it’s easy to argue that the results aren’t impressive enough.
In the spirit of helping even one hopeless alcoholic recover from the devastating disease of alcoholism—and for my own selfish gratitude—it’s comforting that the statistics and claims made by Dr. Lance Dodes are irrelevant when it comes to recovery overall.
Further Defense of AA
The idea that AA as an organization cares about what path someone chooses to recover from addiction is strange to me. Perhaps Dodes and others bothered by the 12-step model aren’t aware that Alcoholics Anonymous is a non-profit organization. AA is not the same as a rehab that uses AA principles in its treatment and the people who “proselytize” about 12-step don’t represent AA; they don’t represent anyone but themselves.
On a personal level, I was kind of shocked to find out that Dr. Lance Dodes is an addiction psychiatrist practicing in my hometown of Newton, MA— a town I happen to know is afflicted with numerous hopeless alcoholics that haven’t been able to get sober (several of my friends from home have died from alcohol or drug-related deaths). I know that recovery does exist in Newton but, unfortunately for Dodes, Alcoholics Anonymous is the only place I have seen it.
Photo courtesy of Jonn Leffmann [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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