Why Addiction Recovery Should Be a Feminist Issue

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There are so many different angles from which to criticize the current state of addiction recovery. Not only is it a culture, a permanent lifestyle, and a religious institution, but it’s an enormously profitable industry that thrives on its own failure (relapse is big bucks). But it seems that people who are participating in the progressive conversation on the big stage aren’t aware that addiction recovery is a parallel universe that influences popular culture. It’s imperative that progressive voices genuinely begin to challenge it, and I’m going to try to appeal to different arenas of the activist sphere and make a case for why addiction should be part of the conversation. Right now, I am hoping to put recovery culture on the feminist radar by offering a condensed version of this twisted world and the culture it has generated. I don’t have much of a feminist pedigree, but I hope I can make a good case for its relevance to feminist activism.

I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog throwing tantrums about the fact that addiction gets no play among the skeptic and new atheist writers out there – people who actively combat quackery and religious influence in public policy. How does it escape these people that a whole branch of public health has already been handed over to the faith healers?

I have a few theories about that. But my favorite is that, despite their skepticism, they’re still a little superstitious about the topic: Addiction is such a complicated and elusive condition. Who wants to touch that with a ten foot pole? The reason addiction is such a mystery, though, is that our conventional understanding of addiction has its roots in religious philosophy – not science, psychology, or medicine – and it has not evolved at all in 75 years. Neither has the way we treat it. The vast majority of addiction facilities in this country employ the 12 Step program for spiritual enlightenment as the basis for their treatment. Things we take for granted about addiction, for instance that it’s a “progressive, fatal disease,” are completely unfounded, but they put the sharpest critical thinkers in a bind. Doesn’t everyone know at least one person who believes that their life was saved by accepting their powerlessness? How do you start challenging that if you think that someone could die of it?

“I’d be dead without AA” is one among many thought-stopping cliches that keep criticism of addiction mythology at bay. Add to this AA’s own persistent misinformation campaign, its unimpeached reputation as a benevolent organization, their noble insistence on anonymity, the public’s general ignorance, and the amount of time and effort it would take for someone on the outside to piece together a big picture. This mess has allowed a fringe religious culture to spring up around addiction and quietly influence the landscape in ways that I think would be of enormous interest to feminists. At least I hope I can make a case for it:

1. Alcoholics Anonymous is a 75-year-old program, cobbled together from the tenets of a Christian movement that started with the Oxford Group, and later renamed Moral Re-Armament (MRA). It’s the precursor to modern Prosperity Theology. Its founder, Frank Buchman, built this movement upon the principles of “absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness, and absolute love.” Any behavior that deviated from these principles is sin, which is a disease that prevents people from having a clear pipeline to God. This, and not medical science, is the origin of the conventional wisdom that addiction is a disease of the mind, body, and soul. These are the principles that lay the foundation of addiction treatment in this country. This is relevant because the foundational belief system of Addiction Recovery fetishizes qualities that women are supposed to possess naturally. Recovery is not an empowering place for women, who are already expected to embody absolute purity, and who already berate themselves for not living up to this ideal.

2. The popular misconception is that the first step is to admit you have a problem. It’s not. The first step is, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable.” In recovery culture “powerlessness” has been purified to mean: “We’re powerless over people, places, and things.” If you google the phrase “powerless over people, places, and things” you’ll pull up a slew of results, all directly connected to recovery. This version of complete powerlessness jibes with the iconic recovery Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” This translates, in recovery, to mean that one should not willfully try to manage his or her own life, rather one must wait for God’s will to be revealed – to “let go” of control. Stop trying to run your own life. Many of the AA ex-pats on Stinkin’ Thinkin’ tell stories of being discouraged from taking positive action in their own lives (spending more time with family, going back to school, relocating for a better job) and of being shamed for their life successes. This is relevant because it undermines personal agency. It may be that people who are entitled and expected to act must learn to accept that there are some circumstances that require them to back off once in a while, but an equal percentage of the population is still getting used to the idea that they can make changes. Twelve step evangelizes all over the world, in countries where the last thing women need is a disempowering philosophy designed to humble privileged European men.

3. In recovery, anger and resentment are taboo. To quote from Alcoholics Anonymous, aka the Big Book, they’re considered the “dubious luxury of normal men.” If you have ever had the temerity to criticize 12 step philosophy in a public arena, you’ll know that you will be swarmed with recovery evangelicals who pity you for being so angry and resentful. In recovery, accusations of anger or resentment are shaming, and when they say something like, “It sounds like you have a resentment,” or “Why are you so angry?” they’re speaking in a shorthand that translates as an attack on one’s spiritual fitness. This is relevant because anger is the engine of social progress – it is the driving force behind all reforms, and it is the natural, correct response to personal violation. It’s also something that women have not long had permission to feel. In recovery, people are taught that anger leads directly to relapse, and relapse leads to death. Anger is evidence that one has not achieved the spiritual enlightenment required for quality sobriety.

4. According to 12 Step recovery, we are to submit ourselves to a Higher Power. The 3rd step is, “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” Recovery culture highlights the “as we understood him” phrase for inclusive “it’s spiritual not religious!” purposes (and which is a different topic for a different time), but the relevant phrase here is “made a decision to turn our lives and our will over…”. The theory is that, when left to your own devices, you will always make poor decisions for yourself. It’s called “self-will run riot.” Addiction is a fundamental corruption of your core self, which therefore cannot be the force behind the choices you make. This is relevant because obviously. But if you need more: 12 Step programs instruct non-believers that their higher power can be “anything” as long as its not you. God is “Good Orderly Direction” or “Group Of Drunks.” If you don’t believe that a spiritual force has a will for you that’s better than your own, you can submit your will to the care of the group.

5. 12 Step meetings are hierarchical. You’ve probably heard that no one is in charge, which is true. What that means is that there’s no oversight or accountability from the top tiers of the organization, not that people in the rooms don’t hold positions of power over each other in ways that encourage abuse. Old-timers are revered for no other reason than that they have more sober time, and newcomers are instructed, “Take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth.” To take direction, to follow suggestions, to have an “open mind,” to shut up and listen. There’s also the sponsor-sponsee relationship, in which one member, with no credentials or background checks, oversees another members’ step work, which involves hearing a thorough accounting of every sin the sponsee has ever committed. It’s called a “moral inventory,” and some sponsors insist on hearing their “pigeon’s” sexual inventory, too. This is relevant because addicted women – vulnerable, broken, and “willing to do whatever it takes” – are instructed to embrace their powerlessness, mistrust their own instincts (“Your own best thinking got you here” – another AA slogan), turn over their self-will, and suppress anger, while submitting to these completely unchecked hierarchical relationships.

6. You might be getting the picture that this is the perfect recipe for sexual abuse. Indeed it is. It’s called 13th stepping. Old-timers, who are like gurus in the rooms, prey on vulnerable new-comers, and we’ve heard countless stories from women who were told that sleeping with the old-timer would help their sobriety. Of course it happens that some long-sober women prey on new men, but considering that AA’s membership is about 85% white male with an average age of 47, it’s far more common the other way around. 13th Stepping happens in rehab facilities, between addiction counselors and clients, too. This is relevant because in any other arena (workplace, academia, etc), sexual relationships in a mismatched power dynamic are treated as sexual harassment. But there is no oversight to discourage this in AA. People are not trained; there are no standards. You’ll hear a couple of things from defenders: 1. That AA is no different from any other public place, and if you get yourself into a vulnerable position with someone there, you have no one to blame but yourself. Of course, when a woman walks into a barroom, she’s walks in with her defenses up. No one in the bar tells her that she can’t trust her own instincts. When she walks into a mall, she’s not instructed to take direction from strangers if she wants to survive. 2. That it simply doesn’t happen. They’ve never seen it. If it does happen, it’s so rare that it’s a non-issue.

7. In recovery, people are instructed not to take each other’s inventory, to keep your own side of the street clean. What this peculiar sobriety lingo means is that people are not to judge each other’s behavior. If you are violated in some way by someone in your meeting, you are not to worry about their behavior but on your own response to it. The instruction is to “look at your part” – what did you do to contribute to your own situation? In the real world, this is not bad advice. If I find myself in the same mess time and again, I’d be an idiot not to ask myself how I’m contributing to that. But in the rooms, this is taken to the point of absurdity. You must figure out how you are to blame for your own victimization, and let the person who grabbed your ass work out his problem for himself. This plays out in the most astounding ways, in which people who were molested as children or raped are instructed to drop their resentment and look at their part, even to make amends to their abusers for their part in it. Please listen to this popular AA circuit speaker on the subject of child molestation:


This is relevant because women are still blamed for their own victimization outside recovery circles. People are still wondering what the victim did to bring this on herself: What was she wearing? How many sexual partners has she had? Was she flirting? Did she invite the man in? But, while we’re fighting for greater awareness in the real world, these debased notions are an ingrained part of recovery culture and are not about to change. And you’re not going to hear these stories, because addicts’ very survival is dependent upon the group and their willingness to “let go.”

8. Recently, a couple of NYC cops were acquitted on charges that they went to help a drunk woman and raped her while she was passed out. One of these cops immediately pled the 12th saying that he was a “recovering alcoholic” and stayed to counsel this incoherent woman about her drinking problem, in the middle of the night, while he was on duty. This reminded me of another recent story in which an AA member was acquitted on rape charges. He answered a call on the AA hotline from a desperate woman and invited her to his place for counseling, which entailed getting her drunk and having sex with her. She filed charges against him, which were dropped. Both of these women were considered untrustworthy witnesses because they were drunk at the time. This is relevant because women who enter recovery do so because they are having a problem with drugs or alcohol, which makes them extremely vulnerable to manipulation and abuse. And if they are raped by someone who takes advantage of their addiction, especially someone who’s supposedly there to guide them, it’s highly unlikely that there will be any consquences. Women who are wasted when they get raped can’t be trusted to provide accurate testimony – especially if they can’t remember the details. Most often, these victims are too ashamed to bring charges in the first place, and might not want to reveal their “slip” or challenge a respected member of the group.

9. Anonymity. AA’s tradition of anonymity was never implemented to protect its members. Its purpose is to protect the organization as a whole from having its members’ behavior reflect on the program. Every year, AA sends out an open letter to the media, thanking them for continuing to protect their sacred tradition, and the media seems to get some righteous satisfaction from saying, “Rob X, who’s name will not be revealed according to AA tradition…” Crimes in and around AA are common, but the media is complicit in obscuring the connection (consider, also, that AA members inhabit every arena of public life, including the media). Not even the Catholic Church enjoys such protection from the media. How would people respond if the Pope mailed out a letter like that every year? Members in the rooms are under the impression that anonymity is some noble institution, implemented to keep them humble (“principles over personalities”) and to encourage addicts who might be afraid to seek help. And you’ll often hear this mantra repeated at meetings, “What you see here, stays here; what you hear here, stays here.” This is relevant because in an effort to take some of the burden off the penal system, courts routinely shunt sexual predators and domestic abusers into AA (if they happened to be drunk or high when they committed their crimes), where they can deal with their “disease” or their “real problem.” So, domestic abusers are sent to be indoctrinated into a program that encourages them to think of their victims as responsible for their own violation. Sexual predators, who are required to register in the real world, are completely anonymous in the rooms. No one has to know that the guy making coffee for the group had his stalking charges dropped in exchange for 12 step participation. Anonymity has no place in a world where people are so vulnerable, where there are no checks and balances in place, where sick people take positions of power over other sick people, and where predators are rampant.

10. “To Wives” is a chapter in the Big Book, ostensibly written by Lois Wilson, the wife of AA’s founder. Alcoholics Anonymous somehow remains the primary text of both institutional treatment and 12 Step recovery, and “To Wives” is the inspiration for Al-Anon — which is 12 Step recovery for family members. Here’s an excerpt (I don’t need to explain why this is relevant, but we have got to ask how something like this can possibly remain at the forefront of any branch of modern mental health):

The first principle of success is that you should never be angry. Even though your husband becomes unbearable and you have to leave him temporarily, you should, if you can, go without rancor. Patience and good temper are most necessary.
Our next thought is that you should never tell him what he must do about his drinking. If he gets the idea that you are a nag or a killjoy, your chance of accomplishing anything useful may be zero. He will use that as an excuse to drink more. He will tell you he is misunderstood. This may lead to lonely evenings for you. He may seek someone else to console him–not always another man.
Be determined that your husband’s drinking is not going to spoil your relations with your children or your friends. They need your companionship and your help. It is possible to have a full and useful life, though your husband continues to drink. We know women who are unafraid, even happy under these conditions. Do not set your heart on reforming your husband. You may be unable to do so, no matter how hard you try.
We know these suggestions are sometimes difficult to follow, but you will save many a heartbreak if you can succeed in observing them. Your husband may come to appreciate your reasonableness and patience. This may lay the groundwork for a friendly talk about his alcoholic problem. Try to have him bring up the subject himself. Be sure you are not critical during such a discussion. Attempt instead, to put yourself in his place. Let him see that you want to be helpful rather than critical.
When a discussion does arise, you might suggest he read this book or at least the chapter on alcoholism. Tell him you have been worried, though perhaps needlessly. You think he ought to know the subject better, as everyone should have a clear understanding of the risk he takes if he drinks too much. Show him you have confidence in his power to stop or moderate. Say you do not want to be a wet blanket; that you only want him to take care of his health. Thus you may succeed in interesting him in alcoholism.

If someone gave me the job of creating a scenario where sexual abuse was sure to thrive, I couldn’t have done it better. Mainstream criticism of the recovery world has been taboo for far too long, and there’s no good reason for it. Traditional 12 Step recovery programs do not work. How could they? They are designed to inspire a spiritual awakening. Sobriety is evidence of your enlightenment, which is achieved by working the 12 Steps. You may know people who swear by it, but there are people all over the world who swear that quackery and faith healing work. There is no step out of the 12 that could be considered relevant to overcoming addiction or alcoholism. So, it’s no big surprise that the research shows that 12 Step treatment has a higher rate of binge relapse than other treatment options – even higher than no treatment at all, as a matter of fact. In one meta-analysis of 43 48 alcoholism treatment options, AA and 12 Step facilitation rank 37th and 38th in effectiveness. It doesn’t deserve the special pleading it has enjoyed. It’s doing more harm than good in the treatment of addiction, and as a social movement, it is retrograde. It has not kept up with any social progress over the last 75 years, and it has no plans to catch up, but it’s woven throughout mainstream culture. Women are being sexually harrassed, stalked, and raped in and around recovery because its basic principles protect predators and insist upon passivity from victims, whose sobriety and survival depends upon their willingness to betray themselves.