Persistent truth: 12-step programs quietly serve

by Shaun Kieran

I’m recalling the moment. It’s probably around 1983. I’m getting very warm behind my eyes as I’m reading one of those dog-eared, two-page sheets listing the characteristics associated with being the Adult Child of an Alcoholic (ACOA). For most of my life until then, I’d been pretty much sealed-over, protecting both family privacy and my own dignity. I thought my story was unique – but now I’m kind of shocked and more than a little humbled by how many others (apparently) share the experiences and have developed eerily similar traits and strategies.

I worked in psychiatric hospitals and residential rehabs back then, and I remember how much the language and parlance (taking one’s “inventory,” “recoveringnot “recovered”) of addiction and 12-step programs was on everybody’s tongue in my clinical world – and how it seemed to permeate the larger culture.

Back then there did seem to be a distinction between having grown up with alcoholic parents (ACOA) and being the long-suffering spouse or significant other of someone who “had the problem.” Those folks went to Al-Anon. They followed the 12-steps. They had the disease, so they were “sick,” too. ACOA people (on the other hand) didn’t go into recovery, they went to ACOA support groups and brought their issues into therapy. I even recall some vocal, proprietary hostility toward therapy, much more than now, from the 12-step world.

I’ve been a big fan despite that, and have always strongly recommended 12-step programs for addiction, and the various “Anon” programs for the affected loved ones and significant others. It was obvious those programs worked.

But, these days I’ve tended not to think about it nearly as much as I once did, and although there are reasons for that, I realize now it’s been a mistake. I’ve been having a series of conversations with my longtime friend – both about her particular journey with ACOA and recovery and, in addition, the idea of “recovery” itself: it’s power to change people, and its basis in psychological understanding. She sees her own journey, as a child from an alcoholic family, as affirmation of the 12-step approach. She is absolutely in recovery.

The conversations have helped me re-visit, update, and re-learn, but they’ve also provided another approach to my own ongoing issues with “depth” – and/or the declining lack thereof “out there.”

What used to be implicit in the psychotherapy (that I practiced back then) was that – apart from how strictly Freudian anyone was – there was a clear benefit to understanding one’s past and “going deep” in psychotherapy. Back then, coming to weekly sessions and discussing, as bravely and honestly as possible, the intense but mostly unconscious feelings beneath the static of daily thoughts was both crucial to emotional health and a worthy, rewarding undertaking leading to self-fulfillment.

These days it’s more about problem-solving in the present. Helper folks like myself have adapted to the times, adjusted to the shorter attention spans and decreased amount of time people are willing to spend (and pay) for professional help by focusing more on the behavior change identified by the client as the goal – not healing. (Healing is what therapy actually means.)

Even so. All along, quietly, others have never doubted the existence of, and need to address, longstanding emotional pain. They embrace the wisdom and the distinctive approach of 12-step programs: faithful attendance at meetings acknowledging powerlessness over the effects of addiction, the existence of a Higher Power, fearlessly owning the effects of addiction on one’s dysfunctional behavior, deepest emotions, and overall worldview, and committing to giving and receiving feedback and support. They have no doubt. Healing does occur – with time and effort. For many doing the program has literally saved their lives.

I tell myself I understand why things have changed, and why I need to adapt to that change if I’m going to be helpful. But still. Who we are is not simply what we do, or what we’ve accumulated. Who we are also reflects the human being we’re trying to be, think we ought to be. That’s us interacting with our own minds. It’s the central drama to emotional struggle, and awareness of that struggle is distressing.

But avoiding that struggle is even more distressing and reaps huge, unavoidable consequences. Our postmodern world is accelerating to wherever it is we’re going, but some among us – people in recovery, working those steps – have quietly stuck with the tried and true.

Life finds a way ….

Shaun Kieran

ShaunKpro@gmail.com

 (207) 767-3864

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