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Stanton Peele Stanton Peele

Please, Don’t Use the Deaths of Famous 12-Steppers to Recommend the 12 Steps

The sudden death of any person who takes a particular path to address addiction represents a failure of that approach. Yet this year we still cried out for more of the same.

31 Substance

Any mention of the most notable—and horrible—deaths of 2014 will include the names Philip Seymour Hoffman, 46, and Robin Williams, 63. In 2013 meanwhile, the list of notable premature deaths was headed by Cory Monteith, 31, while in 2011 it was Amy Winehouse, 27.

What do these talented, short-lived people have in common? All had recently attended a 12-step meeting or a conventional (read: 12-step-based) rehab shortly before their deaths.

Consider how The New York Times reported the aftermath of Hoffman’s death:

“…there was an outpouring of grief on Facebook, on Twitter and in columns by recovering addicts and alcoholics like the journalist Seth Mnookin and the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin about their own struggles with sobriety and the rarely distant fear of relapsing back into the throes of active addiction.

“There was also a palpably visceral reaction in the meeting rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, where, according to some in attendance, many discussions since last Sunday quickly turned from the death of a great actor to the precariousness of sobriety, and the fears of many sober people that they could easily slip back into their old ways, no matter how many years they have been clean.

“Mr. Hoffman’s overdose after what had been widely reported as 23 years without either drugs or alcohol…”

The Times said of Williams:

“Mr. Williams was an admitted abuser of cocaine … in the 1970s and ‘80s, and addressed his drug habit in his comedy act.

“In 2006, he checked himself into the Hazelden center in Springbrook, Ore., to be treated for an addiction to alcohol, having fallen off the wagon after some 20 years of sobriety.”

Moreover, Hoffman had returned to treatment not long before and, the Times reported, had been at a 12-step meeting weeks before his death, while Williams had had a refresher visit to Hazelden months earlier and reportedly attended an AA meeting the day before he killed himself.

Cory Monteith announced that he “had checked himself into a treatment center for an unspecified substance addiction” four months before his death, and not for the first time, according to the Times, while the BBC reported that Amy Winehouse attended a string of such facilities, last checking out of the (12-step-based) Priory clinic the month before she died.

Yet the lesson that commentators tend to take from these deaths (expressed here in the Winehouse case, among countless other examples) is: “Addiction is so horrible; we must help more people to go to rehab and join 12-step groups.”

How can people cite these cases to argue in support of 12-step groups and conventional rehab, when logic points the opposite way?

Robin Williams, described on Substance.com and elsewhere as “a powerful voice of addiction,” is the most stunning example of this circular reasoning. He hadn’t consumed alcohol for years, or taken any other drugs for decades. Yet he still considered himself to be “in recovery.” Did he share, for all those years, 12-steppers’ “rarely distant fear of relapsing back into the throes of active addiction,” as described by the Times? We don’t know.

We just know that he killed himself.

But how can people cite these cases to argue in support of 12-step groups and conventional rehab, when logic points the opposite way? It’s reminiscent of Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness”: What looks and feels good is the truth, no matter how false.

So it is that the cycle of dysfunctional “I am an addict” self-labeling, a psychologically damaging process that is the heart of our current addiction treatment system, persists.

The 12 Steps, whose roots are 19th-century Protestantism’s confession and redemption paradigm, fit into what today we call a “shame-based” theology. Don’t believe me? Read the Steps:

Step One: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol…”

Step Five: “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

Step Seven: “Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”

Step Eight: “Made a list of all persons we had harmed…”

And so on. Yet we disregard the fundamental role of shaming in the 12 Steps despite the overwhelming evidence of its harmfulness. As William White—himself a prominent booster of 12-step programs—concluded:

“A review of the research on the use of humiliating, confrontational tactics, which attempt to induce shame, found that none of the studies done in four decades supported this approach. In one study included in the analysis, the more the counselor confronted the client with past mistakes or other shaming information about his problem, the more the client drank.”

Of course I don’t have all the necessary evidence in the individual cases of Hoffman, Williams, Monteith and Winehouse to prove the culpability of 12-step programs in their deaths. But in the light of all we do know, can’t we at least agree that using their cases to advocate for greater 12-step membership is absurd?

There are non-shaming, empowering alternatives. In my first Substance.com column of the New Year, I will describe how to break the cycle of shame and shed an “addict” identity.

Stanton Peele, a columnist for Substance.com, has been at the cutting-edge of addiction theory and practice, including uncovering natural recovery, identifying addiction as being not essentially linked to drugs, and focusing on social forces and individual choice in addiction since writing (with Archie Brodsky) Love and Addiction in 1975. He has since written numerous other books and developed the online Life Process Program. His latest book, with Ilse Thompson, is Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict. His website is Peele.net. Dr. Peele has won career achievement awards from the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies and the Drug Policy Alliance, for whom he recently featured in a special teleconference, which you can listen to here.