the 12-step path: cult or saving grace? mike mcgonigal shares…

I wrote what follows below last summer, and have tried ever since to get creative high-profile friends and acquaintances who’ve dealt with addiction to respond/share (including an artist, writer, and musician). What I learned is that no matter how outre their liefstyle or work, people in the public eye are wary of the social stigma attending such an association. This was particularly the case for those who’d been heroin users and not gone the 12-step route, but included those who were both as well.  Anyway, I lucked out in the end, getting the erudite, always honest and friendly, Mike McGonigal – who recently admonished me to NEVER CALL HIM MIKEY ever again, haha! – to reply.  Such a wise and generous guy! For those who don’t know, McGonigal is editor and publisher of  YETI magazine and books, which Wikipedia describes as:

“a journal focused on art, music and literature, based in Portland, Oregon, United States. It is published by YETI publishing (who have also published books by Luc Sante, Tara Jane O’Neil and Jana Martin). YETI was founded in Seattle, Washington by Mike McGonigal[1], author of the 33⅓ book on the album Loveless, former editor of ’80s ‘zine Chemical Imbalance, and a freelance writer (including contributions to Pitchfork Media).[2] The magazine features various articles, interviews, artwork, poetry, novel excerpts, and more, from contributors including:

  • Jeff Mangum
  • Stacey Levine
  • Amy Gerstler
  • Dan Bejar
  • Richard Thompson
  • Harry Smith
  • Akron/Family

Each magazine is packaged with a compilation music CD, featuring rare and/or previously unreleased tracks. Musical contributors to the magazine have included:

  • Iron and Wine (Including their debut recording in YETI 1 and covers of Stereolab and Flaming Lips in YETI 2.)
  • Elliott Smith
  • Death Cab for Cutie
  • The Shins
  • The Postal Service
  • Devendra Banhart
  • Destroyer

So here’s what I wrote, and Mike’s response follows (I’d still like to hear from someone who successfully managed/overcame an addiction via an alternative to the 12-step path):

JANE HARRIS: People do all sorts of things, consciously and otherwise, to enhance/alter their mood – run, meditate, do the nasty, sing, drink, go to church, gamble, eat, take antidepressants, hold a baby, laugh, etc. (all examples proven to do so, in fact!). Its an impulse that extends to animals, apparently.  And when my cat Gigi rubs herself all over some super inky announcement card, for example, I know her frenzy is pleasure, a rush or high she gets from the smell. But back to humans…

That some methods are healthier than others is obviously undeniable. I myself am always trying to substitute healthier choices for those less healthy: daily meditation, a consistent yoga practice, a mostly vegan diet, etc., all of which help. But I also really like things that are “bad” for me (as I know we all do), some of which I use habitually, though not necessarily everyday, like caffeine, sugar, weed, etc. (I quit smoking cigs again  in December). And I need to take antidepressants (and suffer from hormonal shit, yadda yadda) so there is an element of self-medication in all this. As I stated at the offset, we all instinctively seek to feel, and be, well. “Well”, of course, being a very relative term. Clearly, seeking well-being in habits that are harmful to body or soul is not ideal. But lately I’ve had a couple of dating scenarios involving 12-steppers (AA/NA), and I’ve come to see for the first time why so many find the “program” problematic, and well, cultish.

It seems to promote this either-or mentality with regard to the use of substances (nicotine and sugar being excepted, for some strange reason) in which there are just two paths: the one of sobriety, righteous and pure; the other of addiction, out-of-control and delusional. I find that this mindset overrides the peculiarities of circumstance and condition, and discourages variant thinking. Obviously, I’m not saying that people “in recovery” are unable to see that where they must abstain, others can imbibe/indulge. And I completely respect a person’s need for sobriety. Believe me, I know it works because I’ve seen it.

What bothers me is this “give yourself over to a higher power” concept, which implies a lack of agency and self-control. And while I know its a life saver for many, there seems to be this denial about the fact that it creates a whole other kind of dependency (on the program, the meetings, the sponsor, the 12-step process, the god thing, etc.). Worse is this puritanical presumption that seems to come along with it that abstinence is somehow a higher, purer state. I realize, of course, there are alternatives to the 12-step model (Moderation Management, LifeRing Secular Recovery,etc.) and most intriguing, the development of wethouses (places where alcoholics are given a safe, stable home, where they are allowed to drink, an approach that has led to not just harm reduction, but sobriety in several documented cases. Yet the hegemony of the 12-step model prevails.

I also believe brain chemistry can play a huge role in addiction, and/or self-medication, and yet the 12-step/AA model doesn’t seem to account for that, predating as it does current knowledge of biochemistry (however addled such science is by greedy pharmaceuticals and social stigma). So I wonder if the AA/NA 12-step path doesn’t confuse the physical with the moral, if that makes sense?

MIKE MCGONIGAL: A few things: Yes, pleasure is pleasurable! The steps are all suggestions, there are no rules aside from a desire to stop drinking and drugging. Dating program people is problematic at times especially if they are early-ish in their recovery. Any person in a twelve step program will attest to this, from both sides of the coin. So what was the deal with the dudes you dated? And why did you date them? What drew you to hang with lousy addicts and alcoholics anyway?

The higher power stuff you have a problem with? You aren’t the only one. Many of my friends in the program over the years have struggled with this as well. For me it’s not an issue but then I listen to gospel music all the time. I dunno you get it or you don’t it’s really not that big a deal on one level. But the whole 12 step thing is just basically about living as honestly as possible, it’s about service to others and maybe being less of an asshole on a day to day basis.

First and foremost it is simply the only way I found that worked to stop doing drugs and alcohol which took me to a point of complete insanity and bad stuff like homelessness and friendlessness. It’s the only thing that worked for me. If its a cult it’s one that is basically free and that I frequently curse and rail against and take for granted. There’s no way I would have survived the last seventeen years without it though.

People are either addicts and alcoholics or they aren’t. There is no moderation for the addict; it’s part of her or his entire deal. If you can understand that then you might see it has shit to do with “pleasure,” as such, and simply is about highly personal pathologies and trajectories that lead to an either/or situation that’s different for each and every addict but is very real and is fundamentally a life and death thing that’s later I’m sure very easy to criticize or fulminate on, whatever. In my experience these choices were not made lightly. And also it’s about stopping at first but then it’s about all this other stuff too later on. For me the steps are the best thing that ever happened to me even though I am a shitty practitioner of them. I need to apply them more to things like this bialy I am eating now.

Lastly, I feel like for an active addict there is no distinction between physical and moral — those two get wrapped up so tight when you’re using, ay yi yi. it’s so tortured and shit.

(JH/postscript: Mike’s question as to why I date or am drawn to “addicts” is a meaningful one that I’ve long considered. I must see something of myself reflected in them, I guess. The struggle and pain associated with it, I’d assume. Though oddly its alcoholics I seem most to have attracted, and I hardly drink. Maybe its become a habit in itself ? I dunno, will ponder more….)