Welcome to my rebooted blog. My name is Jerome Viveiros. I am a 43 year old who likes to call myself a skeptic. I’m also an atheist; a computer programmer by profession, one who was an addict using methamphetamine every day for around 7 years. For the last 5 years I ran a moderately successful blog about my recovery, but it was time for a reboot.
If you did a double-take at my blog name or my description that I used to be an addict, you’re probably not alone. Recovery culture, that is 12-step programs, teach us that we have a disease, one that can’t be cured but can be treated, for the rest of our lives. Also, our lives are supposed to revolve around recovery. I do not accept this.
Much of the rest of this first post will be adapted from part of a lengthy personal email I sent to a close family member, where I explained why I was so critical of 12-step programs on my old blog; why I believe it is necessary to criticize them – and why I will be even more critical of them on my new blog. So to one reader, much of this post will be familiar. To the rest, I hope you will enjoy it, and read with an open mind. I will refrain from annotating anything in this introductory post, because it’s only meant to be an introduction. This will also be longer than my average posts.
Why criticize 12-step programs?
For me, the very foundation of recovery culture is founded on shaky ground:
“I admitted that I was powerless over my addiction; that my life had become unmanageable.”
They go on to say that addiction is a disease, but I say that I only felt powerless; but was never really powerless.
I chose to use. Addiction is a choice, not a disease. But it isn’t just one choice – it’s a series of choices. Even under the influence, I didn’t become a zombie who was not responsible for my own actions. I chose to drive to the ATM in the middle of the night. I chose to find a dealer. I chose to buy drugs, enough to build a relationship where that dealer trusted me and gave me credit. If I didn’t have a “lolly” (the name for a glass meth pipe here in South Africa) to smoke my drugs, I chose to drive to a petrol station and buy a 12V bulb, as well as a plastic pen, then carefully cut off the end of the bulb and make a pipe to smoke my meth. Preparation to use often involves deliberate planning and may take hours. I did this over and over again; and I am ashamed to say that it was my free will to do so. There was no powerlessness – no disease. That’s nothing more than a poor excuse of someone with weak character, justifying their series of poor choices. Yes, I was chemically dependent, which gave me even more of an excuse not to make a good choice. But all of it was a choice, with multiple steps along the way where I could have stopped myself from using. Thus it became a behavioural disorder, of learned behaviours. Addiction is mostly psychological. The reasons that one starts using is psychological, as are the reasons that one continues to use. Disease never enters the equation.
19 months ago when I stopped using, I chose to stop. I had reached a point where I knew that my addiction was harmful to the people I loved, and that I had to stop. I didn’t want to stop. I stopped reluctantly, but found that within weeks, I was enjoying being clean, enjoying the difference it made to my work (because it’s really hard to write quality software when you are awake for days at a time with voices in your had), but mostly I enjoyed the quality time with the people I loved. I’m not saying it was easy – it wasn’t. But it was certainly easier than my first failed attempt to clean up when I followed a 12-step plan.
My son is in foster care, though I do take him out twice a week and have a good relationship with his foster parents. Part of the process of getting him back permanently involved taking part in a 12-step outpatient program. First my partner did such a program, and although I could not participate in one at the time due to work, I did attend two meetings with her, when I was between 4 and 6 months clean. However, I only did my program recently, only attended NA meetings regularly when I was already over a year clean, and can say with utmost confidence that the program had absolutely nothing to do with my sobriety. But this post is not about stating my case, not about enumerating all of the fallacies in such programs. I will get around to that in posts to come.
12-step culture is a bunch of bunk, where one never learns to take personal responsibility for those bad choices – never learns to make good choices instead, and is never personally accountable for either of the good or bad choices. Then one stays in treatment for life, without ever moving forward. I have been working on learning to understand why I made those poor choices, why I ended up in that mind-set where continuing to get my drugs overrode everything else, so that I will never make those poor choices again. I’m far from perfect, and wasn’t even aware of my own destructive passive aggression, wielded with self-righteousness against anyone I perceived as a threat (in my old blog which I took down). I’ve reached the point where I can’t get anything more out of therapy (from an addiction counsellor) or my self-therapy. What I need instead – assuming I still need some treatment – is treatment from a psychologist, preferably one who understands evidence-based treatment of addiction, which is regarded in the sceptical community (who are very much aware of the issues with 12-step approaches to recovery) as an effective treatment. I don’t know if such treatment exists in this country, but at the moment, a psychologist at least is a step in the right direction. (And there’s a book on the subject, published this year. I forget the name and author. I will be buying that book at month-end.)
So much therapy has zero therapeutic value
The reason that I am often so dead-set against therapy is that there is often no clear distinction between “real” therapy that has therapeutic value, such as psychology, versus therapies that are plagued with pseudoscientific nonsense, fallacies and medical quackery – such as psychoanalysis and psychiatry. Therapy that isn’t evidence-based has no more value than, for example: homeopathy, acupuncture and chiropractic. It’s like when you enter a pharmacy, and the “natural” remedies and homeopathy are packaged alongside the real medicines. People in general have no idea that treatment with no therapeutic value is often indistinguishable from treatment based on evidence, much like they don’t know that remedies with zero efficacy are packaged and placed alongside real medicine. (I haven’t even considered the supplement industry, which sells many pills that have no value – in fact it’s recently become evident that supplements are often harmful to the liver.) We live in a credulous world, where faith is placed above fact. (Not dissing religion here. You can be religious and still know the difference between belief and evidence.)
There are therapists out there whose qualifications are no more than 2 week courses, and addiction therapists whose qualifications are only that they used to smoke godawful amounts of crack cocaine. This is also why I am so critical of 12-step programs. Even when they appear to work, they have no more value than a placebo effect. According to the data and several papers published in respected medical journals, such programs are harmful to most people in treatment. (To a vast majority of between 90 and 95 %.) Of course there is a risk in criticising such programs, but I believe that the risk is as justified as that of debunking, for example, homeopathy. False hope doesn’t work for everybody. People need to know what they are getting into when entering the recovery culture, and if it doesn’t work for them, they need to know that there are alternatives that are proven and based on evidence, rather than an outdated spiritual program with no basis in medical or psychological fact. It’s especially unfortunate that 12-step programs are still largely accepted as the only approach to recovery. This is starting to change, but the legacy of these programs looks to be here for some time to come, greater than the span of my lifetime. What this means is that there are people coming into recovery all the time, people who see the issues with 12-step programs for what they are, who then leave recovery without knowing that 12-step programs are not the only way.
My target audience when criticizing 12-step programs are people like me: atheists and critical thinkers who will likely never be able to stay clean through 12-step programs. They need to know that there are effective alternatives that must be pursued, rather than giving up and continuing to use drugs. Like the writing of popular sceptics (which I will probably never be, but I will try), my writing will never change the mind of true believers anyway. I believe that the risk of leading anyone to abandon recovery is minute.
As you may have noticed, I’ve made some pretty damning statements about 12-step programs, without providing any annotations or links to back them up. My objective here was merely to set the tone. The links will come in future posts. This blog will present a sceptical take on recovery, from this godless critical thinker’s point of view. Of course I’ll also write about things that I have learned directly from using drugs; and reuse some of the material from my old blog. But the difference is, I no longer call myself a recovering addict. I am an ex addict.