A culture of shame in 12-step recovery programs leads to low recovery rates, relapse and death.
Many are dying for a few to live.
The staggeringly low rates of recovery, for the suffering who seek help for addiction and alcoholism, are no secret.
There are many essays written and studies documented about why recovery rates are so low — even lower than in the past — but still, no-one seems to have found a solution.
I watched countless good people die in the grip of addiction — hopeless, desperate and defeated
I have watched people die — a great many.
I have held a mother in my arms, as she cried while leaving her son in my care — and I have held that same mother at the funeral of her gentle 18-year-old child — a kind and amazing soul who just got lost along the way and couldn’t find his way before it was too late.
I have laid in bed at night and wondered if the fatal overdose of a sparkling 17-year-old girl was my fault. Maybe if I had decided to count the meds daily instead of following the weekly policy, she would have never abused them.
What if I would have required her to keep them in the safe instead of her own lock-box? Then, would she be alive?
Sure, it would have been a usurp of self-responsibility, as the Second Oxford House Tradition clearly states. But I was the one who made the call to allow her in the house with this medication and I had the authority to use my own best judgment.
What if I could have stopped it?
I have watched a friend survive brain surgery and beat brain cancer, then die at the feet of addiction.
He came to me that night — the night he relapsed. He was so intoxicated that he could barely walk and appeared to be completely delusional.
“Please, Holly, Please…”, he pleaded, as he grabbed my arms to keep from falling — slobber dripping from his mouth.
I was at work and this was nothing new for someone who lives a 12-step life. We see these things all the time. I told him that he couldn’t come in or I could lose my job — but that if he went to McDonald’s, next door, I would call someone to come pick him up.
That was normal too, it was our code. And McDonald’s shared a lot with the restaurant I was working at, so he just had to go right inside there and wait.
I couldn’t leave right then, because we were busy. I had left recently for similar reasons, my boss was glaring at me and if I left work every time an addict needed me, I would be penniless.
I gave him a few dollars and told him to go get a cheeseburger and someone would be right there to pick him up.
“I’m not hungry ”, he shouted before he burst into tears…
“Holly, please… please…”, he cried.
I held his face in my hands and explained that I loved him and I was going to help him, but I needed him to go with one of our friends until I could finish work.
He walked off and I did what I thought was the right thing — called a trusted AA friend and went back to work.
When our trusted friend arrived at McDonald’s, my struggling friend was no-where to be found. He was found the next morning though.
The cause of death was the cocktail of alcohol and other substances that he apparently consumed after arriving home.
My greatest supporter in treatment died clean and sober by the heavy hand of addiction — suicide by hanging.
Another girl from treatment, who used to talk to me about God and write me long letters about how she believed in me, died from drinking gasoline when she was experiencing alcohol withdraws.
The guy that bought me candy-bars, when I had not a penny to my name and lived on AirMark trays, died of heart attack from smoking crack.
I have no idea how many people, who I love, have died horrible deaths seeking recovery from addiction.
There simply becomes too many to count.
If you are a normie, this may be a lot to process.
You probably had no idea what the world of a recovering addict looks like and the strength of character required from those who live in it.
If you are in recovery, chances are, you are feeling defensive about my blaming this great failure of recovery on the 12-step program.
Rest assured that it is not the program I am questioning, but the culture created by members of its fellowship — a culture that was present long before you or I ever attended our first meeting.
With all due respect to today’s 12-step fellowship, but more respect to its founding fathers and the loved ones I have lost, I will tell you about the culture of shame that is the number one enemy of recovery, today.
Recovery and death rates are shocking
Contradiction litters every set of numbers and every synopsis proposed regarding this matter. And, besides that, people just don’t talk about it — unless they are saying it to convince a newcomer how serious things are.
Those are just two small fragments of the death rate, not considering the over 173,000 fatal car accidents a year or the over 47,000 suicides— which are undoubtedly often associated with addiction.
We won’t go over the rest of the long list of ways in which addiction kills people, but the list is long.
Although the deaths, alone, are looming, only counting those who physically die — as losing their lives to addiction — is a half measure. Living a long life in addiction, when it doesn’t physically kill you, can be a hell far worse than death could ever be.
As for addiction rates in general, those are highly debated as well. There are around 20 million Americans who reportedly suffer from addiction today. I assure you that number is much, much higher.
Debatably, only around 3 percent of alcoholics ever seek help in the first place, and — unless they are court-mandated — the other 97 percent go unreported.
Joe and Charlie, two nationally known AA speakers and gurus who got their start in the ‘70s, shared their findings in many of their all-famous talks across the nation.
“They tell me that 97 out of 100 of us are going to die, never even knowing we’re alcoholic. If that’s true 3% of us are stumbling in the doors of AA. Less than half of us are recovering. We’re talking about 1 out of 100. I used to say, God, why am I an alcoholic? Today I say, God why am I not one of those dying from alcoholism.”
Regardless of whether Joe and Charlie’s numbers held the one ultimate and almighty truth, you could add plenty of cushion to those numbers and they would still be horrifying.
They did, however, spend their entire lives on this work. They were the real deal and their teachings were backed by AA history, AA literature, science and — most importantly — common sense.
Joe and Charlie, like myself, cautioned AA members to avoid the spiritual hilltop at all costs.Perhaps they could see the culture of shame that would one day prey on those seeking recovery — a culture of shame, created and nurtured by the most elite and so-called successful lifers in the rooms of AA.
I worked with thousands of addicts and have my own experience with addiction
You may wonder what gives me the authority to answer the questions that so many have been asking, for so long…
Why are we witnessing such stark recovery rates and why are more and more people dying every year?
Who am I to deem myself worthy of such a massive claim?
I will give you an outline of my experience and knowledge as it relates to addiction recovery, but it is not me alone who is making this claim.
You see, I am not the first one to see its truth. I am by no means labeling myself the one and only recovery genius, who finally figured this out. The only thing I am doing is saying it out loud.
I am a person in long-term recovery, as defined by the recovery oriented system of care — also known as ROSC. I admitted myself into residential addiction treatment — also known as rehab — for the first and last time on August 23, 2011.
From that day forward, I would live, work, breathe and drown myself in recovery for the next five years.
After staying as long as the treatment facility would allow me to, I moved to a half-way home, called Virtue House. It was very regimented and strict — run by church members who started the project to help destitute young women in the community. It was, then, October.
In December, I moved to a democratically run recovery home, called Oxford House. By March I was Oxford House Chapter Secretary for our area and within that year, I was Chapter President.
At the time, I also held a service position at my home group, worked a full-time job, held a position in the Oxford House in which I lived, attended other meetings, facilitated meetings at the treatment facilities and would go back to speak at events for the Virtue House.
One thing I learned early about the people who actually recovered — and they told me only 1 out of the 14 of us newbies would— was that they heeded the advice of the program regarding service work and helping others.
As I threw myself into recovery, I threw myself into service, fellowship and what recovery people call 12-step work — which is basically helping other addicts and alcoholics achieve and maintain recovery.
Shortly before my one-year recovery anniversary — aka birthday — I moved out of the Oxford House and back into the Virtue House. But this time, I was not moving in as a client, but as live-in staff.
The same people that held my paycheck and cell-phone one year prior, hired me to hold their entire facility. I would be the one to live there, monitor the women at night, set the alarm, provide in-home support and fill in where needed. I honestly had no idea, myself, how huge this was for me until I just wrote it down. Talk about a lifesaver. Thank you, Tammy Jeffers.
I continued as Chapter President for Oxford House, as active alumni — traveling around the state to different houses multiple times a week, opening new houses, working with treatment facilities and facilitating events.
It was July of 2014 when I was offered an official contract by the state to become a state coordinator for the Oxford House Model in Illinois — through The Drug and Substance Abuse Division of the Illinois Department of human services.
Questioning some rhetoric and beliefs of the 12-step fellowship
I was living the dream.
I had lived and breathed recovery for three years — based on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and the shared beliefs of the 12-step community, also known as the fellowship.
I attended a course, at Governor State University, to obtain the Recovery Coach certification that my new position required of me.
Driving 3 hours to Chicago once a week was no burden to me, as I was eager to learn and grow in my career and pursue my beloved purpose — a purpose I was so passionate about that no night was ever too late and no drive was ever too long.
3 in the morning or 3,000 miles — it didn’t matter.
This training and education was based on the Recovery Oriented System of Care and did not fully align with all the rhetoric — rhetoric that becomes a voice in the head of anyone who is actively involved in a 12-step fellowship.
There were never-addicted professionals in attendance, as well as a few other 12-steppers, like me.
During class, the 12-steppers would passionately point out the things about our lessons that did not align with 12 step modality. I was curious though.
I had already been asking questions about the simple math that could be done, by reading the forward of each Alcoholics Anonymous edition — also known as the Big Book.
Why, when people had infinitely more access to resources, were the recovery rates so jarringly low, compared to 1935?
Why, when Bill and Bob — the founders — had to find suffering alcoholics in alleys and behind dumpsters, were fewer people getting better and more people dying than back in their day?
Today, you can easily find a variety of addresses on a meeting list that house gatherings of those seeking recovery.
Why were they more successful, back then, when they had to aimlessly search for drunks to help and house them in their own living rooms because there were no treatment facilities?
No-one could answer these questions and, because no-one could, I was still searching for answers. Perhaps if I had an open mind — despite my love for the fellowship — I could find the answers that no-one else seemed to have.
After all, most of the things that didn’t add up were not a part of the program as it is written, but a part of the recovery culture that has been created by members of the fellowship.
There is a lot to be found and I am still exploring, many years later. But I write this essay to share with you what I see as the biggest enemy of recovery in our communities today — a culture of recovery shame.
It is not only my right to speak out about what I experienced in the world of recovery, but it is my responsibility. If not for me or for those to come, for those who we have already lost — for there are so, so many.
Shame has shot through the fabric of recovery’s existence
After dedicating 5 years of my life to nothing but recovery, burying myself in its history and study, and working with thousands of recoveries, I can see that the number one cause of our demise — as a recovery community — is shame.
Shame is no-where in any 12-step literature, from AA to EA.
Yet it is, as Bill W. would likely say, an evil and corroding thread that shoots through the fabric of our very existence.
I will list the 4 most glaring ways that shame has shot through the fabric of recovery’s existence — and expand upon each item in their own separate and upcoming story.
- There are too many bleeding deacons and not enough elder statesmen, as outlined in Tradition Two of Alcoholics Anonymous.
- Sponsorship, which Bill found to be the last and most vital ingredient to long-term sobriety, has been perverted and its benefits are being withheld from the newcomer — until they meet a certain list of fabricated requirements placed upon them by many senior members, also known as old-timers.
- Members are shamed for relapse by being stripped of community trust and privilege — regardless of how long they had in continuous recovery before the relapse, what type of relapse it was, or the cause.
- This may be number four, but it is the one that haunts the darkest corners of my soul. I saved it for last because it is so baffling — so mind-boggling and impossible to vindicate — that, after I mention it, the other examples of recovery shame will look like chopped liver.
Young and vulnerable women and men, especially minors, are being manipulated by a slew of sexual predators, posing as sponsors and mentors — some who even hold positions of authority in the recovery community.
The anonymous nature of 12-step programs, coupled with blind loyalty towards esteemed members, has created an environment where sexual predators abuse their community-given authority to prey upon vulnerable people — people who are desperately running into the rooms looking for someone to help them save their life.
Daughters, sons, children and parents — people of all sorts — come to the rooms because they don’t want to die and they can’t stop poisoning themselves to save their lives, even when they desperately want to.
In return, many are targeted and exploited for their vulnerability and destroyed by their own shame — only to fulfill someone else’s need to elicit sexual favors from the weak and helpless.
I provide a full disclaimer to my case, speaking directly to those in recovery. Disclaimer for All 12-Steppers
If you are a person in recovery who is still denying my blame on recovery shame, I appreciate the sentiment more than I can express and respect it to the fullest.
I simply invite you to ask yourself one question, with the brutal honesty that you know the program demands, and the answer is between you and you — to do with what you will.
Why are so many of us dying for so few of us to live?
Written by Holly Kellums
Originally published here: Feb 28 · 13 min read