Normies React to the 12 Steps

By Juliet Elisabeth 09/19/14

"I think admitting to having a problem in general is the right first step, but to admit powerlessness is unhealthy. .. I think admitting powerlessness is more harmful because it doesn't help. Admitting that you want and need help is more useful after admittance."

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Mara Wilson, former child co-star of Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire, insightfully wrote on her personal blog, "Artists who struggled with mental illness, trauma, disease, addiction (often the latter is a way of self-medicating after the first three) did not want or welcome it."

I won't debate if addiction is a disease, but I agree no one wants to be addicted to anything. 12-step treatment teaches addiction is a chronic, progressive disease. Members don't have a choice to use because they're "powerless" over the substances. I assume Mara has not been in 12-step programs, but she does admit she's battled depression in life. As an outsider she gives a very logical explanation of addiction. The nickname for outsiders in AA is "normies" or "Earth People."

Only in addiction would the patient apologize for treatment not working, even when it's prescribed by professionals. 

Wait. Doesn't it stigmatize alcoholics to call them abnormal and alien to this planet? Wouldn't telling them that all humans make mistakes be more therapeutic?

AA self-diagnosed alcoholics remind each other they're "not unique," no matter what other problems they've had in life. Stress and anxiety are all the same, no matter if a person suffers Parkinson's, was abused as a child, or is going through a divorce. Any emotional upheaval leads to drunks, arrests, or deaths. It bothered me that Robin Williams checked into a rehab this summer, without relapsing, and apparently left Hazelden becoming more depressed and not better.

Depression, however, isn't unique to people with addiction. I reached out to some "normies" hoping to be enlightened by their non-AA polluted answers. What do they think AA is, and do they think the 12 steps would be helpful or harmful to someone with depression?

Ruth, a friend I haven't talked to since high school, thought of AA as "a place that has helped a couple people I know when they needed it. For them it was the support network that worked. When they need more support they went to extra meetings or less when they were doing okay. People have to find what works for them."

Since she had not ever read the entire 12 steps, I sent Ruth a copy and asked if the steps could work for depression. "I have never seen the steps [written] out before. Is it church? I do not think all [the] steps would help a depressed person. Seven to ten might be helpful to some people dealing with mental illness. Eight to ten would help the people around the mentally ill person and thus may bring closure and more support. But the rest I would personally find unnecessary, maybe even harmful for a person that is dealing with mental illness. Just believing in a higher power can't always fix things. Meds can be needed. And therapy to help get to the root of the problem."

Another friend from high school, Patty, has also never read the 12 steps. I asked her in general, would listing defects and shortcomings motivate a person with depression? She answered, "I think listing positive qualities is better." Patty mentioned some in her family benefited from AA, and when you care for and love others around you, it is only natural to support their decisions to quit drinking. AA or not.

To avoid influencing anyone's answers, I also contacted people I am not that close to. In "real" life Charlotte was a former classmate of mine, and thinks the steps may work for some people with depression. "I think it depends on the person. Different things work for different people." What about admitting powerlessness? Does that help with depression? "For some people, probably not. But for some it could help in a sense like, 'well, that's why I've been drinking and can't stop...' I definitely agree with the fact that AA is not for everyone. But I do think it works for some people."

I believe average Americans are capable of taking sensible positions towards therapy and AA if given full information. But because they hear AA promoted constantly as the solution to alcoholism, they have come to think of "AA" in the same way that we call all tissues "Kleenex" or all bandages "Band-Aids." Although Charlotte was not fully pro or anti-AA, she did add that if AA didn't help, it "would be pretty depressing to go get help and it not work. I think people should research and be able to decide what they think is best. What works for some does not necessarily work for others. And then there's the whole religion aspect of it."

Like Ruth asking if AA is church, David from Ohio stated, "I think these steps would be useful to a devout believer in a higher power. Because by doing these steps, they're actually tricking themselves into thinking a God is helping them when the prayer and meditation is restarting them and giving them a different addiction (religion) to focus on...As a non-believer in a higher power, these steps are useless to me." Furthermore, David said, "I don't think they would help with a personal bout with depression or addiction. Except for steps four and ten, I think they are altogether completely ineffective when dealing with a medical disorder or addiction."

Or as Pearl, a Facebook friend of mine writes, it "makes even someone who isn't an alcoholic/depressed person be depressed just reading [the steps]."

Lastly, I questioned Bardo, a guy from California who enjoys comic cons. Is admitting powerlessness particularly helpful for those with depression? "I think admitting to having a problem in general is the right first step, but to admit powerlessness is unhealthy. .. I think admitting powerlessness is more harmful because it doesn't help. Admitting that you want and need help is more useful after admittance." That's such a powerful quote.

What is a support group supposed to be? A place to empower, decrease anxieties, and network for additional support. Maybe even a place for interest in finding better treatments or cures. AA encourages listing shortcomings and every wrong one has committed since birth. Support groups have leaders and use the media to advertise. AA does not. Support groups are not forever, you can leave when you feel better.

I only asked a handful of people outside recovery, but the astonishing trend is that they do not know that AA is religious or teaches powerlessness. The assumption seems to be the first step is admitting you have a problem. They do not know that there is a culture that discourages non-AA programs, or that AA has no policy against sexual harassment and bullying. They don't know that the "13th Step" is an inside joke referring to unwanted sexual advances at meetings. Monica Richardson met others (including attorneys) while working on her newly released documentary film, The 13th Step, who were surprised to hear AA's steps mentioned God or prayer.

Research led by psychologist William R. Miller ranks AA as 37th in its success among all therapies available for dealing with alcoholism. The top three treatments are providing brief, direct feedback regarding one's drinking, non-confrontational strategic Motivational Interviewing, and a combination of cognitive and behavioral methods called Community Reinforcement Approach. These results are based on clinical comparisons of various alcoholism treatments. Keep in mind that AA itself does no research and keeps no statistics proving it is effective.

People outside AA simply assume what AA is. Us, those in recovery or recovered from addiction, may not know that roughly 23 million U.S. adults have once considered themselves addicts, but no longer do, and most of them are not in AA, and may not be totally abstinent. We have more in common with outsiders than we don't.

Isn't calling someone a "normie" as derogatory as calling an AA member a "Big Book Thumper"? Isn't assuming everyone will like AA the same as assuming everyone likes Pizza Hut pizza? Recently, co-anchor of ABC's 20/20, Elizabeth Vargas, checked back into rehab. In fall of 2013, Vargas successfully completed 12-step treatment. She is quoted as saying, "I feel I have let myself, my co-workers and most importantly my family down and for that I am ashamed and sorry."

Only in addiction would the patient apologize for treatment not working, even when it's prescribed by professionals. The 12-step treatment asks patients to point out their mistakes and flaws. If that doesn't work, they must do it again. And if it does work? Well, they must also work the steps again. What Mara Wilson also wrote is key: "To focus on someone’s pain instead of their accomplishments is an insult to them."

Juliet Elisabeth is a writer and artist. She is also a former court mandated attendee of Alcoholics Anonymous. Her activist cause for 12 Step alternatives in Ohio is the AARMED with Facts blog.

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Juliet Elisabeth is a freelance writer and independent contractor as a research analyst focused on the healthcare field; also an artist and mother of two. Activist for choice in recovery treatment. Her blog is AarmedWithFacts.