Friday, March 14, 2008

Powerless and Unmanagable

A few weeks ago, someone asked me why the court system typically does such a poor job of working with addicts. I told them it was because judges typically misunderstand the first step of Alcoholics Anonymous. It's not that these judges are willfully doing the wrong thing; it's that the solution to dealing with addicts and alcoholics is often counterintuitive. What a person who is not an alcoholic expects that a true one should do to overcome his or her problem is often the opposite of what should take place, at least in my experience. "Just quit drinking" isn't good advice for a true alcoholic as they've likely tried that and it would only work on someone who didn't belong at AA.

Don't most judges (and lawyers for that matter) expect addicts and alcoholics to use their will to overcome their problem, expecting that they should "admit they are powerful over alcohol and that their lives had become managable?" That emphasis on quitting right now, before you get to treatment, reflects both a need for courts to function quickly as well as a fundamental misunderstanding of the 12 steps of AA, at least as I understand them.

The real first step in AA is to admit that you are powerless over the substance and that your life has become unmanagable. In short, the first step isn't to take charge over your will; it's admitting that your will got you in trouble. It's not a step of empowerment, but of surrender.

I'm not in "the program," so maybe I know just enough to get in trouble. But I've wasted a lot of time yelling at addicted clients over the years to know that it did no good and caused the client, who needed help, to just shut down. I might as well have been beating my head against the wall.

I've had more luck being the voice of hope, telling even the worst addicts that it didn't have to be this way and that it probably wasn't their fault if they were born an addict. That seems to get their attention as it's probably the opposite of what they're hearing from the judge and what they're probably telling themselves.

Then I suggest that they get to AA ASAP, being careful not to put any labels on them, but just suggesting that if they have that disease, the other people at AA who have it will help them treat it, probably better than the professionals will. And, I tell them, the price is right.

Unlike the court who typically threatens them with jail or the prosecutor who threatens them with prosecution, I try to be the one that says "you'll be o.k., as long as you can do the little things right," hoping that this makes it sound like they don't have to solve all their problems today, just do something small like get to a meeting.

A few years ago, I learned a lot watching the movie "My Name is Bill" about the founder of A.A. After a couple years of just yelling, I knew it didn't work and the movie taught me a lot about the value of having alcoholics share stories with each other, rather than getting yelled at by people who really don't understand what they're going through.

Rather than making things worse for my clients, I now offer some hope and then just try to get out of the way, suggesting that they get to AA as it might help them sort out whether they belong there or not.

The truth is that AA was founded by a stockbroker who began talking to a physician and they discovered how helpful this was, how "one alcoholic to another" worked for them. The third member of A.A., who they tried their message out on?

He was a lawyer.

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