Are We Having Fun Yet?

Jan wrote this article in October 1992, well after we had submitted the final manuscript for the Addictionary but a little before it was published. We hope the situation in OA and family-oriented Twelve Steps has improved since then. The article may still give some perspective.

“These family members are really sick. At least we alcoholics can blame our crazy behavior on the booze.” I used to hear some variation on that theme occasionally, and something bothered me about it every time. I was working in a chemical dependency program that had a strong family program, and I spend several years working with families. Sometimes I would even participate in the kind of “gallows humor” that often develops among a treatment staff, but I always felt uncomfortable with it.

I knew there was a thread of truth in this attitude, because I had seen people who were very ill with the family disease (we didn’t call it “codependency” back then). I think now that for these clients, we lacked the deep respect and compassion we had for the alcoholic. Most of the counselors had a superficial understanding of the family disease. A clue to this was that while almost all of them were children of alcoholics (or other addicts), few of them really identified with the Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoA) movement, and even fewer regularly went to ACoA meetings. Some had never been to even one, though they were getting paid for treating ACoAs in a program that prided itself on its dedication to Twelve Step philosophy.

No such thing as a bad meeting?

My boss liked to quip, “A bad AA meeting will eventually die out, because everyone will get drunk. But a bad Al-Anon meeting can go on forever.” Though this kind of ribbing discounts the recovery in Al-Anon and ACOA, there is that annoying thread of truth in it. Many Twelve Step groups do not enjoy AA’s relatively clear boundary between emotional support and enabling the disease. In AA you hear that your drinking was not because you were bad or weak or stupid, but because you have a disease. Yet you are not likely to get a message that it is OK to wait until you “feel OK about yourself” before you stop drinking.

A Problem with identity

I am terrible with names. Something I love in most Twelve Step groups is the tradition of introducing yourself with something like, “Hi, my name’s _____ and I’m a _____.” A few weeks visiting a particular meeting and even I can recall most people’s names. I miss that with Al-Anon and other “family of” support groups. But I think that missing piece goes beyond just accommodating someone who’s not very talented in the social arts. The problem is that most of these groups lack the powerful identity and singleness of purpose that comes from identifying yourself as an alcoholic, a drug addict, a bulimic, a sex addict, or a compulsive gambler. Sure, you can call yourself a codependent, but isn’t it harder to be sure others in the room understand what you mean?

Weakness turns into strength

Newcomers sometimes cringe at people proclaiming themselves alcoholics or sex addicts. Why would you wallow in that negative identification, guilt, and shame, they ask. Yet if they keep coming back, they realize before long that they are not hearing the shame they might expect. They start to learn that the disease itself has bound these people together into a very special kind of community, where they turn weakness and isolation into strength and love.

Clear ideas of what recovery is

An alcoholic keeps coming to AA so she won’t drink. Of course there are other benefits, like having the Steps to use as tools in the rest of her life, but in a pinch, she comes to AA to not drink. If you are an ACoA, do you have a clear idea of what you go to ACoA for? What is it that you want to stop or start doing? How do you measure recovery and success in the program? Do you give out recovery tokens for years since ACoA behavior?

I think the challenge facing Al-Anon, ACoA, and similar support groups, is to help clarify their individual recovery goals. Are you addicted to alcoholics? Are you powerless over your negative thinking? What is it that you really expect to recover from? Are you doing that?

Biochemistry and ACoAs

Perhaps the most limiting legacy from Alcoholics Anonymous is the expectation that an addictive substance is something that comes into the body from outside it. This grossly discounts the importance of your own body’s chemical factory, which I think is a greater factor in any addiction than the stuff that is ingested, injected, snorted, or whatever. Could an ACoA get addicted to the rush from danger, to the stimulation of righteous indignation and resentments, to the power of playing Savior, to the adoration of a sponsee, or to the bio-emotional response to self-mutilation (literal or figurative, your body doesn’t know the differene)? Why not?

PEMS model

The model we use is to look at the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual (PEMS) aspects of any addiction. In this theory an ACoA could be someone with addictive tendencies that need to be coped with, like a tendency to spend compulsively (which many addicts have). Or, it could be some- body who has emotional and developmental deficits (like boundary distortions) from their dysfunctional family. Or it could even be a full-fledged addiction, complete with powerlessness and unmanageability, like a compulsive spender who passes bad checks and shoplifts. The confusion is trying to treat all these people the same way.

Confusing directions for treatment

The idea that everyone who grew up in an addictive home needs treatment is an overgeneralization. It is like saying everyone who survives an auto accident, or who served in Vietnam, needs treatment for post traumatic stress disorder (IVISD). For those who are suffering, of course. For others who have vague ideas that life could be better, and are searching for some magic reason why they don’t feel good all the time, the answer may involve very different strategies.

We believe in good treatment. An investment in developing the skill you need for recovery, or even just for living, is at least as important as an academic education. But poor treatment is worse than nothing. The umbrella of addiction and codependency has become too big, and the addictions treatment field has lost much of its focus. Unqualified programs and therapists have cast doubts on the motives and effectiveness of treatment. And in this day of skyrocketing medical costs, the days of expecting others to pay for your treatment are fast disappearing.

The pendulum swings away

If you look around, you can see a declining interest in many addiction and codependency issues. Treatment centers are closing, while few new ones are starting. Recovery newspapers are quietly going bankrupt, partly due to loss of advertisers. Bookstores are reducing the size of their addiction / recovery sections, or perhaps merging them with self-help books. A new celebrity announces their alcoholism, drug addiction, or bulimia. Ho-hum. What else is new, says the public.

Where is the interest going? You tell me. Probably in many directions. I know there is an upsurge in living skills. I see lots of books, magazines, and networks to help people develop their own small business, perhaps working from their home. Anything that puts power directly in the hands of the people, is in demand.

Hope is at the grassroots

I believe the future of addiction recovery, including ACOAs, is in the self-help groups. Most of these will probably be Twelve Step oriented, though there will also be alternatives for those who want to try other approaches. We have already gotten the message from our publishers to write books for the recovering public, rather than for professionals, because there will be less of those.

Less resources for professional help

There will always be alcoholics, ACoAs, compulsive eaters, and other addicts who will need professional help, but you won’t keep seeing large programs that will give you a bogus diagnosis, pay for your flight to wherever, and absorb the 20 percent coinsurance you should pay, according to your insurance contract. That’s insurance fraud. The FBI is looking into it, and those people will be out of business if not in jail. Good luck on having the coverage in the first place.

So we need a graduated approach to treatment. First you try the support groups. If that works, fine. Otherwise, see a private practice counselor for a while. If you feel stuck after several months, look for an intensive outpatient program, or an inexpensive short-term residential program that will work for you. Finally, if you still need more, there should be more intense (read expensive) programs, and maybe insurance will pay something toward that treatment for those who really need it. Some people need extended care, like halfway houses, instead of repeat hospitalizations.

Back to basic self-help

Meanwhile, we’ll all have to return to the kind of support groups that Bill W. and Dr. Bob developed. Groups where people really got involved in each other’s recovery. Picking people up and taking them to meetings. Making Twelfth Step calls. Taking over more of that “messy” business instead of just saying, “You need to go to treatment.”

ACoAs and other addicts need lots of meetings. If an Adult Child of Addiction can get better by going to only one meeting a week, I wonder whether they really needed ACoA in the first place. Go to lots of meetings, get active in the program, learn and use the Steps, and start taking yourself lightly and the disease seriously. My favorite definition of an addict: a person who can do anything to excess, even moderation. Laughter is healing.

We’ve all seen the T-shirt that reads “Are we having fun yet?” I was told it was an ACoA T-shirt. Unless your meetings have fun and compassion, a singleness of purpose and also tolerance for individual differences, understanding of your shortcomings but expectation and support for your recovery — unless you can offer these things, why would an addict stick around? Addiction recovery does take a miracle. Fortunately miracles come free with Twelve Step recovery. In fact, you have to work hard to keep them from soaking in.

— Jan R. Wilson, 1 October 1992

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