Triggers, Messages, & Flack Jackets

This one is gonna be messy — honest and messy, like me.

The rooms of 12 Step Fellowships are triggering for me. Not in a “I’m gonna need a drink” way, but triggering none the less. They have been since day one.

A few of the things that I find triggering in 12 Step are God (regardless of who’s understanding it is), Religion, Outdated and Imprecise Language, Hypocrisy, and Dualistic Thinking.

And I know I’m not alone in this. Many other people are triggered in the rooms as well. The rooms may be triggering for many different reasons, but they are still triggering for a lot of people.

How does one recover in an environment that is triggering? How does one recover when one doesn’t feel safe?

The short answer is that often, we don’t. Often we leave. And more often than not when we leave, we fulfill that 12 Step saying that we’ll end up dead, in jail, or institutionalized.

And yet, I continue to show up because when I lean into the discomfort of the triggers I recognize that they are memories of traumatic events that happened in the past and aren’t currently happening. In other words, I’m currently safe, even in a triggering environment. And by leaning in, I get to remain connected to a group of people who help me to stay sober. For me, 12 Step has always been about the fellowship rather than the program.

I also happen to know many people who have left the rooms of AA who continue to maintain happy and healthy lives. People who continue to live their life following a moral compass, who are sober, and who are anything but “Dry Drunks.” These people are often highly emotionally intelligent. For those not familiar with this term, here’s the definition according to Google.

Emotional Intelligence
noun: emotional intelligence
the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard a lot in the Recovery community about Sobriety being more than abstinence. I’ve heard a lot about something called emotional sobriety. I personally believe that emotional sobriety and emotional intelligence are the same thing. I also believe that sobriety is not dependent upon emotional intelligence, but that a happy and healthy life actually is dependent upon the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions.

But this is a topic for another post. What I want to write about today is a dialogue that must happen. A dialogue that needs to be given space to exist within as well as outside the rooms. A dialogue that I believe can save lives.

The simple fact is that the 12 Steps have an abysmal success rate, at least as best as can be measured. Depending upon what statistic one looks at, the success rate is anywhere from 5% to 40%. The variance in the reported success rate is largely due to the anonymous nature of the program. Even if one wants to argue that the success rate is better than 40% there are still thousands of people dying every damn day because they aren’t getting the help they need.

We need to have a dialogue about multiple pathways in the recovery community as well as in society at large. We need to add professional help from the medical community and the psychiatric and mental health therapy community.  If the recommended treatment method for any other disease failed as often as the 12 Steps do, it wouldn’t be the recommended treatment. If people continued to die because antibiotics were only successful at treating bacterial infections such as Staphylococcus at the same rates that 12 Step is effective, we would be looking for alternate treatments.

This conversation needs to start in the recovery community. We need to make space for it. We need to allow it and we need to take the cotton out of our ears and stuff it in our mouths if we don’t like the conversation, because people are dying.

We need to start carrying the message that there are multiple ways to recover and that no one group knows best. We need to be open to the possibility that the way we’ve always done it may not be the best way. But most importantly, we need to talk about it.

Today, when someone expresses these concerns within a 12 Step forum, the most frequent response is that it gets shut down. We hear a lot of fear mongering. We hear a lot of reasons why it doesn’t work for everyone. We hear a lot about people needing to “want it” and willingness. And I don’t discount that.

What we don’t hear is that its okay that it doesn’t work for everyone and that there may be other ways to recover. For a group that claims “love and tolerance is our code” we can be awfully hurtful and rather intolerant when the topic of alternate paths of recovery comes up.

The fact of the matter is that we know a lot more about addiction after 84 years of study than we did in 1935. We know that addiction fundamentally changes our brains. We know that addiction is fueled by chemical reactions in our brains that have to do with dopamine and GABA receptors. We know that substances not only give us a dopamine hit, but also cause our brains to create more and more dopamine receptors. This is why we develop tolerances. And we know that when we suddenly remove the substances that gave us the dopamine hit, the brain reacts, sometimes in violent and life-threatening ways.

And yet, we continue to treat addiction with prayer and meditation. We continue to treat it with a program that is essentially a guide to living a good life. A moral compass of sorts. A program that essentially says, don’t be a dick, and when you are, admit it and do what you can to make it right.

Don’t get me wrong, that’s an important lesson for anyone. But it is not the be-all and end all of how to treat addiction. And it’s especially not effective when there are aspects of the program or the rooms that trigger people, causing them to feel unsafe and to leave. As one of my good friends in recovery says, “I can’t treat a dead person.”

So, we need to have people who are brave enough to bring up this topic. We need to also have people who are open minded enough to listen to the conversation and participate in the dialogue. I know from personal experience, that raising questions about 12 Step often leads to flack from some factions in the recovery community.

I also know that I have a flack jacket. I know that when I put something like this post out there, I need to put that flack jacket on. And I also know, that some days, I can’t bear the thought of wearing that flack jacket. So on those days, I put the jacket down and I don’t put myself in situations where I’ll need it. I am comfortable that the day will come when I can put it on and continue to raise this awareness.

Today, clearly, is a day that I’m ready to put on the flack jacket.