Addiction Myth #4 — Moments of clarity lead only to AA

Stanton Peele By: Dr. Stanton Peele

Posted on January 13th, 2009 - Last updated: September 18th, 2019
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Recovered addicts often describe their escape from addition in terms of a moment of truth when they see clearly how their addiction violates their most basic values. Such moments inspired Christopher Lawford to write about famous addicts in recovery, like himself, who had such an epiphany. For Lawford, the person thus moved must run to AA, like he and all the people in his book did. His take on addiction is not so much oversimplified and (as described in Publishers Weekly) “more religion than therapy” – it is wrong and unhelpful.

Christopher Kennedy Lawford, son of Peter Lawford and Patricia Kennedy,recovering addict, has written the latest best-seller about salvation from addiction, Moments of Clarity. (All right, I’m jealous – if I were a Kennedy and a Lawford and a long-term addict and knew Alec Baldwin and Judy Collins and Martin Sheen etc., people would be more interested in me. All I have is a Ph.D. and lifetime of studying addiction and working with addicts.) Lawford’s idea is that addicts suddenly see into their souls, then troop over to a 12-step meeting and embark on the long journey to sobriety.

Here are five things wrong with Lawford’s “vision”:

(1) Most people recover on their own. Lawford only runs into people who have recovered who attend AA meetings. Most people who have epiphanies like theirs don’t go to AA, or else they do and fail and drop out. Most people who have quit alcohol and other addictions – including show business types like Bing Crosby, Robert Redford, Steve Martin, Johnny Carson and many, many more – who don’t rely on AA don’t tell everybody about their recovery. (Then there’s my Uncle Ozzie, who quit his smoking addiction and did talk about it – when asked – until he forgot he used to smoke when he got old.)

(2) AA makes it harder for most people to discover personal truths. It is ironic in the extreme that the cases Lawford relies on to promote 12-step groups are of people who had their own epiphanies, THEN went to AA. After all, AA is in the business of inspiring sobriety. But AA tells people they have to hit bottom and turn themselves over to a higher power. Lawford’s cases don’t fit this description – either hitting bottom or seeing God. Susan Cheever was inspired while watching her daughter drink milk. Richard Dreyfuss had a vision of an unborn daughter while on a cocaine binge. Jamie Lee Curtis had her moment when her shaman told her to cut out pills.

(3) Lawford and AA can’t help you find your vision. What AA and Lawford both fail to accomplish is to show addicts how to locate their own inner sober person. This requires asking about THEIR values – for example, Cheever’s motherhood, Dreyfuss’s desire to be a parent (parenthood is the single greatest prompt to sobriety), Curtis’s devotion to her shaman – which is not the Christian God mentioned in half of the 12 steps. Discovering people’s values requires that you ask them questions, which is the opposite of the step-by-step didactic approach favored by the 12 steps and typical in American treatment: STOP doing that because it’s wrong; DO THIS because we say it’s right. As well as being ineffective, this can be illegal – as when the Ninth Circuit federal appeals court held Honolulu parole officials liable for damages for forcing a Buddhist into AA.

(4) Lawford doesn’t tell you how to prepare to launch your epiphany. People leap into sobriety best when they have secure launching pads. You are READY to have your curative vision when you have good reasons to quit (like a family), when you have better options for satisfaction open to you (like a good job and a positive life), when you care about yourself and other people (you are part of a community), when you have achieved a degree of psychological stability, when you believe you can control your destiny (which better-educated people tend to think). And, of course, it helps to have money – like the people Lawford describes – in case you want to go to Betty Ford or to seek other resources to help ease your way into sobriety.

(5) Success at recovery requires skills more than spiritual inspiration. A vision into your soul or recognition of your bedrock values or a religious epiphany can be a good start for recovery, but you still need to figure out how to lead an addiction-free life. In Lawford’s book, “The addicts’ journeys uniformly proceed through a ‘surrender’ of the will, prayer on bended knee and entry into the loving congregation of the meeting; their struggle is really a spiritual one to purge themselves of selfishness and egotism and connect with God, or ‘whatever.’ ” Among other motivators, those are important avenues to explore.  But they at best are only part of the solution. I favor teaching people communication and problem-solving skills, relapse-prevention techniques, how to modify their environments and social worlds to support sobriety, and so on.

I know, my stories aren’t as good as Lawford’s. And I’ll never become a shaman. Too down-to-earth and dully practical. I’m a psychologist!

Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.

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