“There is a lack of scientific evidence documenting how and why 12-step programs work.”
I’m Not Saying It’s Magic, But… MAGIC
This was at the end of an article I read recently. And don’t get me wrong – the author added that “75 years of history provides more” and it doesn’t “need” scientific inquiry. But I’m kinda sick of mysticism where it’s not needed. To be fair, Dr. David Sack didn’t fail with the majority of his article. And he definitely wasn’t slamming compulsion treatment programs. Sack does comprehend step efficacy for addicts. Indeed, programs like these have helped celebs and Jane Doe’s alike discover the wonderful world of being able to handle life without having to reach for the benzo bottle every time a fork falls from the dinner table or Spot craps on the floor.
So what gives?
Equality, Trust, and Reality – Oh My!
First, one of the most important concepts has nada to do with using drugs or food or anything to feel better. Addicts in a program will tell you that using is a symptom of an underlying unhappiness that needs to be sorted out. By seeing that all the other addicts scattered ‘round the room (regardless of whether they came outta Compton or Beverly Hills) are essentially suffering that same discontent – it creates a level playing field of equality.
And that similarity mindset (coupled with the anonymity principle) lays a foundation for the program and breeds a basis for trust. And that trust is vital if you’re gonna be sharing shame with strangers.
That may sound kinda Kumbaya. But it’s almost as true as it is important to understanding the scientific explanache.
The reason I’m sacking Sack’s assessment on the science front is that – while there’s some stuff you’d have trouble describing in the program – not all of it is. So there’s no reason for employing the Ancient Aliens dude answer and being lazy.
For example, there was this documentary I saw where a doctor demonstrated via brain scan imagery, what happens in addicts. The brain bit called the amygdala is what regulates stress in people. For addicts, it doesn’t function properly, putting them in a constant state of stress and perceived helplessness.
I thought this was interesting and let it marinate up until I got sent a random TED talk called, “Stress Can Be Your Friend!” The title alone looked really stupid. For some reason (boredom) I watched it anyway.
In it, the chick explained how (for any normal person) in times of stress, we release Oxytocin (no, not Oxycontin, ya fckkn fiend). This “cuddle hormone” streams through our blood like a diva, demanding that we do one of two things to relieve stress:
1. Get help… or…
I knew we didn’t have free will, goddammit! We’re all slaves to our body chemicals. Faaack!
That said, when we face that stress-induced fear head on, stress levels reduce. When we don’t, we look for shit to force-manifest fake serenity. Like drugs. Going back to that amygdala-stress problem in addicts (who don’t realize they’ve got the illness before they take a drug or drink) – because that chemical lowers the excess of stress, they don’t need to bother doing what the body asks. Then they get dependent and need more. Anyone can get dependent on chemicals – but not everyone’s an addict. The dependent can stop. For an addict, it’s inconceivable to go back to the head-hell they used to call home. The new hell of “never enough” is at least punctuated by periodic euphoria.
That it’s at the expense of body, family, friends, and finances is of minimal importance to the newly skewed brain.
So, How’s A Program Fit The Science?
The isolating nature of addiction (and the fact that the brain physically changes during dependency), makes understanding and changing habits of drug taking to “help or get help” seem preposterous.
However, gaining a network of peeps (who they start to see are more like them and trust) makes that concept become less of an abstract fantasy. The “don’t-be-a-sphincter principles” the program champions make fear less of a deterrent too.
This all parallels perfectly with any worthwhile spiritual path (that hasn’t yet been maneuvered into a buncha fire n brimstone bullshit). Even for regular healthy folk – when our grey matter goes batty, we’re meant to vent or serve.
And the latter’s less annoying than it seems. If nada else, it curbs those cognitive “holy fckk; my body’s gonna die and putrify and shit itself one day” moments. Indeed, it’s always nice to remember the other animated meat around us is more than an army of robots swathed in synthetic skin.
For the still confused, here’s a fiend flowchart I’ve made for you. It’s slightly less challenging to follow – but you gotta start counterclockwise.
“Lack of scientific evidence” my ass.