This past weekend I enjoyed the company of more than a dozen men during a casual retreat near the shore of Lake Tahoe, which straddles an alpine stretch of the border between California and Nevada. We know one another through involvement in a 12-step program.
I’m a relative newcomer, having first participated in this gathering only four years ago. This group has met annually in early summer for each of the past thirteen years. I feel honored and fortunate to be tagging along. Most of all, I feel greatly uplifted and supported by the wise example of so many who have succeeded in overcoming their problems.
This blog has touched on addiction issues in the past, but most of the time I discuss my experience with fluctuating and (especially) plummeting moods. Still, substance and behavioral compulsions qualify as mental conditions just as much as depression or so-called bipolar disorder. On the other hand, addiction recovery programs (and especially Alcoholics Anonymous) have logged much longer and more successful track records than any system for treating other types of mental distress and behavioral turmoil.
The gratifying success of addiction treatment programs has encouraged emulation in the larger arena of mental wellness. The psychiatric recovery movement continues to grow and evolve. Although many sectors of it remain too beholden to the biomedical hypothesis of mental ‘illness’ and too convinced that medications should form the mainstay of treatment, it can boast forward thinking ideas and early success.
Mental healing, whether from addiction, depression, chaotic perception, or any other distress can be greatly facilitated by peer guidance. The conventional psychiatric approach has had ample opportunity to demonstrate its value, and has largely failed. A designated expert who lacks direct personal experience, no matter how educated or well-meaning she or he may be, cannot offer as much inspiration and practical support as someone who has personally transcended psychiatric difficulty.
Of course, many mental health clinicians do suffer from the same sorts of distress as those of us who turn to them for help. However, if therapists obscure their personal stories behind facades of detached professionalism, they cannot inspire by example. Learning from fellow sufferers who have transcended their obstacles heals infinitely more than any amount of advice offered by those who don’t know or admit to similar psychic turmoil.
The mental health system as currently constructed fails because it undervalues those of us who’ve succeeded in getting better. Therapists, psychiatrists, and medications underpin the healing model, not peers. Although most programs run groups, clients who get well graduate from the sessions and don’t return, unless some future crisis brings them back. The wisdom of those who’ve succeeded is thereby lost to those just starting, so groups end up comprised of people with limited insight and few tools for effective survival. This elevates the professionals leading the groups to almost priestly status, because no one else present can speak with much authority.
This model needs revision, and 12-step programs could be mined for techniques. Although I’ve benefited greatly from AA, I find its language archaic and overly punitive. It certainly has served alcoholics and addicts quite well, and its principles of surrender and self-improvement remain essential for all who seek contentment, but we can’t simply create a ‘Mental Distress Anonymous’ program and expect much success. For example, most of us who’ve suffered inner chaos and have been stamped with psychiatric diagnoses feel too beaten down already to get much benefit from the admonishment to confess “the exact nature of our wrongs.” Sure, much can be gained from honest introspection and communication, but harsh language risks worsening low self-esteem.
Several times in the past year I’ve presented these ideas to mental health audiences. Such talks are usually well-received, although a few people have felt moved to defend traditional 12-step phrasing. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet translated my convictions into anything useful for recovery. I haven’t founded a group or inspired anyone else to do so. But I’d love to see a non-professional, organic movement among peers that would help those in psychic distress the way AA saves those with alcoholism.
Now that I feel recharged after a weekend discussing substance abuse and recovery, and after benefitting from the radiant example of men who’ve succeeded in rebuilding their lives, I once again feel motivated to translate AA’s valuable kernels into a program usable by those with other sorts psychiatric issues. All of us who understand both the pain of mental conditions and how it can be transcended have a responsibility to offer our experience, strength, and hope to others.