Tuesday, December 28, 1999

A New Year's Message

Before the odometer makes its memorable four-digit click into the next thousand years, let's pull over and reflect where we have come from and where we are going.


We are a collection of individual lives, each fiercely separate and unique, yet drawn together by profound shared life experiences: the trauma of chemical dependency and the drama of our recovery. There is no one exactly like each of us. Yet without the prior work of others very much like ourselves, none of us would be together here. When I got sober, there was already a meeting for me to go to, and my case manager at my treatment facility already knew about it and referred me to it. That would not have happened but for years of hard work by people like Karl S. and Mike B. and Janis G. and numerous other local people who started SOS in this area while I was still an active drunk, not to mention people like Tom S., Paula B., Dudley A., and many others who did the same in other cities. And they, in turn, were only picking up a thread started nationwide by Jim C. and the other members of the founding generation. And these, in turn, were part of a Zeitgeist that saw the founding not only of SOS but also of Rational Recovery, and before that, Women for Sobriety, and other alternatives to the Old Order in recovery. We are individuals, but the thread of our lives is part of a larger fabric. The little speck of color that is our autobiography takes its enduring significance from its connection with the broader weave of the times we live in.

Where we go with the thread of our lives in the years ahead is, of course, up to us. Once we are sober, we have choices. We have choices not only about our personal road, but about the way we are going to relate to one another; not only about the face we present to the world as individuals, but also about the kind of group portrait we appear in.

The number one priority for us as individuals is, necessarily, to stay sober. Personal sobriety is the foundation of everything else. Whatever we may wish for ourselves in the new millennium -- health, friends, romance, family, revolution, career, money, freedom, education, success, peace of mind, travel, excitement, whatever -- it all requires sobriety as its necessary precondition. If we have our sobriety, we can make progress toward our goals. If we lose our sobriety, all our dreams go down the drain with it. That's why I hope everyone will join me in resolving above all to make this next stretch of time a sober one. Let's all be in a position to say, and keep saying, that "I've been sober this entire millennium."

Personal sobriety is also the foundation of progress for us as an organization. Here in my home town, we have achieved a modest measure of success as a group because our members have a track record of successful long-term sobriety. Our core group consists largely of people who have never attended a 12-Step meeting and have done their entire sobriety the secular way. The long-term stable sobriety of our core membership has, over time, gradually eroded the skepticism and resistance of portions of the local treatment community, and this in turn has opened new doors to us and brought us new opportunities and a steady stream of new participants. Because of sobriety, we have built the first local meeting schedule in the history of our organization where a recovering person can do "seven in seven" -- a secular recovery meeting every day of the week. Because of sobriety, we have a continuing stream of new convenors with the requisite sober time and enthusiasm to start new meetings. If we continue making sobriety our priority, and take care of our organizational homework, I don't doubt but that our local chapter can double in size in a few years and become a part of the recovery mainstream in this area, as well we deserve to be.


Anyone who surveys our organization from a nationwide perspective will come to the conclusion that we still have a long way to go before we live up to our potential. The concept of secular recovery is an immensely powerful one. It is in harmony with the advance of science in practically all other areas of human knowledge. Much of the chemical dependency field is an isolated backwater in the social sciences, a place where faith-healing rules, where the scientific method is viewed with disdain, and where the theoretical foundations cannot bear scrutiny -- a Kansas of therapeutics. Eventually this citadel of medievalism must crumble. However, our organizational development still lags woefully behind the manifest sweep and power of the secular perspective. In many major metropolitan areas, where populations are traditionally receptive to secular approaches, we have no meetings at all. We have no meetings in New York City, Boston, Washington, Baltimore, St. Louis, Kansas City, Denver, Seattle, Birmingham, and many other big urban areas. In Chicago, we have only one; in the whole Los Angeles metropolitan area, after fourteen years, we have only five. Clearly, we have work to do. As an organization, there is no more important strategic priority for us than to build more meetings.

My experience in advocating for SOS and now LifeRing in the San Francisco metropolitan urban area for the past few years, and in print and on the Internet, convinces me that progress in building meetings hinges on our ability to present our approach in a positive way. When we tell our audiences how our program works, they respond with interest and approval. When we tell them how the other programs don't work, attention fades. Of course, in explaining how the LifeRing Recovery approach works, we inevitably have to draw clear boundary lines between ourselves and other perspectives. But with practice it becomes possible to do this also in a positive manner. The better we understand what we do and how it works, and the more confidence we ourselves feel in our own method, the more effective we are before the public.


One of the things that we have to explain again and again is that the basic difference between ourselves and the traditional approach is not about God, but about people. Do drunks have it within them to recover? Is there a base to build on within the addict? The traditional approach tells us, no, there is not. We are a defective, hopeless and helpless lot -- there is not one spark of recovery power within us. We are one hundred per cent zero. Therefore, recovery can come only through outside action, only through a power beyond ourselves, only through divine intervention. The psychology of absolute powerlessness requires theology; or, perhaps, it is theology.

We see people more accurately. When we look within the typical alcoholic and addict, we see a person in conflict. Part of them is committed to the addiction and is dedicated ultimately to death by drinking and/or drugs. But another part of them is in rebellion against that and wants to live. There is the sickness in us, but there is also the health; there is the dying, but also the survivor; there is the will to drink, but also the will not to. If the survivor were not there, we would have drunk ourselves to death long ago, and no desire to get clean and sober would be manifest in us. I have talked to hundreds of alcoholics and addicts in various states of wetness or recovery, and one of the great common experiences we have all shared is this recurrent inner war about drinking or using, and quitting.

If there is within each living alcoholic and addict a place that wants to get sober, then the road to recovery, in the most general terms, lies in finding and enlarging that place. If there is a voice inside that wants to get healthy, then the task is to hear and to answer that voice, and to help it speak louder. If there is a life force inside, opposed to the deathbound addictive force, then the strategy is to link up with that force, give it ammunition, and make it powerful.

My younger son is fascinated with professional wrestling, and sometimes I think about the inner struggle of the addict in this vernacular. When I drank, my 300-lb Boozer was the king of the ring of my body and mind, and my inner Sober Guy was a 90-lb runt. But when I got into a self-help support meeting, all us runts started doing pushups and learning moves and ganging up on the boozers, and eventually my Sober Guy got smarter and bigger and stronger and kicked Boozer’s butt.

Some people are more comfortable with a medical metaphor. People who suffer from invasive diseases, such as AIDS, know that there is a war raging in their bloodstream between the virus and the T cells that kill the virus. They measure progress, and life itself, in their daily T cell count. Recovery means to bring up the T cell count. If the T cells are able to maintain a stable high level for a long period of time, the disease goes into remission. The person can lead an almost normal life.

Others prefer the simple mechanical metaphor of the balance beam scale. In the active drinker, there are many weights on the side of drinking and few on the side of sobriety. Recovery means to add weights to the dry side and remove them from the wet side. At first, nothing seems to be happening. Eventually, one more small shift causes the whole balance to tilt in the other direction.

All of these images locate the source of recovery within the person. To see people this way is to say that no one alive is one hundred percent zero. No person, no matter how low they have sunk into the addiction, is entirely powerless. The power to get clean and sober may be small, it may be uninformed, uninspired, unskilled and unconscious, but it is there. Using this vision, people can find a place to start within themselves. People can begin to see themselves as inherently worthy and redeemable. People can find hope.

When we locate the potential to recover within the individual, we offer a simple path to recovery that is comprehensible to anyone, no matter what their degree of education or how recent their sobriety. Empower the sober self within you, disempower the inner addict. Avoid doing those things that lead you to go back to drinking or drugging. Do more of the things that reinforce your sobriety and lead you to a healthier life. Don't drink or use, no matter what; all else will follow.

We offer an approach that, from day one, aims to build the person's sober self-respect and make them fit to live a sober life in the world as it is. We are honest with recovering people and tell them from day one the sobering truth that they, and they alone, have the responsibility and the power to keep themselves sober.

We know from experience that addiction strikes people of all cultures, classes, religions, personalities and other categories. No ready-made therapeutic formula can ever fit everyone. Nor is there benefit for most people in merely following a cookbook recipe. Recovery comes from the process of struggling with the particular elements of one's own life, and of rebuilding oneself, piece by piece, as a sober person. The "magic" is not in the program, but in the fact that the person puts effort into working it. We encourage people to construct their own recovery programs, not because there are no good off-the-shelf programs, but because we know that really deep learning comes only from working it out yourself.

We have observed that recovery arises from the survival drive within a person. We therefore stress methods that give encouragement and support to the person's positive sober qualities and efforts. We avoid methods that increase a person's sense of powerlessness, shame, guilt, fear, or other paralyzing emotions. We believe that development of a strong and resilient sober ego is essential to maintaining long-term sobriety and to developing a healthy personality.

Not only a strong sober ego, but a strong sober pleasure system and a healthy body are helpful to a successful recovery. We encourage people to take part in pleasurable activity, to pursue hobbies, recreation, friendships, music, dancing, sports -- anything that rebuilds the system's ability to have fun without chemical crutches. We encourage attention to good nutrition, with special attention to chemical deficiencies typical of addiction-ravaged bodies. We encourage people to examine their smoking and we give them support to quit when they are ready. We see exercise and health generally as supportive of long-term sobriety.

Although many people recover on their own, we believe that group support can be a beneficial engine that makes the self-help process quicker, more effective, and more fun. We believe that group support -- one human leveling with another -- is the active healing ingredient in all organized recovery programs no matter what their ideology. The group process is central to what we do. We don’t try to overlay the healing power of human interaction with supernatural or metaphysical explanations. We get a cleaner burning flame that way.

We focus on people as they really are -- complex, conflicted individuals torn by contradictory passions, with the power not only to deploy and destroy, but also to huddle and heal. When we look at people in this light, then the “God” or “not-God” issues fade into the background. Our psychology can explain recovery in its own terms; it requires no theology to make it work. When we are able to articulate positively how our process operates, the public will gradually be weaned off the mistaken belief, so limiting to our development, that we are only a group for atheists or agnostics or people with secular humanist convictions. Once we can articulate how the recovery process works, people will see that the distinction between theological belief and unbelief is unimportant. You can participate and benefit no matter what your religious or spiritual philosophy. Those issues don’t matter here. Progress in building meetings over the next stretch of time will depend in great measure on the extent to which we are able to communicate this basic message.


Although the most important part of our audience is always the person seeking recovery or in recovery, we urgently need to pay more attention to the professional treatment community. I am well aware that this profession in its majority is something like an alter ego of the 12-Step movement, and often not the more enlightened part of it, at that. One could probably fill a book with horror stories of "Step-Nazi" atrocities committed in the name of treatment; in fact, I understand that a publisher is working on just such a volume.

However, we would be making a big mistake if we failed to approach the profession at all, expecting automatic rejection. One of the most salient trends in the profession in the past two decades has been an influx of academically trained clinicians with a knowledge of the scientific method and coursework in modern psychology. The stereotypical counselor whose qualifications consist of working the Steps plus perhaps a weekend crash course for a pseudo-certificate still exists, but is by no means the only player. In the better treatment programs, the supervisory staff have M.D. and/or Ph.D. degrees and all the full-time staff have licenses that require the equivalent of a master's degree in graduate school plus more than a thousand hours of supervised clinical experience. Some of those people are still quite closed-minded or fearful, but many are the opposite. They are quite willing to hear us and, in many cases, are willing or even eager to open their doors and refer their patients to us. In many cases, the absence of a secular meeting from a treatment facility is no one's fault but ours. In many cases, the doors have not opened because we have not knocked on them.

Our experience in the S.F. Bay Area underlines the tremendous value of good relationships with professional treatment providers. The good relationship we enjoy with many providers is the simple secret of our ability to sustain "seven in seven" here. When we are able to obtain the approval of a treatment provider to hold a meeting on its premises, we gain three important benefits.

  • Number one, we gain physical proximity to our primary constituency, the recovering person. At Kaiser Oakland and some other facilities, the LifeRing meetings are right across the hallway from the treatment meeting, and not by coincidence, the LifeRing meeting starts five minutes after the treatment session ends. The people don't have to travel far to find us. Many of our members came to us first because we were conveniently located, and stayed on because we gave them tremendous support for their sobriety. This translates into good word of mouth among program participants, and that translates into more attendees, and so on in a positive loop.
  • Number two, we gain a constant source of referrals. One of the principal sources of the numerical strength of the 12-Step organizations is the fact that virtually every treatment program refers its patients to them. When our meetings convene in the facility, we tend to get included more often in the referral loop. In the best facilities, the incoming patient is issued an orientation kit that includes meeting schedules of different support groups, including ours. Some of the counselors still won't refer to us, but more and more of them do. The fact that we meet right there where staff can glance in as they walk by, and that they can see how our members are doing in the program, erodes the barriers. In the past two or three years I have seen a sea change in the reception we receive at one such facility. We used to be barely tolerated; now we are accepted. We used to be on the margins; now we are part of the mainstream. As people graduate from their treatment cycle and look for longer-term support, they seek out and find the other LifeRing recovery meetings in the area, so that the benefits of the referral relationship gradually spread through the whole organization.
  • Number three, approval by a treatment facility translates into economic benefits. There is no rent to pay, and the collection basket can be invested directly in more literature and promotion such as our Yellow Pages ad, our phone message machine, and the like. This is not the most important thing, but it is certainly a factor to keep in mind. The treatment facilities are also big consumers of our handout literature; in some places, keeping the literature racks replenished with our brochures is a weekly job.

One of our tasks in the coming period will be to popularize this local experience and to encourage its replication. Just as the adoption of SOS by the Texas prison system in the summer of 1996 was a breakthrough for secular recovery in the penal setting -- a breakthrough one hopes will be replicated -- the growing acceptance that LifeRing is enjoying in parts of the SF Bay Area treatment community is a landmark achievement.

One of the practical ways by which we intend to replicate this experience is through the publication of what we currently call the "Professionals' Packet." This is a collection of articles and book excerpts about our approach, with a cover letter. I made up this packet in the form of a presentation folder for a talk to a treatment provider in '98 and it worked so well -- we got the meeting -- that I've made up several dozen of them meanwhile for various similar occasions. This ought to be bound into a booklet and popularized via LifeRing Press.

A much more ambitious effort to pave the way for greater acceptance of our approach in the profession is the proposed National Secular Treatment Survey (NSTS). The basic idea here is to quiz substance abuse treatment providers nationwide about their openness to secular recovery modalities. The survey aims not only to get the information, for use by people looking for secular treatment options, but also to make providers more aware of the issue and thereby promote the concept, so what when we come knocking on the door, there will be greater readiness and acceptance. We have made a very small start toward a secular treatment referral list on unhooked.com, but still have a long way to go before it approaches comprehensiveness.

Greater rapport with the treatment community also means working harder to enhance our own toolbox. We have a modest start toward equipping a real sobriety workshop, but a great deal more needs to be done. We should visualize ourselves as gradually evolving into a Big Tent for all kinds of abstinence-based secular treatment methods. The Miller-Hester Handbook of Alcoholism Treatment Approaches gives a catalogue of many of the possibilities; see the review on unhooked.com. Our approach to recovery is consistent with the most modern scientific investigations into the nature of alcoholism, other addictions, and the healing process. Treatment programs with the best outcome statistics are those that embody flexibility and diversity, and that encourage self-efficacy and choice. Those are our principles. We are in tune with the emerging, modern, professional trend in the treatment industry, which looks at the problem with secular eyes and sees merit in scientific methods. Participation in our self-help support groups is compatible with the broadest range of abstinence-based therapeutic regimes.

One of the most welcome developments in this direction is a greater participation in our process by professionals in the treatment community. The participation of Doug Althauser, program director of the Kaiser CDRP in Hawaii, at our convention this past September was, hopefully, a sign of things to come. The pressures and concerns treatment professionals face are not identical to those that drive us as a recovery support organization, but we have a tremendous amount to gain from understanding the treatment world better and from doing what we can, within our principles, to respond to the profession's concerns. In the coming months you may see some experiments, in writing and/or in the form of a pilot meeting, aimed at packaging our own free-form "do-it-yourself" approach in the manner of a treatment program, inspired in part by Althauser's book (reviewed on unhooked.com). Who knows, one of these years we may even launch the California Method to compete with the Minnesota Method. I heartily invite all treatment professionals who are interested in our approach to come closer and become part of our development.

One day every community will have not only one brand of recovery meeting, but several. Alcoholics and addicts who have a sincere desire to get sober will have a choice of services, just like other consumers. Each approach will stand on its merits, rather than on its monopolistic position. The promise that we are good people who need help, rather than bad people who must be punished, will be honored. We believe that where there are more roads, there will be more travelers and where there is more choice, there will be more successes.


Five years ago, a modest and seemingly insignificant initiative set forces in motion that are profoundly changing our organization. I refer to Tom Shelley's commencement of the SOS email list. Up to that time there was no regular communication channel between members in different cities, unless one counted the quarterly newsletter, to which few subscribed. We were in the dark. In that climate, some people believed grandiose claims that we had 1000 meetings and 20,000 members, while others responded with cynical rumors that we had no meetings and no members at all. No one had good information because no one had good communications. Tom's list began to change all that. Gradually, bit by bit, over many months, we began to peel away the candy and the dirt and uncover the reality. We found that we have far fewer meetings than some claimed, but a great many more than others feared. The most important thing is that now we have a grip on reality, and we are rebuilding credibility.

And so it has gone in just about every other area of our organizational life. Where once darkness reigned and where hyperbole and its flip side, cynicism, flourished, we now have a better-illuminated, more realistic and more practically useful understanding of where and what we are. Along with the new unofficial flow of information came new surges of energy and power. The founding of www.unhooked.com, the UU in the Pines event, the Sobriety Handbook, and ultimately the September '99 convention were fruits of the new, instant, direct, person-to-person cyber-communications channels that Tom had opened years earlier. All of this was unofficial and from below. Thanks to the Internet, we are a much better-informed, more cohesive, more spirited and energetic bunch than we were in 1994, not to mention a larger and more active one. There is no question but that our internal culture is becoming more than ever one of participatory democracy, independence, and service-oriented activism. The Keepers volume well captures this spirit; can I put in a plug for it here?

The most precious asset we have as an organization, besides our reputation for sobriety, is our unity. We have a huge potential to change our corner of the world. We have an excellent philosophical foundation: sobriety, secularity, self-help. Secular recovery is an immensely powerful concept. I feel that we may be on the brink of tremendous breakthroughs in public acceptance. However, before we get there we are going to have to make some constructive adjustments in the way we are organized.

Our most pressing problem by far is name unification. The adverse court decision regarding rights to the SOS name has left us in a confusing situation, name-wise. Having alternative or dual names (SOS, LSR) is unsettling. Many of our own members don't even understand it. How could we expect the public to? We need name unification so that the public sees us as one organization that has its act together, and not as two organizations, or one organization in schism. Names matter, and if we want one organization, we need to unite around one name.

It is a great comfort to know that, as a consequence of the ’99 convention, there is a Study Committee dedicated to investigating this and the several related issues. We have much work to do in the area of internal democracy and organizational autonomy before we can realize the potential of our concept. In the coming year, I pledge to do my utmost to promote a peaceful, harmonious resolution of our organizational problems, to avoid stirring up gratuitous antagonism, and to put principles ahead of personalities. I see many reasons for confidence that we will put this difficult chapter behind us and have our hands free for the many constructive tasks that await us.


One of our major challenges in the coming period will be to explain ourselves and our approach not only to people looking for recovery, and to the treatment community, but also to the general public.

Alcoholism and addiction are public health problems of major proportions, and everything that is done in this area is ultimately of public interest. I see us as one effort among many to respond to the public's growing impatience with the long-term lack of progress on the alcoholism and addiction front in our country. We do believe that we have a better mousetrap, and we want the public to know about it. Moreover, we are in harmony with the strong and clear views of the courts of appeal, which say that where the government is involved, the constitution mandates that a secular recovery option be offered. We resonate with that part of the American ethic that values choice, cooperation, hard work, and self-reliance -- "God helps those who help themselves."

I also believe that we owe a duty of honesty not only to ourselves and each other, but to the public. Wherever the public is willing to accept us as recovering alcoholics, without prejudice -- as the law requires -- we should have the personal choice of disclosing our own status and our personal affiliation with our recovery group. For persons in positions of public trust, where the politics of alcohol or alcoholism are involved, I believe such disclosure should be the rule rather than the exception. In the long run, I believe that the status of the recovering alcoholic will gain in public respect from a policy of less anonymity and more honesty. I also am among those who believe that it is good for our recoveries to be as open as our life situation realistically allows.


We are part of a tradition that goes back to the first self-help recovery groups organized by the indigenous people of North America in the 1700s. The Washingtonians of the 1840s -- a mass movement for abstinence, secular in inspiration -- are among our forebears. We have learned and borrowed a great deal from the traditionalist organizations that have dominated the past half-century. We are in some ways nothing more than a reincarnation of the core vision that animated all of these movements: drunks helping drunks get sober. In that sense we are as old as the hills and our method is as primitive as a campfire. At the same time we are a product of the era that produced MRI and HTML; we are as modern as brain scans and the Internet. Nothing exactly like us has ever been seen before.

What will happen to us as individuals and as an organized movement in these coming years, no one can tell. One thing I know: it matters deeply what we do today. Our actions have consequences. Many of us are sober, productive and perhaps even alive today only because a Karl or a Janis or a Jim or a Tom or a Dudley or others sat in a meeting room, sometimes all alone, years ago, so that it would be there when we were ready for it. When we get together in events like our recent convention and feel the synergy, we know it was all worth it and it was all important to do. And so, as the odometer clicks over, I look around me and am glad. Glad to have these many fiercely independent sober companions. Glad to be on this road. Glad to be in this adventure.