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Oct 20 2008

12 Step for Atheists: An Interview with “Get Up” Author Bucky Sinister

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If you’re an atheist, and you have a problem with alcohol or other drugs, how do you get help?

The most widespread, most easily- accessible help available to alcoholics and other addicts is 12 Step programs, originally and most famously Alcoholics Anonymous. But while 12 Step groups are open to people of any religious persuasion — including atheists, agnostics, and other non-believers — the language of the program is heavily based in religion, and people who don’t believe in God may feel that they’re not welcome, or that the program doesn’t apply to them.

Getup
If that’s your excuse for not getting help — tough beans. Atheist author and poet Bucky Sinister has written a 12 Step guidebook with a clear message: You’re welcome into 12 Step, and the program applies to you. Get Up: A 12 Step Recovery Guide for Misfits, Freaks & Weirdos is a smart, funny, enlightening, eminently readable guide to 12 Step programs for anyone who feels like they don’t belong in 12 Step programs — including, although by no means limited to, non-believers.

Bucky is an atheist with a background in both fundamentalism and cult religion, and his atheism pervades his book in ways both overt and subtle. The philosophy in the book is surprisingly useful even if you’re not an alcoholic or addict, with an approach that’s both empathetic and hard-assed, and with helpful and entertaining analogies ranging from Joseph Campbell to the A-Team. We spoke recently about the book — a conversation that included higher powers, skeptical problems with 12 step, the war on drugs, Britney Spears, what makes good writing good, and more.

(Quick conflict of interest alert: Bucky is a friend and former co-worker of mine, and the company I work for, and where he used to work, sells the book.)

Greta: First, for people who aren’t familiar with your book, tell us a little bit about it — and what inspired you to write it.

Bucky: “Get Up” is the book I wish I’d had during my first year of sobriety. I revisited what all my fears, insecurities, and misconceptions of 12 Step Recovery were all about. The same problems I had a lot of other people have, and will have, therefore, it’s a good subject for a self help book.

Scarlet leter
Your atheism is very much present throughout this book. It’s not just in the section on The God Problem — it comes up again and again, and it seems like it’s one of the book’s central foundations and inspirations. Can you talk about that a bit? Did your atheism present any special challenges when you were first getting sober — and how does it work for you now?

12 Step is not a religious program, although the word “god” is used all over the place. The problem is that it was designed by Christian-minded people, and they didn’t have the vocabulary to describe it properly for the atheist. It’s like when someone says, “now don’t take this the wrong way,” then say something horribly offensive. The 12 Step pioneers really were trying to make things open to everyone.

In that vein, I’m curious: Why wasn’t “atheism” or “atheist” in the title? Again, the atheism is so pervasive throughout your book, so much a part of what informs it, and I’d think you’d want it to be the first thing that comes up when people Google “12-Step + atheist.” Why wasn’t it called, say, “Get Up: A 12-Step Guide to Recovery for Misfits, Freaks, Atheists, & Weirdos”?

The titling process was long and weird and I can’t remember the process. Sorry. We went over a bunch of them. I like your last title.

The main idea for the book, is that it should appeal to anyone who feels a bit like an outsider, or that the current programs don’t speak to them.

One of the things that struck me most strongly about “Get Up” is what a good read it is — funny, engaging, a real page- turner even if you’re not an alcoholic or an addict. Was that intentional? Were you hoping to illuminate this experience for non-addicts, or were you aiming solely to create a guide for alcoholics and addicts?

Oh, good. I wanted it to be a good read.

Without getting specific, most of my program’s official literature is poorly written. It’s an ordeal to get through. The reason for this is that people who are not writers wrote the books. It’s like reading someone’s first novel. It’s not that bad, but it’s not good either.

Chuck-klosterman-iv
I’ve read a lot of nonfiction about subjects I know nothing about. If it’s written well enough, it doesn’t matter. I recently read Chuck Klosterman’s IV. It’s all music writing, and it transcends the subject matter. His Britney Spears article is amazing, and I’ve never listened to one of her songs unless it was playing at the gym. I also read about sports I’ve never watched; I’ve read more pieces about boxing than I have seen boxing matches.

So yes, it’s intentional. The mark I wanted to reach is for the writing itself to be good, entertaining, enjoyable to read. That’s what keeps a self-help book from sounding preachy. It’s like what Bill Cosby used to say at the beginning of the Fat Albert cartoon: “This is Bill Cosby coming at you with music and fun, and if you’re not careful, you might learn something before it’s done.”

And I was surprised at how useful a lot of the advice was… even if you’re not an alcoholic or an addict. I’m not an addict or in recovery, but a lot of the advice for struggling writers and artists was dead-on, stuff I struggle with all the time. (The stuff about being consumed with envy of more successful writers really hit me: I do that, and it’s such a waste of time and energy.) Again, was that intentional? Or were you just aiming at an audience of people dealing with addiction?

All of the stuff in 12 Step programs is good advice. There’s a lot of things that seem obvious to well adjusted people. They learned it as children, or during the teenage or college years. I didn’t. I had abnormal parents and as soon as I should have been developing my teenage sense of socialization, I was getting loaded. Most addicts and alcoholics are missing some important part of development. 12 Step programs are diagnostic in the sense that in the course of following steps, you will find out what your Big Problem is. I think the step work would be good for anyone to do, but it’s hard, scary, and against your personal instinct. The only people who are motivated to go to such lengths are those of us who have hit bottom, and even then, most people don’t get through them.

Now for the hardball. There are a couple of questions that I know the atheists/ skeptics/ science- lovers reading this blog are going to want to see asked.

Addictiondependence1
The first: One of the criticisms of 12-Step is that so many of its proponents are so resistant to having it rigorously tested, to see how effective it really is. If alcoholism/ drug addiction really is an illness, the argument goes, then any treatment of it should be subjected to the same kind of careful scientific testing that any other medical treatment of any illness gets. Otherwise, you just have a lot of anecdotal
evidence, and confirmation bias, and counting the hits while ignoring the misses. But many 12-Step proponents are strongly resistant to this, and carefully- gathered statistics about what percentage of people who go into 12-Step stay clean and sober are lacking. What are your thoughts about that?

First off, I think addiction and alcoholism are symptoms of a greater problem. I don’t have any hard facts for this, it’s just my opinion. So I disagree with the idea that it’s a disease as such. But I can’t discount the disease angle either, so I usually don’t mention it.

I do think that there should be research into drugs that would reduce physical cravings for all the substances. There should be a new Methadone, an anti-crack, an anti-amphetamine. In just about every major city it will take you about two weeks to get in a Methadone program, but about half an hour to score heroin.

US_incarceration_timeline-clean
The war on drugs wasn’t on drugs, but on drug addicts and the poor. It only hurt those that used and the low-end dealers. That’s another rant. Do you know how hard it is to get into rehab and sober living environments? If half the war on drugs money had been spent on these two environments, San Francisco would have a tiny fraction of its homeless problem, and petty crimes would disappear. No one is smashing car windows for food money. Ugh. I’m ranting now. Back to the subject.

Okay. So one more in a similar vein: Another criticism of 12-Step that I’ve seen a lot in the skeptical community is how resistant so many 12-Step proponents are to the idea that any other treatment might be effective. What are your thoughts about that? Do you think 12-Step is the one best technique for recovery, or do you think different recovery techniques might work for different people?

Getting sober is one thing. Living sober is another. Living sober is much harder. You have to change your whole way of looking at life. 12 Step is free and accessible. That’s why I stuck with it despite my initial hesitations. I could afford nothing else. It’s a community-based healing system. I like that.

Clinical rehabilitation is the best way to get sober, under medical supervision. But once you leave, you need to live a different life. Your friends and loved ones likely don’t know what you’re going through or how to help you. I am much less of a burden on my friends with a community I’ve found to help me.

Praise
You have an interesting take on the whole “higher power” concept in “Get Up,” and I’d like to hear a little more about it. You make an interesting point in the book: that in 12-Step, the “higher power” theoretically isn’t limited to one religion and can be anything… and yet, as you put it, “The problem with all this is that all of the qualities ascribed to the 12-Step God only describe one God ever in the history of theology: the Protestant Christian God.” Can you talk about that for a bit? How much tinkering did you have to do with the steps to make it genuinely applicable to full-blown atheism?

I don’t believe in a deity. That’s the basis of my atheism. Very simple.

Like I said before, it [12-Step] was designed by Christian people, at least culturally they were. They exclude everyone but themselves if you take everything literally. Even Catholics are supposed forego the priest and other spiritual intermediaries, if you look at it from their viewpoint. They say god can be anything you want, but the qualities of god are such that you can communicate with it directly. That precludes (excludes?) a lot of religions.

If I were to believe in a god, I would not be so pretentious as to assume that I had direct contact with it or that it was even aware of my existence, much less was reading my thoughts on a continual basis.

There’s a few things that I have to translate, namely prayer.

Prayer. This to me is self affirmation. I’m talking to myself. Each time I “pray,” I’m reminding myself that I have resolved to lead a new life, even if it’s suddenly more difficult than it seems. For example, when I feel like I’m about to lose my temper, I say the serenity prayer to myself. It reminds me that I have to change the way I live to have a new life. Blowing up emotionally is directly related to my old life of being unhappy and miserable. I have to learn how to control my temper if I’m going to be the person that I want to be… who is my “god” in the prayer. Like I’m asking myself from the future to help me.

So on that topic: You talk in the book about how you personally interpret the “higher power” concept in 12-Step — for you, your “higher power” is your better self, your ideal self, the person you would most like to be. Can you talk about some other conceptions and interpretations of the “higher power,” ones that have worked for other atheists and non-believers?

Irony
Irony and metaphor have some kind of rule in my life. Irony, such as going to church basements for help with my addictions that rose from trauma suffered in church buildings, pops up throughout my day to day life. Metaphorically, I see things like a pigeon pecking at a cigarette butt, and think, that’s me, and suddenly I have an insight to how my day should work, or I get out of an emotional funk or whatever.

So I consider irony and metaphor higher powers as well. They exist outside of me, but not without my perception of them. Does that make sense or do I sound like a tinfoil hat wearing man now?

You don’t. I wouldn’t have thought of irony and metaphor as higher powers, but I can see how that might work.

And finally, a quick practical question: How do atheists find an atheist- friendly 12-Step group? And if they can’t — if they’re in a part of the country, say, where that’s really not an option — how would you suggest they deal with the religion question if they want to go into the program?

Be patient with the religious people. I think in a few hundred years, religion won’t be any more serious than what your favorite TV show is now. But we’re still in a phase of existence in which most people still aren’t ready to let go.

For those with some 12 Step experience, I’d strongly suggest starting a meeting. There are men’s meetings, women’s meetings, GLBT meetings, young people’s meetings… why? Because there are specific needs that can be met this way.

Not that you should exclude the religious from these meetings. You should just exclude the talk. And hold it somewhere that’s not in a church basement, please.

Bucky_Sinister_photo
Bucky Sinister is a spoken word artist who performs about 40 times a years at comedy clubs and theaters, primarily on the West Coast, but also around the country. He has published nine chapbooks and three full-length collections of poetry, the most recent being “All Blacked Out & Nowhere to Go.” His first full-length CD, “What Happens in Narnia, Stays in Narnia” was released in 2007. “Get Up: A 12 Step Recovery Guide for Misfits, Freaks & Weirdos” is available at Powell’s, Amazon, Last Gasp, and other fine booksellers everywhere. He can be contacted through his website, buckysinister.com. He also has a MySpace page with some good, funny audio clips of his stand-up comedy/ spoken word. “Get Up” is published by Conari Press, an imprint of Red Wheel/Weiser.

7 comments

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  1. 1
    the chaplain

    Great interview about an important topic. Thank you.

  2. 2
    efrique

    He completely convinced me to be extremely suspicious of even an atheist-oriented 12-step program, by not actually answering the “evidence”-related questions:
    The first: One of the criticisms of 12-Step is that so many of its proponents are so resistant to having it rigorously tested, to see how effective it really is. If alcoholism/ drug addiction really is an illness, the argument goes, then any treatment of it should be subjected to the same kind of careful scientific testing that any other medical treatment of any illness gets. Otherwise, you just have a lot of anecdotal evidence, and confirmation bias, and counting the hits while ignoring the misses. But many 12-Step proponents are strongly resistant to this, and carefully- gathered statistics about what percentage of people who go into 12-Step stay clean and sober are lacking. What are your thoughts about that?
    Okay. So one more in a similar vein: Another criticism of 12-Step that I’ve seen a lot in the skeptical community is how resistant so many 12-Step proponents are to the idea that any other treatment might be effective. What are your thoughts about that? Do you think 12-Step is the one best technique for recovery, or do you think different recovery techniques might work for different people?
    I mean, he completely talked around those. That really worries me, because either he chose not to answer them or he was unable to see that he didn’t answer them.

  3. 3
    Seth Manapio

    Actually, the evidence is extremely clear and convincing: 12 step programs do not work for the vast majority of people.
    That’s the truth if you do any research, and look at evidence. 12 step programs suck at helping people get off drugs.
    Let me put it this way: its less effective than exercise. And exercise is also free, and you meet better looking people.

  4. 4
    Greta Christina

    He completely convinced me to be extremely suspicious of even an atheist-oriented 12-step program, by not actually answering the “evidence”-related questions.

    I don’t think that’s fair, efrique. He said he supported research into drugs that would reduce physical cravings for drugs. He said he supports clinical rehabilitation in addition to 12-step. In other words, he said that he thinks 12-step isn’t the only answer, and that there should be research into other alternatives.
    I think Bucky’s approach to 12-step is very down to earth and skeptic- friendly. He doesn’t view it as a magic bullet that will fix everything. He views it as generally good advice for everybody, but that alcoholics and addicts need a support structure to follow.

  5. 5
    Donna Gore

    Hi Greta, there are secular alternatives to the 12 step programs now. SOS (Secular Organizations for Sobriety) is one of them. They are affiliated with the Center for Inquiry West.
    You might also be interested to know about the legal challenges to court mandated AA as being unconstitutional. There is a good review of cases in the Duke Law Journal here:
    http://www.law.duke.edu/shell/cite.pl?47+Duke+L.+J.+785
    the author is Derek Apanovitch.

  6. 6
    mathyoo

    I’m working a 12 step program for sex addiction, and one of the problems I’ve seen and heard about from others is that many of the people who go through a 12 step program don’t actually work the program. They think that they just need to stop their behavior (get sober) and attend meetings and everything will be fine. Those are the people who ultimately fail in their sobriety because they are not addressing their core issues that led to the addiction(s) in the first place. I do think that they are effective when a person works the steps completely, and especially if they can afford to combine that with individual therapy. At it’s core, much of a 12 step program is really cognitive therapy (which I also use, and have found it tremendously effective). The problem is that most addicts don’t want to actually do the steps because it brings up a whole lot of very painful stuff, and we become addicts specifically to avoid dealing with that painful stuff.
    I’m fortunate in that I’m working through the 12 steps not with the traditional SA group, but with my therapist (who is also a recovering sex addict who’s been through all the steps), but I’m doing it completely without any gods being involved.
    I have a feeling that the main reason that 12 step groups are resistant to having statistics is that factor of how many people are actually working the steps, vs. how many people just show up at meetings.

  7. 7
    Donna Gore

    The traditional 12-S sobriety surveys come from the ranks of their own membership, so you have a sample that’s biased, to say the least. The number of people who drop out do not get counted. I have read some analyses of shrinks who gave different groups of patients different types of follow up therapies and then compared the rates of recovery, length of sobriety. Cognitive behavioral therapy seemed to fare best, as I recall. The only way anyone could do a truly scientific study on the effectiveness of 12 step groups would be to get the name and contact info of every single person who walked through the door and then check up on them every day for the next year to see who drank and who didn’t. And that’s impossible because it’s supposed to be anonymous! Not to mention the manpower involved in spying on everyone constantly! But come to think of it, it’s pretty hard to gauge the effectiveness of any recovery program, because you have to rely on what the subjects SAY. And people who abuse drugs generally are not truthful. They will look you right in the face, smile, and swear they are sober. (I know, I was one of them.)

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