Secular Addiction Recovery Part One: Just A Little Endorphin Deficiency

I seem to have somehow found myself in the business of publicly discussing highly stigmatized aspects of my identity, history and experiences, displaying them on the internet for anyone to see. I reconcile the associated risks and feelings of unease by reminding myself that if everyone were stealth, there would be no one left to speak about us, our lives, to advocate from a position of direct understanding and shared oppression. There would be no one left to demonstrate, through simple, visible being, that we do exist and share this world with the rest of you, and that we are, like anyone, complex, multi-faceted, individual, fallible, struggling, confused, suffering, thinking, hoping, feeling, participating, speaking human beings. Though it can spare an individual a great deal of hassle, cultural invisibility has never done any good for a minority group, collectively.

But so long as I’m doing this, so long as I’m being a voice, presence and advocate, why restrict myself to only one aspect of who I am? Why only one particular stigmatized and hated group to which I belong? Why not go for broke?

The thing is, I’m a recovering heroin addict.

I go to the pharmacy once a day for a supervised dose of methadone. It’s mixed with tang and tastes like citrus grandma. If I accidentally miss a dose, I get so sick I can barely drag myself back for the next one. When going without long sleeves, I wear concealer over my track scars.

Since I first began doing the skeptic blogging thing I’ve been batting around the idea of writing on the subject of secular addiction recovery. 12 Step Organizations, which are by far the most mainstream, popular and accepted path to recovery (though their efficacy relative to alternatives is usually grossly overstated), have overt religious overtones and many, many cult-like characteristics (some will insist it’s merely “spiritual”, via the usual distinctions). At the very least, 12 Step encourages a religious mindset and attitude, and posit this approach as the only reliable means to get clean. As such, the question of how to deal with addiction while remaining true to one’s secular or atheist philosophy is an extremely important issue for a great many atheists and skeptics, and an issue with very very real consequences.

That level of importance was very intimidating to me and held me back from approaching the subject until now. How can I possibly do this issue the justice it deserves? Am I really up to this? Can I offer people anything of real value and substance, provide answers that can genuinely help someone navigate the difficult questions of dealing with addiction from a secular perspective? Or am I only going to clutter things up, confuse the issue? Am I being presumptuous in assuming I have anything to useful to say?

In a way, I am. I can’t offer anyone any real concrete answers on how to overcome an addiction, and I’m very much not qualified or entitled to claim I can. That’s a highly individual process, and sadly one that we ultimately can only negotiate for ourselves (though counselors, support groups and qualified care providers can certainly assist in that process).

But what I’ve realized is that rather than trying provide any such answers, or attempting to tackle the entirety of the issue in a single post, making some kind of definitive statement summarizing The Issue Of Secular Addiction Recovery, I can incorporate the themes into my writing, say a few things here and there, offer my own perspectives and experiences, offer a few pieces of information, a few resources… break it into little pieces. Several posts, over a period of time.

I can start by describing my own story, experiences and struggles… specifically today, my negative experiences with 12 Step Organizations and how my skepticism and associated mindsets were able to help me through my own recovery . Or at least try to tell the story. It’s kind of hard to get right.

One of the saddest and most terrifying elements of the religious component of 12 Step Groups is how it preys on people who are in a position of extreme vulnerability and desperation. Addiction is one of the worst illnesses a person can have to deal with. It can strip you of everything, even take away your you. It can walk you as close to death as a human being can come. And by the time you want to quit, you really want to quit, but it seems hopelessly difficult. Like a cancer patient seeking psychic surgery, you are ready to believe anything if it will offer you a chance for escape, or even just a way to make the way out just a little bit less hopeless.

That scares me. It really, really does.

When I was trying to kick, I wanted so badly to believe in a God that could help me. Not even just a Christian God, really… just any “higher power” like N/A described to whom I could divest myself of responsibility and that would take care of me, give me the strength to make it. But I just couldn’t. I couldn’t just take a leap of faith. I don’t know… maybe it’s a part of me that’s fundamentally broken. Maybe it’s a part of me that’s fundamentally right. I just was not able to trust those statements or offers of salvation. Everything about them put me on guard.

My actual direct personal experiences with 12 Step Groups didn’t help, either. My first encounter with them ended up leaving an extremely bad taste in my mouth. At the time, I had recently attempted to take my own life, and ended up in Vancouver General Hospital’s psychiatric unit. After a week in the scary, soul-destroying, high-security, intensely boring assessment unit, I was deemed relatively stable and taken to the Brief Intervention Unit. In the BIU, one was permitted to take short ten minute cigarette breaks. Trouble was, I had no cigarettes. I needed to get to my bank and then to a shop where I could buy some, but for such a trip I’d need a chaperone.

During that time I was in the beginning phase of a relapse into my heroin use, so the doctors had been encouraging me (very, very strongly) to hook up with 12 Step through their volunteer who “worked with” the patients there. Scare quotes because I later came to regard what he did there as nothing more than a recruitment drive. Terrifying again in that they were preying on people at their most vulnerable. People who had just attempted suicide. Offering them salvation…

So it was arranged that the 12 Step Volunteer would be my chaperone to pick up some cigarettes. I made it very, very explicit, however, that I was atheist and decidedly NOT interested in 12 Step. I stated that I was open to any other addiction recovery programs (provided they were secular in nature), but 12 Step was off the table. They agreed, that’s fine, he’d just be a chaperone and maybe discuss options and alternatives.

I spent the whole day excited for it… finally got to change out of the hospital pajamas and into my actual clothes. Was overjoyed at the prospect of going outside again, and enjoying the sunlight and Spring air. When the appointed time came around, he didn’t show, and a replacement showed up instead. He offered to chaperone me instead. So I signed out, and we began walking down the hall, and he lead me around the corner to a room where he began arranging chairs in a circle.

After a few confused moment, I became curious as to what was going on, asked what’s up, and reminded him I only had a limited amount of time before I had to be back. “Oh, we have to have our meeting first” … “what meeting?” … “Alcholics Anonymous” … “Um… I explicitly stated that I was not going to be attending any 12 Step meetings, and was told that this was merely a chaperone trip so I could pick up some cash and some cigarettes, and get outside for an hour or so” … “Yeah, we can do that, but first we have to have the meeting” … “I said 12 Step was off the table. I’m an atheist. I’m not interested” … “You should see what it’s like first before you go ahead and dismiss it. I’ve seen your type, think you know everything.” … “I’ll wait outside” … “No meeting, no trip, no cigarettes”… “Oh? Well fine then” (thanks for the trip all the way down the hallway, asshole)

So I left. It was very, very hard to do so, as even leaving aside the issue of my nicotine addiction this was to have been my first trip outside in eight days, and I had to sacrifice it. But my principles were my principles, and I knew damn well when I was being manipulated. In this case, blatantly manipulated. Like, outright presented-an-ultimatum manipulated. The kind of story you tell kids to demonstrate how emotional manipulation is a kind of fucked-up thing to do to someone. He was actively using another addiction, and my position of vulnerability and dependence, to coerce me into attending an organization I had explicitly stated my religious objection to.

Later meetings with the man who was the original intended chaperone did not exactly elicit an apology. Just more tactics. More manipulations. Somehow I ended up tricked into allowing him to give me a ride home when I was finally discharged from hospital. That resulted in further ridiculous, barely-concealed sneaky attempts to get me into the organization. “I need to stop here at the AA office, totally without warning, to pick up some literature. Do you want to come in, or do you want to just wait here locked in the car without AC and the windows up?”. And there was rather a lot of uncomfortable, non-consensual touching, too.

And so many mustaches. What is up with AA and mustaches?

By the end of it, I was completely disgusted by their behaviour and their tactics, and about a thousand times more convinced of the cult-like aspects of 12 Step than I had been before.

Though despite all that a part of me still kind of wanted to be able to believe in it, and the salvation they offered. After that incident, my relapse continued. And it was absolutely fueled in part by my nihilism, my existential position… feelings of hopelessness, abstraction, being sort of pointlessly thrown into a chaotic and incomprehensible world without any definitive sense of meaning or purpose. I felt that I should simply take my happiness where I could find it. To me, it seemed that attaining a semblance of comfort and joy and security through a needle was considerably more honest and efficient than joining religions, going to the gym, developing hobbies, dancing at clubs, having relationships, baking cupcakes, winning contests, raising families or all the other more complex means by which people got more or less the exact same chemicals to bind to the same receptors in their brains. Seemed.

Though in certain ways my skepticism and commitment to understanding the world around me did ultimately help me through addiction when the time came that I chose to get clean. Mainly in allowing me to understand the addiction for what it really was. There was the initial process of actually confronting the issue… that I was addicted to a chemical substance, that my brain was no longer creating a sufficient amount of its own analogue chemicals and I’d become dependent on an external source. That the associated risks to my health that early death was almost an inevitability. That I needed to deal with this if I were to continue to live. And that, in turn, required dealing with the underlying issues I had initially been trying to suppress.

I voraciously read up on the neurology of addiction, on the processes in my brain such as my compromised executive functions and rewired reward systems. I read about how environmental triggers in early childhood development can cause the brain to not develop the proper structures of providing its own endorphin or dopamine responses in appropriate situations. I came to understand that what I was primarily dealing with was an endorphin deficiency. I noticed that while the first time I ever took an opiate, it was like I had found a missing piece of myself, but that cocaine, amphetamine and numerous other drugs had never held any appeal or hold on me whatsoever, indicating that there was a specific neurochemical problem creating a specific pattern of skewed behaviours.

I learned to apply the self-questioning of skepticism to the cognitive processes of the addiction. Like knowing that what I want to believe, or what intuitively seems to be true, is not always what is true, I also began developing other processes of second-guessing and hesitation. That’s something I’ve always regarded as a keystone of skepticism… intellectual hesitation. A pause. A moment to reconsider. In this case, I learned to second-guess my impulses and sense of “need”. Hesitate and reconsider whether the “need” I was feeling was truly a need or a passing chemical impulse.

It was all a matter of acknowledging the cognitive process of the addiction and understanding it, learning to work with it and cope with it. Much like coping with my various human failings and irrationalities in general, like understanding the processes of pareidolia, for example, I could name it, know it, recognize the cognitive distortions when they appeared, learn to work around it and live with it. I learned to avoid triggers. To find other means of self-comfort, other strategies of dealing with anxiety and depression, actually address my internal difficulties rather than suppress or avoid them, find other ways of meeting the needs I had met through heroin. I came to understand that all strategies of medication carried both pros and cons, and I could weigh the merits of a functional methadone dependency against the risks of a dysfunctional heroin addiction.

Most people don’t become addicts, and the drugs don’t create the addict or contain the addiction. Just like most people can eat without developing eating disorders, most people can play video games without becoming hardcore forget-to-eat 24/7 gamers, and most people can drink alcohol without becoming alcoholics, most people (as counter-intuitive as it may sound) can try cocaine or heroin without becoming addicted to them. The junkie in me was already there long before I found the drugs, and she’ll always be there, no matter how long I continue to stay clean. It’s a neurological thing, something that is just there. Just my little endorphin deficiency. That can come across as an excuse or a shirking of responsibility, but knowing that this is simply an element of who I am helps with shedding the feelings of shame and self-hatred that often fueled the addiction. And most importantly, I found, at least for me, that understanding addiction, without turning to illusions or spirituality, and looking at it honestly, as just a brain making itself worse by trying to make itself better, that gave me what I needed to adapt and move forward.

My point is that addiction can be dealt with in ways that are perfectly in keeping with a skeptical and secular mindset, and can be dealt with without turning to illusions or spirituality for comfort, without needing to turn responsibility over to a higher power. Instead one can confront the addiction through looking at it truthfully, and looking at oneself truthfully… with a non-judgmental intellectual curiosity, and openness to what the situation truly is.

I didn’t need a higher power. But by maintaining my intellectual honesty and skepticism, I was able to divest the addiction of its power and level the playing field. It was simply another aspect of this strange and beautiful and chaotic life, universe, everything. In magical thinking, in superstition and intuitions and the liminal space where “higher powers” live, I could easily have continued regarding myself as flawed and shameful, continued believing my addiction was a moral failing and myself undeserving of life. I could easily have believed myself incapable of getting clean or that I wasn’t worth the effort. I could have constructed elaborate cognitive distortions to maintain the pattern of behaviour. I would have.

Fuck fighting cognitive distortions with “healthier” cognitive distortions. Fight them with honesty.

And fuck anyone who offers the one truth path to salvation.

Note: If you are dealing with an addiction and are seeking a secular support organization, I would personally recommend SMART. It’s modeled after cognitive-behavioural therapy, a process not unlike the individual one I described here. Check them out at their website:

I’ll provide more information on SMART and other alternatives to 12 Step in future posts.

Please bear in mind that I am not a qualified addiction counselor or healthcare professional, and the views and opinions expressed on my blog should NOT be taken as a substitute for actual counseling and assistance. While I recommend that people take care when making choices about how to guide their recovery, I also do recommend that you seek help in your process. Addiction is an illness, and like any illness, requires care and insight from qualified professionals.


  1. Anders says

    You were brave writing this post. And I’m going to give you an Internet hug, if you are willing to receive it.


    This was a great post. I will probably come back with more thought-out comments later, but I wanted to write this. But I’ll need some time to digest this.

  2. freemage says

    You’re just tearing through the good stuff this week, aren’t you? These posts have been amazing and inspirational.

    • says

      When my great-grandfather first started Reed Blogs™, he had a simple commitment. A promise. To provide you, the reader, with the finest quality blog posts, made from the finest quality ingredients. Ingredients like locally grown personal tragedies, and all-natural political ire slow-roasted in our traditional brick oven. Today, I live up to the example set by Erasmus Reed, because I believe in tradition and the value of that promise, the value of putting our readers first, ahead of things like page-views and pictures of cats. I insist on continuing to bring you the same quality posts so that you can be sure of the same standard of excellence set by Reed Blogs™. Remember, if it says Reed, It’s A Good Read™!

  3. Kate S says

    Congrats and good luck with your ongoing recovery.
    It’s great to see a skeptic blog out of Vancouver! So much of the atheist blogosphere is from an American perspective, I’m excited to hear from someone with a perspective more similar to mine. Now excuse me while I go read more of your older posts.

  4. Besomyka says

    Thanks for sharing, Natalie, and possibly even more thanks for the link to secular help. I know some people that might find that sort of thing useful and hopeful. I’ll pass it along.

    • Besomyka says

      In my experience, yes. Even her comments have been good enough that when she was announced as a blogger on Skepchick I immediately recalled who she was just from mild participation in that community.

  5. danielrudolph says

    Thank you for this. My best friend tried to go to AA for a while, but decided it was bullshit. based on the one meeting she drug me to, I think she was right. While they said God could be anything, they opened with a prayer and the whole think stunk of a religious approach where it was more about getting right with some ordained standard than seriously dealing with problems.

  6. Inflection says

    I don’t in any way want to suggest that my experience is the equal of yours, because obesity isn’t half the addiction that heroin is, I’m sure, but I want to offer concurrence with your thesis and this is my relevant experience.

    I peaked at 324.5 pounds, and realized that if this kept up I was going to die. Sooner than otherwise, at least. Considering possible diets, I realized that most of them revolved around magical thinking, and sat down to consider the matter from first principles. You can’t beat physics. I ended up at “calories in minus calories out is weight change,” and deliberately began strict calorie journaling and weekly weighing while maintaining regular activity patterns.

    Trusting the numbers kept me from cheating and allowed me to lose 160 pounds over the extended course of the next three years. I have gained some of it back but I am much healthier than I had been, and I know what I have to do to keep it off. I still journal and probably will for the rest of my life. Staying grounded in the data was crucial to my success.

    (Also, since this is my first comment here, I wish to declare that AJ is Skeptic Pony, not Twi despite how she acts, ‘cuz freethinking is all about honesty. And I can’t have been the only one to rewrite Feeling Pinkie Keen in my head.)

    • says

      I can relate. I was never *hugely* overweight, but I was a lot bigger than I used to be. I looked at the weight watchers type things, but they were such an expensive sodium-riddled con. I ended up food journaling and calorie counting and exercising. The simple formula of less calories in made way more sense to me than buying into some marketing bullshit (it’s fat-free! it’s good for you!… yeah, only it’s loaded with sugar… gurrr).

    • Anna says

      I lost 115 pounds last year with the same diet of calories in calories out thinking. It is amazing how much superstition is in the diet community and how much ridiculously bad science. It took me forever to wade through all the bad advice much of it claiming to be from medical sources, much of which would have been extremely dangerous for me to follow as a diabetic.

      I also finally started my transition in the same skeptical manor (I’m MTF transsexual)since medical information on the internet seemed pretty heavily rooted in supersition and fuzzy thinking also. It also didn’t help that my first local doctor wanted to do reparative therapy.

      It is amazing how much on addiction and health issues these days is bogged down in bad science and spirituality. I think posts like Natalie’s and other in the skeptical community are invaluable in giving people good places to look for real info. I have already passed on the addiction info to a friend who had bad experiences with 12 steps himself.

  7. gemmaseymour says

    Thank you again, for a wonderful article. It is so important that we share these types of experiences with others. This is why I talk about the fact that I was in jail twice last year. People need to know the truth behind the things that our society would like very much to sweep under the carpet.

    “Though it can spare an individual a great deal of hassle, cultural invisibility has never done any good for a minority group, collectively.”


  8. Second Thought says

    “Though it can spare an individual a great deal of hassle, cultural invisibility has never done any good for a minority group, collectively.”

    A very quotable line indeed – I have already quoted it once today to nods of approval. And, even better, it was part of a very thought-provoking post. I have not had to deal with addiction directly in my life, and your post has given me some insights that I hope will help me deal with others in more understanding ways.

  9. Dhorvath, OM says

    Natalie, it hardly seems adequate, but that post was some of the best time I have spent on the internet. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and perspective.

  10. says

    I loathe 12-step groups with the fire of a million burning suns. Nothing you mention — the preying on the vulnerable, the manipulation, the violation of boundaries — surprises me at all. It’s all of a piece with their origins in the Oxford Group.

    If you have never yet read Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? by Chas Bufe, do yourself a favor and get a copy. But get the second edition, unless a newer one has come out. In the introduction to the 2nd edition, Bufe writes that in his first one, he underestimated the noxiousness of AA, and he details all the hate mail and other harassment he received for exposing the stepbots for what they are.

  11. Pteryxx says

    I try to be open about having been abused, for the same reason… someone has to speak up. Thank you for this, and we’re listening.

  12. Rasmus says

    My first post here and I’m probably not going to comment a lot, but I will be reading, because your postings seem to be of the brilliant, incredibly readable sort (and I’m half prepared to believe your great-grandpa story).

    The Sadie Vasthi open letters that you linked to are also… uh… leaving me speechless.

    Everyone need to read this stuff.

  13. Praedico says

    “Addiction is an illness, and like any illness”
    This. So, so this.

    The strange habit of viewing any illness that primarily – or completely – stems from chemical imbalances in the brain as a personal failing of the sufferer mystifies me.

    I’ve never suffered from any really serious mental illness, but I do suffer from moderate chronic depression and social anxiety. Such that even posting a comment on a blog can be a bit stressful for me, as I read the comment over umpteen times, and constantly edit it to assuage the feeling that everyone reading it will judge me. Usually, this results in a dry, sterile, thoroughly inoffensive mess.
    I’ve gotten a little better with the sertraline I’m on now, but I’m still having to fight the urge to edit the fuck out of this comment.

  14. Chris says

    I’ve just discovered your blog and wanted to just say ‘wow’. This is some of the best, and most thoughtful, writing I have seen on a blog.

    I have some experience of 12 step programs, but only second hand knowledge of addiction. I was always suspicious of 12 step programs, starting with the first step. I never liked the idea that to overcome addiction you had to give up part of who you were and hand yourself over to someone else. Plus all the higher power stuff. Thank you for putting forward a more sceptical alternative.

  15. Renee from a suburb of reality says

    Well written and well worded.
    I love the ReedBlog’s piece.
    I know you are well adjusted because you can talk about a hard time you had and then wax comical.
    Humor is very important.
    I have found this to be true personally.
    The very fact we all have to deal with weapons grade baffons every day makes humor de rigeur, for survival and sanity.

    Welcome to the survivors club Natalie.
    All you have to do is survive and laugh about something afterwords.
    You do this stuningly well.

    Brava, girl, brava!

    You better watch it or might start winning awards and shit!

    -This message brought to you by MegRen, Inc.
    -MegRen, we do stuff(TM)!

    We are two transwomen in a house with cats.
    Megan and I love cats and we’re starting to love you too!
    We might have to come to vansterdam and buy a fucking drink.
    Awesome… just awesome.

  16. says

    I’m a functional alcoholic who has not had a drink in almost 4 months, and I REALLY appreciate reading about addiction from a secular/skeptic background, so thank you Natalie for posting this. I’ve quit drinking before, for a year, but relapsed (I thought that maybe I could manage my drinking, which is difficult to do, since my brain equates alcohol with getting drunk, no exceptions, so just “drinking to be social” is not an option for me…) and am doing it again, hopefully for good. I think fighting an addiction is the hardest thing anyone can do (…er, from my 1st world privileged perspective, of course. I’m sure surviving with inadequate shelter, poor food and water resources, etc, is pretty tough, too) because how does one go about disagreeing with one’s BRAIN?

    The same tools you use are the ones that I use too: learning about what addiction is, how our brains work, and learning how to recognise when the rug is being pulled out from under me through faulty reasoning fuelled by addiction. I learned these skills to cope with anxiety, but they certainly translate.

    These tools, IMO, need to be out there, but instead when I do a search, I get 12-Steps, Higher Power, and Prayer-God-Prayer, which really isn’t going to work for me. Hearing about others’ personal experiences is helpful (which I bet is where a lot of any AA success actually comes from), even if those experiences don’t come from a licensed professional, so, again, thanks!

  17. geocatherder says

    Natalie, thanks to you, I will attend my first SMART Recovery meeting on Monday. I desperately want to shake off alcohol, but it calls to me. I tried AA, but as an atheist, the message that GOD (in whatever form you characterized it) was going to save me was just bullshit. Hopefully the SMART folks will have some ideas to share as to how to ignore the call.

  18. joec says

    Interesting story – candid and heartfelt. I am an atheist and a member of AA. The arrogance of so many of my fellows is a post-founder trend. Reification has inflicted Alcoholics Anonymous and I expect some of the other Twelve & Twelve fellowships.

    I call it a post-founder syndrome because the co-founder Bill Wilson, although no saint by any means, was one of the most inclusive people others had ever come across. He was never threatened by other ways of solving addiction, he never thought his view was superior to anyone others. It’s not that he was never a pompous ass – I expect we all can be at some time or another – but he could quickly see that this was shortcoming, not a characteristic of being right.

    AA, although born from mostly Christian misfits, isn’t technically religious. For all the God-talk, AA literature was pretty cutting edge for the time. The problem is (in my mind) that AA stopped pushing the enveloped and grew complacent. What use to be a fellowship that helped others find their salvation (what ever brand that was to be), now in many quarters, looks like a bunch of bleeding deacons barking our instructions and telling newcomers how it is.

    Jim B was among the first members. He was a sober atheist before AA had its first sober Catholic. I got clean and sober in the 1970s and what I remember was a fellowship of peers who understood what I was going through and were looking for a way out themselves. Now there seem to be self-appointed specialists, teachers, gurus who know what is best for others. This isn’t true everywhere of course. I am a member of an agnostic AA group that reads a secular version of the Twelve Steps interpreted from the original dozen.

    I work in Public Information too and there is an outdated attitude that we have a message, an answer or “the way.” That, to my mind is the wrong attitude. Outreach should be about asking questions, breaking down barriers and accommodating. PI certainly isn’t going to work by preaching.

    I am glad there are other alternative to Twelve & Twelve recovery. No one has claimed dominion over the franchise of addiction treatment – no spiritual, medical, psychological or philosophical avenue has found a way to instill the desire to stop or the ability to successfully moderate addicts to a state where there life becomes free and manageable again. I hope the GenX, and millennial generation of Twleve Step members get over this rigid orthodoxy and back to more humble approach of sharing experience instead of expertise.

    Thanks again for your candid post.

  19. Jim Dandy says

    Thanks. But you are not in recovery. You are in medication-assisted recovery – still addicted to opiods.


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