Picking Up the Pieces, But Not in Twelve Steps: By The Prodigal Son’s Brother

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Picking Up the Pieces, But Not in Twelve Steps: By The Prodigal Son’s Brother

HA notes: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “The Prodigal Son’s Brother” is a pseudonym.

Today, I was denied treatment by a mental health facility.

I set the appointment up through a crisis hotline a month ago, and thinking I was finally going to get help was the glimmer of light on the horizon … and I was denied treatment.

They recognized that I had severe depression. They recognized that I was suicidal. They recognized how much my background in the Homeschool movement has contributed to my issues. They recognized that I am in a new city where I don’t have much of a support network.

But still they denied me therapy, because they said a prerequisite was for me to complete their 12-step-based alcoholism program.

Now, the assessor knew, because I told her, that I have used drinking as a crutch in the past. She also knew that I have been sober for two weeks, through sheer willpower. But before they would even let me talk to a therapist, I had to complete a program, and the one they offered was 12-steps-based. I voiced my opposition to the 12 Steps on religious grounds – the AA 12 steps are incredibly religious – and she denied they were religious. “Atheists use it all the time,” she claimed.

How, I wonder?

Here are the twelve steps, according to Wikipedia:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

How do you “make a decision to turn your will and your life over to God” if you don’t believe in god?

How do you “humbly ask” something you don’t believe in to remove your shortcomings?

How do you seek through “prayer and meditation” to something you don’t recognize?

But deeper than the simple religious differences is something much darker. Step one: “We admitted we were powerless…”. Steps five, six, and seven involve “the nature of our wrongs”, the removal of “defects of character”, and “remov[ing] our shortcomings”. For an alcoholic who has been damaging other people with his or her lifestyle, these might make sense. But a prerequisite for therapy for someone who is already dealing with shame?

How exactly can I work with a counselor or therapist to feel my own worth when I’ve just come from a program in which I’m constantly expected to assert my own shortcomings?

Because, as I mentioned, I set this appointment up a month ago. I have been hanging by a thread, but I am alive.

As Penn Jilette said in the Bullshit episode about AA,

What about people who say, ‘But AA works. I’ve got a brother … who was saved through AA.’ Well great, but give your friend some credit: he made the choice to quit when he picked up the phone, and it worked because he wanted it to work, and he made it work. He wasn’t powerless, he was powerful.

And that’s the point that the “mental health” facility didn’t seem to grasp. I cannot enroll in a program that starts off with an honest admission of powerlessness, because my willpower is the thing that has kept me alive for the past month. Even the willpower to ask for help in the first place.

Right now I feel very empty due to the loss of a hope I was holding on to. I am picking up the pieces and determining where to go from here, but the notion of taking my life has not suddenly increased. If anything, I am more determined than ever to live, and I hope I will find the help I need.

Because I am not powerless.

I am powerful.

And so are you.

4 comments

  • Thanks for your words. I was also homeschooled in a moderately fundamentalist environment. Although I believe that my experience was not as severe as many others, I can relate to your atheism, and your struggles with depression and alcohol. I just hope you know that you aren’t alone in your struggles or your search for a non-AA answer. I know that alternatives exist (SMART Recovery comes to mind), and I hope you are able to find what you need.

    Personally, I am impressed (and strengthened) by your rejection of the “powerless” mantra, as so many of us have worked our whole lives to feel powerful and whole again.

  • Is there some where else you can go? Can’t you go to the emergency room and tell them you are suicidal? Don’t they help you then? My friend did this. She was place in the pysc ward for help asap. Get help. Keep looking. You are worth it!

  • I’m sorry you had this experience. It sounds very frustrating. I grew up in a very isolated, ultra-conservative homeschooling environment and I am now agnostic; I also tried to attend Al-Anon meetings last year and encountered the same difficulties you have with 12-step programs (the Al-Anon steps are very similar to the AA steps). I could not accept the idea of “surrendering” myself to a (in my mind) mythical higher power. I listened to other group members talk about how your “higher power” could be simply acknowledging that something exists outside of yourself, like a doorknob or a tree branch…but I still couldn’t buy into it. The 12 steps just felt too shaming and were very triggering for me, since I have worked very hard at building a sense of empowerment and agency in my life after living in oppression for so long. I ended up leaving after a couple of months. I know it works for lots of folks, but it’s not for everyone. There are alternatives, some of them faith-based and some secular, so please do research and keep trying.

    In the meantime, please also keep looking for other therapy options. I am privileged to have insurance that has covered long-term therapy for my PTSD and depression, and it has literally saved my life. There are people who can help, and people who genuinely care. I really do hope you find some peace and some help. Thank you for sharing your story.

  • I’m so sorry. This makes me so mad at the system. ugh. You are right. You are strong. I hope you find help soon.

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