A new report by the federal government is old news to many of us.
Approximately 5 million people in the U.S. attend addiction self-help groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, according to the report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
"The data reinforces the fact that participation in self-help groups is associated with abstinence and recovery," said Stephen Wing, SAMHSA's associate administrator for alcohol policy.
Based on my own experiences in recovery and working for a treatment center, my sense is that the number is low. It isn't easy to count membership accurately in any organization that includes "anonymous" in its formal name. Add to that the stigma associated either with addiction or recovery from it and any official tally ends up like trying to count a flock of geese or ants under a picnic table.
According to the study, of the 5 million people attending self-help groups, about two-thirds are male and 80 percent are older than 25.
And therein lies the good news and the bad news.
A lot of people are finding solutions to their addictions by actively participating in 12-step recovery programs. Where I live, in St. Paul, Minn., there are about 500 recovery meetings a week. Go to a city the size of New York or Los Angeles and you'll find a meeting just about 24/7. And even in rural areas, there are more recovery meetings these days than in the past, and getting to them doesn't involve long drives.
That's remarkable, especially considering that the 12-steps began after a "chance" encounter between two alcoholic men — one a doctor and the other a stockbroker — 73 years ago in Akron, Ohio. Coincidence may indeed be God's way of remaining anonymous. Millions of people all around the world have found recovery as a result.
But as the study emphasizes, 12-step groups largely remain gatherings of white, Christian and older adults. There are notable exceptions. The Dupont Circle Club, in Washington, D.C., and the Mustard Seed Group, in Chicago, are heterogeneous, if not outright eclectic, groups of alcoholics in recovery meetings every day to share their experiences, strength and hope. And every Friday night, there is a 12-step meeting at Fellowship Club in St. Paul that is stocked with people in their early 20s.
Still, the memberships of AA and Al-Anon, among others, are not as diverse as the problem of addiction, which doesn't discriminate based on race, religion or socioeconomic title. The 12-steps are not for everybody. But everybody who struggles with addiction deserves a solution.
Anne M. Fletcher is a medical journalist and author of the best-selling book "Sober for Good." She interviewed more than 222 former problem drinkers who had, on average, 13 years of sobriety and highlights their stories in her book.
Fletcher says: "There are no right or wrong answers in sobriety. People can arrive at the same endpoint in a variety of ways, and they may need to 'shop around' to find the right fit."
Fletcher suggests that people who are averse to the 12-step approach instead seek help in programs such as Secular Organizations for Sobriety (www.SecularSobriety.org) or SMART Recovery (www.SMARTRecovery.org) — two different abstinence-based groups that don't have religious or spiritual focuses. Another secular group is LifeRing Secular Recovery.
I agree. But I also believe AA and other 12-step groups need to step up and be more active in attracting new and diverse members. It is not about public promotion. But by going to jails and prisons, mental institutions and detox centers, homeless shelters, college campuses and synagogues, people in recovery can carry the message of hope to others who are desperate for help and healing.
William C. Moyers is the vice president of external affairs for the Hazelden Foundation and the author of "Broken," a best-selling memoir. The paperback edition was released in August 2007. Please send your questions to William Moyers at [email protected]