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Though often the first level of mental healthcare folks are exposed to, “___ Anonymous” groups are the treatment type I’ve been least exposed to. When I was in treatment for my eating disorder, however, I was introduced to Eating Disorders Anonymous. I also attended, though they weren’t mandatory for me, the nightly Alcoholics and/or Narcotics Anonymous groups that were held on the campus of the hospital. I’ve only ever had a total of two, brief sips of alcohol in my life and extremely minimal exposure to any other type of mind altering substance, whether it be drugs or coffee. Despite that disconnect, these groups spoke to me in a way I’d never previously heard.
To explain my perspective on these groups, I’m going to largely defer to a speech that David Foster Wallace delivered to Kenyon College students in 2005. This speech was read aloud to a group of around 30 of us at my treatment center by a revered Ivy League professor: a patient, too. I was a high school student in a sunny auditorium, surrounded by fellow high school students, grandparents, parents, college kids, professors, executives, baristas. Our stories were all vastly different. Some of us were anorexic, some of us suicidal or manic. Some of us had blown all of our money on opioids, some of us had just come from a medical hospital after recovering from a heroin overdose. Some of us were college students who partied too much, some of us were parents who couldn’t drive the kids to school without a drink. Some of us had never been physically unsafe and were in treatment for the first time, and some of us had been close to death on multiple occasions and were back in treatment for the fifth, tenth, twelfth go around. We all humbly (though expensively) landed in the same place, at the same time, to get our lives back.
If you’re interested, the speech is called “This is Water” and it’s easily Google-able, but the gist of Wallace’s message is that “there is no such thing as atheism,” meaning the world is full of worshippers, and he doesn’t mean religious worshipping. Many do worship God, Allah, the Buddha, the “Wiccan Mother Goddess,” and he doesn’t claim that these types of worship are superior, but that the kind of worshipping that kills us is the kind that is bound to fickle, tangible, earthly things. If we “worship” money, sex, power, drugs, beauty, alcohol, we will forever be seeking things we cannot ever achieve the pinnacle of, things we have no true control over, things we could therefore never healthily dedicate ourselves to. Every single one of us wants these kinds of things. We want to be beautiful, we want money, we want intimacy of some kind, we want escapism, we want power. None of us manage to fully evade these wants, by virtue of being human. However, some of us become bound to these wants and lose our ability to be functional humans as a result.
The professor read this speech to us- during a weekly communal event in which any patient could share whatever they wanted, ranging from music to poetry, stories to comedy and everything in between- because they (gender neutral for confidentiality) saw how central his message was to addiction, and that addiction isn’t just a result of dependence on mind-altering substances. Nearly any mental struggle any of us endure can be summarized as an imbalance, an extreme. It’s okay to want to be beautiful, to want intimacy, to want money. It’s okay to have a drink every once in a while, escape every so often, let go of ourselves on occasion. It must be okay because it is inescapable. It’s when we become chained to these things that we lose our ability to truly live.
Take a moment and reflect on what is most upsetting to you right now. Are you anxious about college applications? Does the thought of going to work or class make your stomach squirm? Maybe you’re heavier than you want to be. Maybe you don’t feel socially fulfilled, think you have no friends, struggle to find meaning in the boring, dull routines you go through every day. Maybe you want a promotion you’re scared you’ll never get, or don’t know how your next paycheck is going to cover everything it needs to. Maybe you simply feel so much- anxiety, fear, anger, sadness- all the time, to no end.
Consider: a person who is chained to Wallace’s tangible values, as so many of us- the anxious, depressed, addicted, otherwise ill- are. Such a person hasn’t yet developed a way to separate themselves from the ebbs and flows of their circumstances and falls emotionally victim to them. The anxiety of applications and work obligations, the resentment over career stagnation, the loneliness of disconnection, would lead such a person to seek relief, often by way of drugs and/or alcohol. When drugs and alcohol are used as merely additions to a life that operates under a set system of values, they are harmless and can be actively positive. However, to a person who hasn’t created such a system for themselves, drugs and alcohol become the necessary means by which they hope to achieve what a genuinely well-lived life would give: comfort, control, safety, satisfaction.
Crucially, we do not only get hooked to drugs and alcohol. We can (and so often do) chain ourselves to any method of escaping discomfort and hardship. Some (drug and alcohol addiction, self harm, eating disorders, etc) are more potentially lethal than others (video games, sex, codependence, gambling, obsessive compulsions, hoarding, etc) but they all share two toxic characteristics; they distract and they harm.
If you’re wondering what this has to do with you, you’re not alone! I promise you- however distant they may seem- the core principles of Anonymous groups, of addiction models and treatments, are applicable to you. In the first Eating Disorders Anonymous meeting I attended, it took every bit of restraint I had not to roll my eyes at multiple points in the reading. Even before EDA, before hospitals, I’ve often scoffed at treatments I thought were too weird, “cult-like,” or extreme to apply to me. Anonymous meetings were always segregated into that category by my judgement. I’m pretty non-religious, so I had written off the 12-Step model (which nearly every Anonymous group employs, just with word and story choice substituted to better apply) as hokey, religious nonsense. I would still tweak some of the religious language, if someone were to someday be stupid enough to let me re-write the 12 Step model. That being said, its intention (one that is historically effective) is to release you from your chained dependence on things that will only harm you, in order for you to live a life simultaneously grounded and free.
I won’t go over all of the steps, nor will I pretend to be even close to an expert on them, but their progression is widely applicable. You are first asked by the 12 Steps to admit that you are powerless over your addiction. As previously discussed, the addiction can be anything from heroin to Minecraft. No matter what it is, accepting that an outside entity is preventing you from living well is the only way to regain control from the entity. It’s much more difficult than it may first seem to be. None of us want to be seen as beholden to anything else. We want control, both to feel it and to be perceived as having it. Acknowledging that I was anorexic and that my disease controlled me was terrifying, as were other similar admissions I’ve had to make. Admitting “powerlessness” is humbling and humiliating, but it has to come first. Not doing so perpetuates the escapism of the addiction, which keeps you from accessing the emotions and experiences that are actually causing your pain.
From there, the steps essentially ask three things of you. You must decide to hand over your life’s meaning to something greater than yourself, you must create a true understanding of yourself through intense exploration (accessing the root of your suffering, i.e. therapy), and you must dedicate yourself to a life of inner wisdom/inventory, compassion, and temperance.
It took me a few meetings, but the following is how I’ve come to understand the role of the 12 Steps in my life, as someone who has never been addicted to drugs or alcohol. My personal meetings are for Anorexia Nervosa, but I went to as many as I could (while inpatient) for all kinds of issues, because what they illuminated allowed me to create this model for all areas of my life…
My purpose in life is to help as many people as I can, as constantly as I can. There is nothing more important to me, and it is how I will derive meaning from my days. In order to enact this purpose, I must temperately co-exist with daily, unhealthy temptations. I must frequently evaluate my motivations and actions through dedication to treatment. If I do these things, I can stay grounded enough to live meaningfully and fulfill this purpose.
This “purpose” is what I take “something greater than myself” to mean. We all encounter countless annoyances, distractions, pains, conflicts, shortcomings, every day. If we allow these things to consume us, we turn to harmful coping mechanisms. In order to avoid this, we have to stay connected to our higher purpose of choice. These purposes can be God or Allah, the Buddha or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but they can also be general piety, patriotism, exploration, kindness, generosity or any greater cause of that sort. Crucially, we can genuinely dedicate ourselves to these purposes with total control over both our corresponding actions and their outcomes.
My hope for those reading this is that you can identify healthy values that provide you with a sense of greater purpose, and that you can use those values to build a life that you love. I’ve been in a lot of therapy for a long time, and in a way, it all comes down to that. We aren’t born knowing how to do this, and 12 Step programs can be an excellent way to learn.
The professor who shared with us is back at work, now. In their bag at all hours is a miniature, handheld and handmade (by a friend of theirs) copy of Wallace’s 2005 speech, decorated with a patterned, fabric cover of two fish. They pull it out whenever they need to feel connected, again.