I avoid conferences and seminars as they can be so boring but recently I spent two days of my life at the Recovery from Addiction Conference at Chester University and it was really interesting. And I’m not saying this because somebody paid me to be there or write this (I wish they had). The truth is I was there out of genuine interest in addicts and their condition.
A few months ago I stopped working for Castle Craig Hospital, moved to Liverpool and set up a PR agency, called Untold Stories PR, with my partner. Now we’re promoting the first rehab clinic on Ibiza (which was set up by a Scouser) and I still find addiction really interesting, which is more than I can say for most sectors I’ve worked in.
What drew me to this event was to hear about how different religions use the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). I’ve come across people who believe that the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are nothing but an evil plot to convert people to Christianity. I’ve also come across addicts whose lives have been saved by the 12 Steps so rejecting it seems deluded.
To use the 12 Steps of AA you need to believe in some sort of “Higher Power”, or a “God as We Understand Him”. This can be a religion but it can also be nature, the universe or even the network of AA itself – as long as it is outside yourself. The whole point is that the addicts have to surrender, to admit defeat against the many headed monster of addiction; to ask for help and stop blaming, rationalising and making excuses.
One of the best arguments for the universality of 12 Steps is how it has been used in Iran, where Narcotics Anonymous (NA) is approved by the Islamic government and there are so many members that they hold their annual conventions in a football stadium. And something similar is happening in Pakistan and India. How can this be happening if it’s a Christian plot?
It would be nice to visit Iran or The Subcontinent and report on this story but it’s a lot easier to get to Chester, which is just a hop, skip and a jump from Liverpool. A return ticket on the train cost me a fiver.
The conference was opened by Wendy Dossett, a senior lecturer at Chester University, and organiser of the event. Wendy has been working on “The Higher Power Project” for more than two years – probably the largest scale project in Britain exploring 12-Step spirituality in the UK.
“12 step spirituality is a key element of contemporary spirituality” says Wendy in this podcast. She points out that there are about 45,000 members of AA who practice this form of spirituality in Britain and yet it is rarely mentioned in academia or the media.
The first presentation was by a Mulsim anthroplogist, Dr Sufyan Abid, who read a paper by Dr Mansur Ali who had been unable to attend. He explained how Islam works with the 12 Steps and he also shared this incredible quote about cannabis from the 14th century:
“The news had first reached us that it (cannabis) appeared among Muslims by the end of the 7th or the beginning of the 8th century when Tatars came into power. Its emergence was concomitant with the sword of Genghis Khan…this wretched cannabis is its worst negative externality. It is worse than drinking alcohol in many ways, whereas alcohol is worse than it in other ways.”
They were followed by a Sikh, Quaker, a Jew, a Mormon, a Christian – who talked about being spiritual but not religious – a Buddhist psychiatrist and an academic who studies Native American Spirituality. All of them talked about how their faith works with AA and the 12 step approach to recovery.
The star of the show was a professor from Harvard called John Kelly. I was told that he’s the world’s leading expert on the “evidence base” for 12 step recovery, and for the next hour he bombarded us with facts and figures about the academic studies that have looked at this issue.
About half way through his presentation I stopped taking notes as my brain was at overload and I couldn’t take any more. But what I did pick up was that AA has been working since 1935 and it wasn’t until 1991 that the American government took note of its success, organised a conference in New Mexico and that led to the phenomenon being properly studied for the first time.
He also said that alcoholism is the number one health problem in the USA (he mentioned an annual death toll of 3.3 million) and that the hundreds of studies he has analysed shows that AA has a 60% success rate. Considering how many billions we waste of treating drunks it’s a wonder that this method is not more widely adopted.
Professor Segal from Kings College London gave an interesting talk on “a scientific explanation of a spiritual solution: why 12-step recovery works” and was followed by the most charismatic speaker of the event — Professor David Best of Sheffield Hallam University – who is just back from Australia where he made this observation: “The human toll from accidents, overdoses, chronic disease, violence, mental illness and family disruption, however, is immeasurable.”
There were speakers from AA and NA (Narcotics Anonymous) – both impressive and amusing – people from Public Health England, (the policy making unit of the NHS) and I’m delighted to report that the NHS is finally taking the 12 Steps seriously. I met academics, therapists, retired and acting professors, an artist, a Marxist, the director of Castle Craig Hospital, a journalist from a big American Christian newspaper and people from all sorts of NGOs that work with people “in recovery”.
Finally, I got the chance to discover Chester which is a rich and attractive town – and very close to my new base of Liverpool. It has ancient roots going back to Roman times and has a beautiful park and centre. It reminds me of Edinburgh which is also attractive but not somewhere I would want to live.
Photo credit: God the Father by Cima da Conegliano, c. 1515
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The role of spirituality in recovery is undoubtedly profound. It’s a shame that often individuals are too disempowered to take whatever resonates with them and leave what doesn’t. Thank you for this excellent piece. I too wish we could explore this in areas such as Iran.
Thanks for this comment Sharoo. I am always surprised how many people reject spirituality, or over-analyse it. I love the idea of mystery, i.e. that we don’t know all the answers and that there is a guiding force that helps us. As long as we do the right thing we tend to be okay, and doesn’t that tell you that the universe is a good place?
Sikhs, quakers, mormons, jews, muslims, christians…AND a buddhist psychiatrist – what a wonderful mix of cultures and ideas. It’s encouraging to see such diversity of people coming together to discuss spirituality.