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Overcoming Your Alcohol Drug and Recovery Habits: An Empowering Alternative to AA and 12-Step Treatment

Overcoming Your Alcohol Drug and Recovery Habits: An Empowering Alternative to AA and 12-Step Treatment

by James DeSena

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Recognizing that an addiction to 12-step programs can be just as dangerous as an addiction to alcohol or drugs, this book provides techniques to counter the self-defeating beliefs that lead to addiction. It enables those who have gone through Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and formal 12-step addiction treatments to overcome the self-destructive beliefs


Recognizing that an addiction to 12-step programs can be just as dangerous as an addiction to alcohol or drugs, this book provides techniques to counter the self-defeating beliefs that lead to addiction. It enables those who have gone through Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and formal 12-step addiction treatments to overcome the self-destructive beliefs and attitudes that these programs promote. These include the idea that addicts and alcoholics are powerless, the belief that addiction is an incurable disease, the assertion that people who slip inevitably lose control, and the notion that those who reject the 12-step approach are doomed. Devoted to helping individuals indoctrinated in 12-step dogma recognize their destructiveness, this book provides effective psychological techniques to vanquish negative thinking and help individuals regain control of their lives.

Editorial Reviews

James DeSena, Ph.D., is an authority on alcohol and drug addiction who has come to the conclusion that there are healthier and more effective alternatives to the traditional Alcohol Anonymous and 12-Step treatments. Based on his personal and professional experience and research, he has written an excellent book, Overcoming Your Alcohol, Drug and Recovery Habits. "Bad medicine and faith healers have harmed vulnerable people for ages," says the author, and he cites the way too many addiction treatment providers often have their addicted patients returning time and time again without success. He says, though, that addicts can quit for good and do so without therapists and others. Studies clearly show that nearly 80% of people who quit alcohol and drug addictions did so on their own. His book takes a hard look at the addiction treatment industry and, at the same time, charts the path for those who want to quit. I heartily recommend this book.---Alan Caruba, charter member of the National Book Critics Circle.
March 2003

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Overcoming Your Alcohol Drug and Recovery Habits

An Empowering Alternative to AA and 12-Step Treatment

By James DeSena

See Sharp Press

Copyright © 2002 James DeSena
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-884365-29-4


Trick or Treatment?

"I never gave them hell. I just told the truth and they thought it was hell."

— Harry S. Truman

The early morning quiet was shattered when Brynn Hartman, wife of actor Phil Hartman, shot Phil and then turned the gun on herself. She was recovering after drug and alcohol treatment. When Curt Cobain pulled the trigger on the shotgun he jammed in his mouth, he was recovering after drug and alcohol treatment. When Terri McGovern, daughter of former U.S. Senator George McGovern, died of exposure in a snow bank, she was recovering after drug and alcohol treatment. When his cocaine-ravaged heart could take no more, 50-year-old former all star and World Series MVP Darrell Porter was found dead in a park; he was recovering after drug and alcohol treatment. When he blew his brains out, Hugh O'Connor, son of Carroll O'Connor, was recovering after drug and alcohol treatment. When years of substance abuse finally killed Jerry Garcia, he was receiving, yet again, drug and alcohol treatment. When Andy Gibb drank and drugged himself to death, he was recovering after drug and alcohol treatment. When Chris Farley drank and drugged himself to death, he too was recovering.

All are gone. Addictions kill — so it seems.

Trick or treatment. The best-kept secret of America's addiction treatment industry is that it tricks much more that it treats. While their public relations pitchmen paint rosy pictures as they showcase a few newly sober or high profile celebrities, causalities such as those above, and countless others, continue to pile up. They are not simply victims of addictions. They are the sacrificial lambs of an addiction treatment industry (ATI) that boasts, "Treatment works!"

Addiction treatment initiates you into the precarious world of recovery — and recovery programs are everywhere. Booze, other drugs, gambling, food, sex, love, computers. If you can abuse it, there's a program to deal with it. The trouble begins when your abuse develops into addiction. That trouble is magnified when your addiction is labeled a disease. Confusion sets in when the "treatment" for your "disease" requires lifetime membership in quasi-religious societies disguised as recovery programs.

If this sounds strange to you, you're not alone. Such "treatment" benefits only a select few, a fact which has become very obvious. This religious "treatment" is no longer acceptable as the universal remedy for compulsive behavior and addiction. What benefits you is the point! You're better off without addictions and without "recovery." You can achieve freedom from both. Begin your liberation now by learning what went wrong — and how you can make it right.

The Sacred Cow

Recovery from compulsive behaviors and addictions has become synonymous with the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous. Like aspirin, the steps are prescribed routinely. Worse, despite overwhelming research evidence to the contrary, 12-step programs are prescribed as the only things that work: "Take the steps and call your sponsor. If that doesn't help, you may change your sponsor, but you must take the steps because the steps are the only thing that works." But they don't work for everyone. Far from it. But that matters not at all to 12-step promoters, especially those in the addiction treatment industry.

Twelve-step advocates, especially AA members, interpret the slightest doubts about The Program as personal affronts and condemnation of their beliefs. Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D., Kogod Professor and Director of Clinical Training in Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, confirms this in his book, What You Can Change and What You Can't:

AA does not welcome scientific scrutiny ... AA is a sacred cow. Criticism of it is rare, and testimonial praise is almost universal. The organization has been known to go after its most trenchant critics as if they were heretics, so criticism, even in the scientific literature, is timid.

A large majority of addiction therapists/counselors promote AA. Not surprisingly, most are AA members. They interpret their clients' "undisciplined" questioning of The Program as typical alcoholic behavior steeped in egotism, riotous self will and, of course, denial. They are also extremely, reflexively defensive, labeling mere questioning of their methods or motives as "AA bashing." In sum, AA and, especially, its commercial branch, the addiction treatment industry, is an ineffective, self-absorbed, monolithic institution whose members work assiduously to deny addicted people life-saving information and alternative modes of recovery. Of course, many of those who do this have good intentions, but they do it nonetheless.

The Recovery Group Movement (RGM)

The recovery group movement drives America's addiction treatment industry. It's a collective effort of people promoting the "treatment works" mantra — authors, AA members, prominent "recovering" people, and, above all, those who own and work in the treatment industry. Under the guise of treatment, they advance their 12-step agenda as a cure-all. The major flaw with the RGM's one-size-fits-all "treatment" plan, is that it does not work, never has worked, and never will work. It is simply not the panacea the RGM touts it to be. Martin Seligman puts it well:

AA is not for everyone. It is spiritual, even outright religious, and so repels the secular-minded. It demands group adherence, and so repels the nonconformist. It is confessional, and so repels those with a strong sense of privacy. Its goal is total abstinence, not a return to social drinking. It holds alcoholism to be a disease, not a vice or a frailty. One or more of these premises are unacceptable to many alcoholics, and these people will probably drop out.

As for outpatient psychotherapy, there is no evidence that any form of talking therapy — not psychoanalysis, not supportive therapy, not cognitive therapy — can get you to give up alcohol ... Overall, recovery from alcohol abuse, unlike recovery from a compound fracture, does not depend centrally on what kind of inpatient or outpatient treatment you get, or whether you get any treatment at all. (emphasis added)

Why do you think so many people bounce in and out of 12-step programs, or check into rehabs three, four, five times and more? The RGM's stock answers range from disease to denial to "grave mental and emotional disorders" (as AA literature states). Society must realize that these "diagnoses" were invented by AA and accepted as fact by a perverse addiction treatment industry largely made up of AA members. This AA make-believe causes needless suffering and death for countless people who innocently present themselves for addiction treatment.


What the recovery group movement won't tell you is that the vast majority of people who overcome addictions (that is, actually get over addictions, rather than remain stuck "in recovery" forever) do so without treatment and without participation in AA. Consider the following from the Harvard Medical School's Mental Health Letter, August/September 1996:

Most recovery from alcoholism is not the result of treatment. Only 20% of alcohol abusers are ever treated ... Alcohol addicts, like heroin addicts, have a tendency to mature out of their addiction ...

In [a] group of self-treated alcoholics, more than half said that they had simply thought it over and decided that alcohol was bad for them. A[nother group] said health problems and frightening experiences such as accidents and blackouts persuaded them to quit ... Others have recovered by changing their circumstances with the help of a new job or a new love or under the threat of a legal crisis or the breakup of a family. (Italics added)

And study results from highly respected addiction researchers, Doctors Linda and Mark Sobell, confirm Harvard's 20 %-treatment statistic:

[S]urveys found that over 77 percent of those who had overcome an alcohol problem had done so without treatment. In an earlier study ... a sizable majority of alcohol abusers, 82 percent, recovered on their own.

Yet doctors, employers, ministers, family and friends automatically recommend 12-step programs as the road to recovery. Under the umbrella of addiction treatment our courts mandate addicted criminals to rehab/AA in lieu of prison. Addicted prison inmates are denied parole and/or privileges unless they attend AA. Employee assistance programs order AA participation under threat of job loss. Driving privileges remain revoked unless a convicted drunk driver attends AA. Professional licenses are suspended if addicted lawyers or doctors do not attend AA.

If you have any type of "addiction" problem, you must be in a 12-step program, they insist. But should you find The Program ineffective, or question it in any way, you're branded a dissenter, a malcontent in obvious denial who is playing God and is not serious about wanting recovery unless it's on your own ego-inflated terms. Should you relapse, it's back to square one — step 1.

So, what's the upshot of all this? If you have (or even have had) some type of addiction or abuse problem, the unequivocal conclusion of addiction specialists and the entire 12-step community is that there must be something terribly wrong with you. You are placed, or must place yourself, back into the recovery process again and again and again. Rarely is it suggested that The Program offered is simply not beneficial to you. Still more rare is information on the high incidence of self-recovery and the "secret" to accomplishing it.

Instead, you are found guilty of not responding to a spiritual program that is wrongly yet reverently viewed as the cure-all for every addiction. While the old saying, "If at first you don't succeed try, try again" is viable in some circumstances, there comes a time for reflection — a time to stop beating a dead horse and realistically question and reevaluate your methods and motives.

Your life might depend on it. While it's too late to ask Chris, Jerry, Curt, Andy, Hugh, Brynn, Darrell, Phil, or Terri, it's not too late for you. So run — run away as far as possible and as fast as you can from anyone who tells you that Alcoholics Anonymous and its 12-step program is the only road to recovery or the best way to recover.

Just Ask Joan

Jumping in and out of 12-step programs, enduring multiple rehab stints, months of addiction counseling, therapy, relapse prevention, and aftercare programs, along with meetings on top of meetings, are all part of a phenomenon I have termed the recovery merry-go-round. Only it's not merry and it's often more exasperating than the roller coaster of addiction. The reality is that people caught in the downward spiral of addictive behavior are not recovering, no matter how many times they go through a misguided treatment process, which ritually incorporates a 12-step agenda. Just ask Joan Kennedy — if you can catch her in-between rehab treatments (13 by last count).

It's clear: 12-step based treatment and recovery programs are not the universal answer to overcoming addiction. Yet, time after time people like Mrs. Kennedy are recycled through a twisted process that fails much more than it succeeds. Besides the Mrs. Kennedys, of the 20% who are "treated," it's the Chris Farleys, Brynn Hartmans, and Curt Cobains that we constantly hear about. Even counselors and therapists who are not ardent 12-step supporters jump on the ATI bandwagon, and will "treat" you, for years on end, with the latest in recovery psychobabble. This is the insanity of the recovery group movement and the addiction treatment industry. And it is only a portion of the devastation wrought by the recovery merry-go-round.

There Are Ways

Alcoholics Anonymous first published its tenets in 1939, when its membership numbered approximately 100. Influenced by the Great Depression and Prohibition, Demon Rum was the enemy and who better to stave off a demon than God? God and spiritual matters still play an important role for many in recovery. (Yet, it seems distinctly unspiritual to coerce others to embrace one's own spiritual/religious beliefs, as routinely happens in the U.S. via coerced AA participation.) The Big Book (AA's bible, officially titled Alcoholics Anonymous) states:

The distinguished American psychologist, William James, in his book, Varieties of Religious Experience, indicates a multitude of ways in which men have discovered God. We have no desire to convince anyone that there is only one way by which faith can be acquired.

As seen in AA's own basic text, AA didn't expect all alcoholics who desired such an experience to find it through their message. Yet, today, that is exactly what they are supposed to do.

What's more, people do drop out, or fail at working 12-step programs. When this occurs do we conclude that the "demon" has won? That the demon has defeated one's Higher Power? That God has failed? (AA members refer to God as their Higher Power.) Of course not. The person has failed. He's failed to let God remove character defects and is admonished to surrender his life and will to a God of his own conception in preparation for the "miracle" of sobriety. Such teachings are the cornerstone of addiction treatment received behind the closed doors of rehabilitation centers throughout our country, and at virtually every AA meeting.

Then how is it that others achieve sobriety and find happiness outside of the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous and AA's commercial branch, the rehab centers? Could it be that we are not as powerless as we have been led to believe? Could it be that those promoting 12-step religiosity under the guise of addiction treatment have taken advantage of addiction, with its compulsions and obsessions, to shamelessly bolster the RGM? It is said that God helps those who help themselves. If true, would God really mind if we found our sobriety through an alternative to the AA Program? Would God try to stop us from saving our own lives?

Success Rates

What constitutes success in AA's recovery program? In the foreword to the second edition of the Big Book they write:

Of alcoholics who came to AA and really tried, 50% got sober at once and remained that way, 25% sobered up after some relapses, and among the remainder, those who stayed on with AA showed improvement.

In Appendix III, "The Medical View on AA," Dr. G. Kirby Collier, Psychiatrist writes:

Any therapeutic or philosophic procedure which can prove a recovery rate of 50% to 60% must merit our consideration.

First, please note that these figures are pure assertion. The Big Book offers no evidence whatsoever in support of them. Second, please note that the Big Book carefully qualifies AA's alleged success rate by counting only those who "really tried." And even if you accept these self-serving, unsupported figures, this still means that 25% to 50% of those who "really try" do not achieve success through AA. Should these AA "failures" be conveniently categorized as "in denial," hopeless or unwilling to change?

The Big Book's alleged "success" percentages are over 60 years old and reflect an AA membership that actively sought out The Program. Those figures may have been accurate when enrollment numbered a few dozen, but they are not relevant today. And drop out rates are never mentioned. Instead, AA deals only with those who "really tried."

The only two controlled studies of AA ever conducted both concluded that AA's success rate is no better than the rate of spontaneous remission; that is, those who participated in AA did no better than those who were left totally on their own. Despite that, the RGM boasts of AA's "unparalleled success" based on uncontrolled studies. But AA's own most recent surveys reveal huge dropout rates: 75% after ten meetings, and 95% before one year. Of the 5% who last a year, only 45% reach at least five years sobriety. This means that fewer than three in 100 people entering AA achieve five years sobriety. If AA claims a 3% success rate from its own surveys, it must also take responsibility for its dismal 97% failure rate.

It's also worth noting that the 3% success rate does not refer to those who have stayed continuously booze free. Rather, it refers to continuous membership in AA, which is most definitely not the same thing as continuous abstinence. To paraphrase Ken Ragge (author of The Real AA), the only thing more common in AA than abstinence is binge drinking. Because of this, 12-step treatment providers and other AA members regard relapse as a normal part of the "recovery process." And, incredibly, Alcoholics Anonymous is still touted by the RGM as the only thing that works! The sad fact is that AA works very well — for very few.


Excerpted from Overcoming Your Alcohol Drug and Recovery Habits by James DeSena. Copyright © 2002 James DeSena. Excerpted by permission of See Sharp Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Philip Tate
Overcoming Your Alcohol, Drug and Recovery Habits by James DeSena, Ph.D., is a self-help book about quitting an addiction. Written especially for people who are bogged down by AA's approach, Dr. DeSena exposes and debunks many of AA's teachings that some people find insulting, absurd, and self-defeating. Then he presents a theory of quitting an addiction that works through effort and a new set of beliefs, which does not rely on religious ideas. If you haven't gotten the help you expected from AA, read this book.
Ph.D., author of Alcohol: How to Give It Up and Be Glad You Did
James Christopher
Dr. Jim DeSena’s powerful 'quit for good' approach short-circuits distorted thinking and empowers addicted persons to reclaim their lives. This book celebrates freedom-from-addiction alternatives and is a welcome addition to the alcoholism literature.
C.A.S. Founder, Secular Organizations for Sobriety
Marianne Gilliam
It is incredibly well written, thoughtful, truthful, and incisive. The method Jim outlines for Discovery instead of recovery is inspired. I hope many who are not satisfied with AA and its Program will read his book and find answers to some of their questions. The book is a wonderful addition to the literature on alternatives to AA as well as exposing some of the harder truths behind the AA message.
author of How Alcoholics Anonymous Failed Me
Joseph Gerstein
Jim DeSena, Ph.D., delineates clearly and in detail that the "one size fits all" 12-step approach to alcohol abuse and dependence is as archaic as leech application. Also, as Jim DeSena demonstrates, the fundamental Hippocratic precept "First, Do No Harm," is abrogated on a daily basis. This is a perverse train of events. Just because a treatment may be proper and effective for some people does not meant that it must be good everyone. Dr. Jim DeSena's excellent book is one more cogent and eloquent plaint for a rational, humane and scientifically validated approach to proper matching of clients with addiction problems to treatment appropriate for them.
M.D., FACP, Harvard Medical School
Charles Bufe
Overcoming Your Alcohol, Drug and Recovery Habits does a fine job of exposing the lies and harmful effects of AA and 12-step treatment. This book will provide a welcome ray of hope to the many, many individuals who have gone through AA and 12-step treatment, yet continue to relapse. It will help them get off this exceptionally destructive merry-go-round.
author of: Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure?, co-author of Resisting 12-Step Coercion: How to Fight Forced Participation in AA, NA, or 12-Step Treatment
Scott D. Miller
Let's confront the unpleasant reality and say it out loud, AA doesn't work for many of the people struggling to overcome alcohol and other drug problems, and yet there continue to be precious few treatment alternatives. Don't despair if you've tried the traditional route and failed. Follow James DeSena's suggestions for Overcoming Your Alcohol, Drug and Recovery Habits and find your own path to sobriety.
Ph.D., author of Working with the Problem Drinker and The Miracle Method: A Radically New Approach to Problem Drinking
Stanton Peele
Jim DeSena, Ph.D., joins a long list of those familiar with alcoholism treatment who note that the king has no clothes - that AA and the 12 steps help a minority of alcoholics at the cost of selling them a nonsensical bill of goods. Jim's journey through the field makes for both fun reading and for important insights about ways out of alcoholism that most people will find more helpful than 12-step mumbo jumbo.
Ph.D., author of The Truth About Addiction and Recovery
A. Thomas Horvath
If you have doubts about what happens in 12-step oriented treatment, and no place to turn for a fresh perspective, this book is for you!
Ph.D., FAClinP, President of SMART Recovery, President (1999-2000), Division on Addictions, American Psychological Association, author of Sex, Drugs, Gambling & Chocolate: A Workbook for Overcoming Addictions

Meet the Author

James DeSena is a certified alcohol and drug addiction counselor who has chaired hundreds of non-12-step self-help meetings. He lives in Florham Park, New Jersey.

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