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THE HAPPY HUMANIST
Rational Recovery and the Addiction to 12-Step Therapies
alternative self-help organizations to Alcoholics Anonymous
have sprung up during the last several years. This article
will discuss one of them: Rational Recovery System, which
was started in 1976 by Jack Trimpey, a licensed social worker.
Rational Recovery now has groups in over 360 cities throughout
the United States and abroad; its headquarters is in Lotus,
California (Box 800, Lotus, CA 95652; 916-621-2667).
While there are few data other than testimonials available,
attendance at AA meetings and belief in 12-Step programs
have probably helped great numbers of people to overcome
their harmful addictions to alcohol and other substances
and to lead happier and emotionally healthier lives. But,
alas, the same thing can be said when disturbed people devoutly
follow various dubious groups and cults, such as those promoted
by the Christian flagellants, the Moslem dervishes, the
Hebrew cabalists, and the Catholic Inquisition. Literally
millions of people have made themselves less anxious and
depressed by swearing allegiance to extremist religious
and political gurus-ranging from Rasputin and Adolf Hitler
to Jim Jones and Tammy Baker-who dogmatically believed that
they could save the world for their fervent followers.
The point is that none of these prophets had magical curative
powers; nor did the sacred views that they passionately
promulgated to hordes of gullible followers. But the faith
of their adherents obviously helped these troubled people
to change themselves and to give up all kinds of harmful
addictions. Similarly, people’s intense belief in
a wide variety of implausible creeds and nostrums frequently
help them change their dysfunctional thoughts, feelings,
and actions. Witness, for example, the fervent testimonials
that innumerable people keep giving for cults, superstitions,
and hoaxes like astrology, shamanism, psychic surgery, fortune
telling, channeling, witchcraft, communications from ghosts,
satanism, and demonism.
We have considerable testimonial evidence, therefore, that
AA and other 12-step programs help a good number of people.
But we do not know whether the content of these programs
leads to their presumed benefits or whether those benefits
stem from a new belief system their adherents adopt. Furthermore,
we do not know whether greater benefits would be derived
from alternate self-help programs. Just as soon as we acknowledge
the possible effectiveness of 12-step programs, we had better
also recognize their serious failings and lapses.
First of all, AA is clearly a religious organization, in
spite of its allegations that its group members need only
pray and meditate “to improve our conscious contact
with God as we understand Him.” Steps 2,3,5,6,7,11,
and 12 of its 12-step program explicitly endorse God with
a capital G, advocate allegiance to a Higher Power (capitalized
again!), or call for a “spiritual awakening.”
And the other five steps, though they include some sensible
advice to help addicts, strongly hint that only dependency
on some supernatural entities and on Christian-like salvation,
atonement, and redemption will enable one to stop and continue
to desist from drinking.
Clearly, then, AA groups are no haven for millions of secular
humanists, agnostics, atheists, feminists, and other nonreligionists-nor
for many religionists who see that humans can help themselves
without relying on any higher powers. Because AA often zealously
proselytizes for its endorsement of divine intervention,
it turns off thousands-and quite possibly millions- of potential
adherents who might profitably join a self-help group to
combat their harmful addictions. Almost every psychotherapist
and physician encounters many alcoholics who attended AA
groups for a few sessions, only to be turned off by their
religious and spiritual approach, and who fought vigorously
against attending more meetings even though some court or
medical authority insists that they do so.
To make matters worse, AA subscribes to many rules and cannons
about alcoholism that are controversial, questionable, and
sometimes iatrogenic. The 12-step programs strongly state
or imply these dubious points:
Alcoholism is unquestionably a disease and takes a single,
invariant course which ends in total abstinence or death.
Addicts can never stop their addictions outside of 12-step
Once “alcoholics: stop drinking, a single drink will
lead to total relapse and send them to skid row.
Problem drinkers need a higher power to quit drinking; if
they are not theists, they can use anything (beauty, justice,
an ashtray, a tree, etc.) as the power to which to turn
over their lives.
Addicts can only properly be treated by other recovering
Children of “alcoholics,” even as adults, are
invariably disturbed and have to go through 12-step programs
themselves in order to lead sensible, happy lives.
Spouses and close relatives of alcoholics are “codependents”
who must be indoctrinated with 12-step programs and materials.
AA members, to stay off booze, must attend regular AA meetings
All effective programs for addicts must have strong religious
or spiritual elements. Faith-not reason-must prevail in
“Alcoholics” who refuse to keep coming to AA
meetings or who disagree with the 12-step program are seriously
Addicts can overcome their emotional disturbances with AA
meetings instead of with psychotherapy.
“Alcoholics” never really recover from their
addiction; they remain “recovering” addicts
for the rest of their lives.
“Alcoholics” who no longer drink but are still
anxious, depressed, or manic are “drydrunks”
who need still more 12-step treatment rather than psychotherapy.
The use of psychotropic medication by addicts is wrong and
almost certainly leads to readdiction.
Endless cathartic confession at AA meetings is the best
form of treatment for alcoholism.
AA subscribes to a number of questionable ideas, it has
many good points and has served hundreds of thousands of
problem drinkers very well since it was founded in 1935.
Many of its tenets and practices are quite sensible and
practical and overlap with the rational-emotive therapy
concepts that are used by Rational Recovery. Thus, like
RET, AA includes the following rational ideas:
It sometimes looks for and tries to combat compulsive drinkers’
It uses many educational and bibliotherapy procedures.
It advocates some nondisturbing beliefs, such as “Make
plans but don’t think that you have to plan the results
and have to achieve them.”
It uses many coping statements, such as “Live and
It follows many self-help procedures and urges active homework.
It emphasizes the serenity prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr: “Give
me the courage what I can change, the serenity to accept
what I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Whereas RET, however, uses this as a philosophy and not
as a prayer, AA uses it as an appeal to God.
It believes that most conventional “past-oriented”
therapies do not help people to stop drinking and maintain
abstinence and that new thinking and changed behavior can
aid these goals.
can be seen, AA has many good (we could even say rational)
philosophies and procedures. It never meant to coerce members
and participants. Many of its limitations follow what humans
do when their ideology is founded on religious faith-not
on reality and experimentation-and is taken to devout extremes.
On both religious and nonreligious grounds, AA and other
12-step programs have limited value and sometimes, because
of their devout orientations, can be said to lead to addiction
to the 12-step process itself. So, despite its distinct
advantages (and despite the likelihood that some substance
abusers would not have stopped their addictions without
its help), AA has distinct limitations. Consequently, several
non-higher power groups have been established during the
1980s which serve as alternatives to AA. These include,
in addition to Rational Recovery, the Secular Organizations
for Sobriety, Methods of Moderation, and Men and Women for
might be expected, I favor Rational Recovery because it
is the only self-help group that not only has no religious
or spiritual orientation but also solidly links its program
to rational-emotive therapy and cognitive-behavior therapy.
RR groups are educational rather than therapy groups and,
although members pay no fees, each group tries to be closely
connected with a professional consultant who is trained
in RET. The consultant or advisor need not have a history
of addiction or attend every single RR meeting. He or she
tries to help the group members learn the basic principles
and practices of RET and to apply them to disputing the
irrational beliefs that were instrumental in driving them
to drink and in blocking their achievement of sobriety.
RR holds that, although problem drinking and substance abuse
have many biological and social origins, much of the thinking
of “alcoholics” follows the famous ABCs of RET
and CBT. According to RET theory, many (not all) problem
drinkers first tend to bring about dysfunctional consequences
Cs), such as anxiety and depression, when unfortunate activating
events or adversities (As) occur in their lives. They do
this mainly by constructing irrational or self-defeating
beliefs (Bs). Second, they then tend to construct additional
irrational beliefs (iBs) about their feelings of depression
and anxiety-especially “I must not be anxious! I can’t
stand this anxiety!”- and consequently take to drinking
in order to allay their pain. Third, problem drinkers often
take their secondary consequence-“alcoholism”
– and create more irrational beliefs about that, such
as “I must not be an alcoholic. What a worm I am for
drinking too much!” This creates a tertiary consequence-self-damnation-that
frequently drives them to drink even more. Also, because
of their self-castigation for being addicted, problem drinkers
frequently minimize their serious drinking problems and
resort to many rationalizations and denials about their
In the course of RR meetings, the ABCs of alcoholism and
its related emotional and behavioral disturbances are discussed
and the RET techniques of actively, forcefully disputing
(D) the members’ dysfunctional beliefs are taught
and practiced. Jack Trimpey’s Rational Recovery from
Alcoholism: The Small Book and other RET-oriented self-help
books, pamphlets, cassettes, and materials are steadily
used, examined, and applied to the members’ addiction
and to their other problems. A number of cognitive, emotive
and behavioral techniques of RET are practiced, with the
goal of showing the participants how to think, feel, and
act more appropriately and to achieve their personal goals.
Members are thereby helped preferably to make a profound
philosophic change that will promote their continued sobriety
and minimize their general disturbance. Ideally, they will
become significantly less disturbable and, after being in
RR for a while-though hardly forever!-will often prevent
themselves from emotionally upsetting themselves in the
Rational Recovery, as can be seen, is more of a self-help
than a support group and in this respect is much closer
to Recovery Inc., than it is to AA. It differs from AAA
in several other important aspects:
It doesn’t endorse the disease concept of “alcoholism.”
It sees its members’ participation in RR as time-limited
and discourages their perpetual dependence on RR meetings.
It recommends lifetime abstinence when there have been repeated
failures to exercise moderation but recognizes that some
problem drinkers can and do learn to drink moderately and
It accepts the treatment of addicts by counselors and therapists
who have never themselves been addicted.
It doesn’t see all children of alcoholics as emotionally
disturbed, nor all their close relatives as disturbed codependents.
Instead of Codependents Anonymous groups, it soon will sponsor
generic self-help groups where members learn how to stop
being too dependent upon anyone or anything, including RR
It has no objection to its members using a religious or
spiritual orientation to help themselves with their addiction
and other problems, but it takes a completely pro-choice
attitude and holds that problem drinkers do not need any
support from a higher power and that they clearly have the
ability to change themselves without any spiritual support.
It encourages them to rely on their own capacities to make
meaningful, existential, and philosophic alterations in
their lives-and if they want to invoke gods or spiritual
forces in the process, that is their prerogative rather
than their necessitude.
It recommends some form of intensive individual or group
psychotherapy-especially RET or some other mode of cognitive-behavior
therapy-as a highly important part of the anti-addictive
process and encourages its members to explore and change
the feelings and behaviors that led to their addiction and
that keep them at risk for relapses.
It recognizes that problem drinking and the emotional disturbances
that frequently accompany it often have biochemical and
biological, as well as psychological and social, aspects,
and it therefore often encourages the combined use of psychotherapy
and medication to help addicted persons.
recovery is opposed to the one-party system for helping
problem drinkers-meaning AA and its higher power indoctrination-and
strongly favors a democratic multiparty system that may
well include AA plus other anti-addiction groups which aim
to provide a meeting ground for people who want nothing
to do with any kind of higher power and who want to rely
on themselves and other humans to achieve and maintain sobriety.
RR particularly opposes the unconstitutional stand of many
courts and public agencies that now force alcoholics to
join religiously oriented 12-step programs and dictatorially
give them no nonreligious choice.
unlike AA, welcomes research on the effectiveness of self-help
groups, including RR itself, in helping addicts stop their
substance abuse and stay stopped and is therefore cooperating
in studies to evaluate its therapeutic results-studies such
as are now in progress at the Harvard University Medical
School and the New York University Medical School.
the theory of RET, RR teaches its participants unconditional
acceptance of themselves and others and shows them how to
evaluate their thoughts, feelings, and actions, but not
to measure or devalue their self or personhood.
Recovery-and the other addiction recovery groups that are
without any religious or spiritual tenets-are by no means
the only answer to the problem of helping people to overcome
their serious addictions. The 12-step programs obviously
have some excellent results and are not likely, in the near
future, to go out of business. But as RR continues to grow
and to serve large numbers of participants, it will be valuable
to discover just how effective an anti-addictional program
is that places no emphasis on a higher power and that attempts
to incorporate in its self-help procedures specific rational-emotive
and cognitive-behavioral therapeutic methods.
Here’s a selection of material that you might find
The Essential Albert Ellis by Windy Dryden (New York: Springer
Publishing Company, 1990).
The Practice of Rational-Emotive Therapy by Albert Ellis
and Windy Dryden (New York: Springer Publishing Company,
Rational-Emotive Therapy with Alcoholics and Substance Abusers
by Albert Ellis, John McInernery et al. (New York:Pergamon,
“Divine Intervention and the Treatment of Chemical
Dependency,” by Albert Ellis and Eugene Schoenfeld,
Journal of Substance Abuse (1990) 2:459-468.
When AA Doesn’t Work For You: A rational Guide for
Quitting Alcohol by Albert Ellis and Emmett Velten (New
York: Barricade Books).
The Truth About Addiction and Recovery by Stanton Peele
and Archie Brodsky (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991).
Rational Recovery From Addiction- The Small Book by Jack
Trimpy (New York: Dell Books, 1992).
Rational Recovery from Fatness-The Small Book by Jack and
Lois Trimpy (Lotus, CA: 1990).
Ellis is president of the Institute for Rational-Emotive
Therapy, 45 East 65th Street, New York, NY 10021-6593. He
is the founder of RET and is considered the “grandfather”
of cognitive-behavior therapy.
The Humanist, November/December, 1992)