How to Stay Sober: Recovery without Religion


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The Purpose of the 12 Steps

But two years later, when his girlfriend threatened to kick him out of their house and he realized he was about to become homeless, he came back to AA, this time as a full participant.

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Study's message to recovering alcoholics: Quit smoking to stay sober

He began signing up to do AA meeting chores, like making coffee or collecting books at the end of the meetings. Five years later, he is still sober and reaching out to other addicts who are trying to kick their addiction. In recent years, a growing body of research has found that helping others brings measurable physical and psychological benefits to the helper.

Building on this work, Pagano is exploring the particular and sometimes surprising benefits of altruism for people battling alcoholism and drug addiction. Her studies have shown that addicts who help others, even in small ways—such as calling other AA members to remind them about meetings or making coffee like Victor did—can significantly improve their chances of staying sober and avoiding relapse, among adults and adolescents alike.

Surveys and studies say that abuse of alcohol and narcotics is rising among young people like Victor, and at a time when social service budgets are being slashed, many addicts who enter expensive treatment programs relapse within 90 days of being discharged, leaving patients and their clinicians yearning for more effective treatment strategies.


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If getting addicts involved in helping their fellow sufferers is key to their recovery, as Pagano believes, it could revolutionize the treatment of alcohol and drug addictions. For years, people have found that helping others can have a profound impact on health and happiness.

According to a survey on volunteering, 68 percent of the 4, American adults surveyed said that volunteering made them feel physically healthier, 73 percent said it lowered their stress levels, 77 percent said it improved their emotional health, and almost all respondents said it made them happier. Other research supports these claims.

In one study, published in the journal Social Science and Medicine , patients suffering from multiple sclerosis were trained to provide compassionate support to other sufferers through monthly phone calls.

Staying Sober through Service | Greater Good

The patients who offered this kind of support showed improvements in self-confidence and self-esteem, and had lower levels of pain and depression. The authors of the study conclude that helping others provided the MS sufferers with a sense of meaning and a stronger social identity, which made handling their own disease easier. He points to research showing that when chronic pain patients serve as peer volunteers for others suffering from chronic pain, they experience lower levels of pain intensity, disability, and depression.

As she learned more about the different treatments for addiction, she was surprised that there seemed to be no one looking at the role of doing service. She decided to explore the impact that helping others could have on people in recovery. She started by looking at data from one of the largest studies of addiction to date, with 1, participants.

Though the study, run out of the University of Connecticut, was not focused on helping behavior specifically, Pagano was able to measure it by looking at how many study participants became AA sponsors or completed the 12th step of AA, which involves helping others in recovery. When she compared helpers to non-helpers in AA, she found that 40 percent of helpers avoided taking a drink in the 12 months following the 3-month treatment period, while only 22 percent of non-helpers stayed sober—a doubling effect rarely seen in social science research, she says.

In addition, when Pagano looked at the age, gender, income, work status, addiction severity level, and level of antisocial personality disorder of the participants in the study, she found that none of these characteristics predicted helping behavior. Only one factor seemed related to helping: Those who were more depressed starting out were more likely to help. This seemed counterintuitive, given that depressed people often suffer from lethargy and a sense of helplessness.

But according to Pagano, this is exactly the kind of thinking about depression that gets recovery therapists in trouble. Thinking she might be onto something, Pagano and her colleagues devised a more precise measure of helping behavior called the SOS Service to Others in Sobriety scale for use in future studies.

How to stay sober: Recovery without religion

However, it appeared that helping behaviors explained that finding; in other words, alcoholics with religious backgrounds seemed to do better in AA because of their propensity to want to help others, not because of religious beliefs, per se. Studies on high school service learning programs, for example, have shown that teens who participate in service learning do better in school, are less involved in criminal behavior, and report feeling happier.

But according to Stephanie Brown, a researcher at Stony Brook University who studies altruism, helping people with whom we share a special kinship, such as alcoholics in AA, may activate the same brain circuits that light up when parents care for their offspring. Research on mammals has shown that activating this circuit decreases stress, strengthens immune systems, and inhibits centers in the brain affiliated with hoarding or other selfish behaviors—the same brain regions, Brown says, that are involved in human addictions.

Trying to help others stay sober and watching their struggles can help a newly sober alcoholic remember his or her trials more clearly and recommit to remaining sober.

Who We Are

Post says that in mutual aid organizations like AA, people feel they have a special competence in helping, having been there themselves. With mounting evidence for the benefits of helping others, Pagano believes service within AA or NA should be viewed as an integral part of treatment for alcoholics and drug addicts. A benefit of focusing on helping and service, she says, is that anyone can do it. Pagano hopes to do a larger, randomized control trial to prove that helping others directly causes people to get sober.

Victor is sure that helping his fellow sufferers has changed his life and allowed him to remain sober. Currently, he is in charge of organizing a weekly AA meeting, where he arrives early to set up and make sure others know how to run the meeting. Jill Suttie, Psy. The solution to our problems is often what seems the most difficult to muster our efforts. We do not have to wait to apply solutions until the problem is clearly defined. Early in sobriety we have resistance to believe we are cared for, or that we have anything to give.

We are overwhelmed with guilt and remorse, shame and bitterness.


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  • We fear revealing ourselves. We realize we are worthy by the care and hope given freely by others. Our willingness to risk our care is bolstered by this growing belief. By the way, those early in recovery often are the most effective in helping the newcomer identify because of the proximity to the hell of their addiction. We all care, we are all Loved, we all have something to give, however obscured it is by our distorted perceptins. This degrading babble traces back to the appropriation of the term sobriety by Alcoholics Anonymous AA , which has grown into a large and powerful recovery movement that dominates American thinking about addiction.

    Staying Sober through Service

    Before AA hijacked the term, "sober" simply meant not being currently intoxicated. Now, sober is a state of being—one you can only achieve through total, lifelong abstinence if you ever drank alcoholically. According to AA and the recovery movement, no former alcoholic can drink moderately. Any drinking whatsoever, according to these absolutists, and you're no longer "sober. When I suggested to my AA friend Ken not his real name that Stritch shows one-time alcoholics can control their drinking, he objected strenuously. For Ken, "the fact that she has to limit herself to one drink a day proves she's an alcoholic.

    Ken says he's "never known an alcoholic to resume drinking in a controlled manner. But this group is a small percentage of recovered alcoholics, the large majority of whom never go to AA or enter rehab. And only 13 percent of people with alcohol dependence ever receive specialty alcohol treatment. Note that 13 percent is the upper figure for step recovery, since ever participating does not mean the person recovered due to AA or rehab.

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    For recovery absolutists, no one recovers from alcoholism without AA, just as no one can recover without giving up drinking forever. What arrogance! Who gave these self-appointed experts the power to tell everyone how they must achieve recovery? Just as the recovery movement dictates the language of recovery and sobriety, it also tries to dictate the only true way to achieve recovery. The focus on abstinence is the alpha and omega of the 12 steps. But it requires people in recovery to decide that their lives revolve around an empty space, which is not only undesirable but unsustainable.

    Abstinence is fine as a recovery plan for either the short or the long term. But you can't commit to nothingness, only to health, goals, and plans. Recovery means that you embrace a life of engagement and meaning; that you overcome your addiction in the service of your values, plans, and life goals.

    Being positively engaged with life encourages better coping skills and natural recovery. A number of long-term studies support this idea. The author of one of these studies, Gene Heyman, found that "being married, having a college degree, fearing arrest, facing high drug prices, and developing drug-related health concerns made heavy cocaine, marijuana, and alcohol users more apt to quit or substantially cut back.

    Aren't these the obvious reasons that people would quit or cut back on their addictions? Obvious, that is, unless you're convinced of AA's disease model of alcoholism or its modern neuro-scientific equivalent, the "chronic brain disease" theory of addiction. As long as these perverse ways of viewing addiction hold us captive, we won't recognize the most evident paths to achieving recovery and sobriety.

    In fact, we won't even understand what these terms mean.

    How to Stay Sober: Recovery without Religion How to Stay Sober: Recovery without Religion
    How to Stay Sober: Recovery without Religion How to Stay Sober: Recovery without Religion
    How to Stay Sober: Recovery without Religion How to Stay Sober: Recovery without Religion
    How to Stay Sober: Recovery without Religion How to Stay Sober: Recovery without Religion
    How to Stay Sober: Recovery without Religion How to Stay Sober: Recovery without Religion
    How to Stay Sober: Recovery without Religion How to Stay Sober: Recovery without Religion
    How to Stay Sober: Recovery without Religion How to Stay Sober: Recovery without Religion
    How to Stay Sober: Recovery without Religion How to Stay Sober: Recovery without Religion
    How to Stay Sober: Recovery without Religion How to Stay Sober: Recovery without Religion

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