Proposing an Addiction Recovery Theory

Building on the ideas explored in my previous post about the addicition process, schizmogenesis, and epistemological errors, I am proposing a possible way to think about recovery from the addiction process from a systems perspective. If we can acknowledge that there are different types of addiction, yet a similar dynamic pattern in the process, we might be able to identify a similar pattern in a recovery process. I suggest a possible framework which helps us think about breaking a schizmogenic process. The first step for interrupting the process is some type of intervention, followed by some type of deprogramming or detoxification, then proceeding to the beginning of a recovery journey. Using the three examples of types of addiction mentioned in my previous post, alcohol and other drug addiction, cultic addiction, and the arms race, each will require some type of intervention to interrupt the progressive addicting split before beginning the correction of an epistemological error. An intervention can take the form of a group of family and friends confronting a drug addict with the reality of their destructive path, a family , friends or even other authorities intervening to remove a cult follower from a cult setting, or a diplomatic settlement which creates a mechanism for de-escalating a competitive arms race. The next step would be some form of detoxifying (from drug addiction), deprogramming (from cultic addiction), de-escalation (diplomatic intervention). If an intervention has succeeded, and the process of detoxifying/deprogramming has begun, the beginning of recovery will include some type of re-programming or changed epistemology or mind set – possibly a reshaped or transformed self. Recovery is not a static point of achievement. The recovery journey or process is one of ongoing maintenance. Whatever the conditions of predispositional vulnerability and epistemological errors in thinking set up the initial addiction process may continue to present an ongoing threat for relapse or re-addiction.

The obvious critical first step in breaking the addiction process is some type of intervention. The earlier the process can be interrupted the more likely there will be a successful intervention. Detoxifying or de-programming cannot occur until there is a successful intervention. There are plenty of examples of failures to intervene with alcoholic addiction or other drug addiction and the person addicted dies. Likewise with cult leaders and followers. There were plenty of warnings about the deadly path Jim Jones was on when he rallied some of his most devoted followers in the People’s Temple to sell everything, cut off all family ties in the U. S. and follow him to Guyana. He eventually became so delusional that he believed, and convinced his followers, that by killing themselves they would gain heavenly graces in an afterlife. The complementary schizmogenesis combined with the epistemological error led to the death of 913 in Jonestown, plus 4 in nearby Georgetown, and 5 in congressman Leo Ryan’s group which had travelled to Jonestown to intervene (obviously too late). So the timing of the intervention is critical.

We are currently (during this recent week) in a serious crisis in the U.S. as a result of a U.S. president who has cultivated a cultic following during his four years in office and though there have been various attempts at interventions to interrupt the complementary schizmogenesis between him and his followers, none of them were robust enough to stop the eventual riot which he incited on January 6th, 2021. The riot was both destructive and deadly to others and property and deadly for some followers. The apocalyptic characterization from several strands the Trumpian cultists resembles that of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple followers, and other apocalyptic movements, such as Aum Shinrikyo in Japan. Robert Jay Lifton recounts the events of March 20, 1995 when sarin gas was released in a Tokyo subway, in his book, “Destroying the World To Save It” (2000): “On March 20,1995, Aum Shinrikyo, a fanatical Japanese religious cult, released sarin, a deadly nerve gas on five subway trains during Tokyo’s early morning rush hour. Eleven were killed and up to five thousand injured.”(p.3). Lifton compares the psychological makeup of Jim Jones and Shoko Asahara, the guru of Aum Shinrikyo:

“Like Asahara (and many others who show paranoid tendencies), he [Jones] became more grandiose the greater his anxiety and inner conflict. He also resembled Asahara in his increasing tendency toward megalomania and in episodes that were close to or actually psychotic. As with gurus in general, a pattern of decompensation and breakdown was greatly accentuated by faltering control over his disciples. Jones and Asahara, to fend off threats to their guruism, escalated their demand on their disciples, ultimately insisting that they be ready to die for their guru – in Jones’ case, through acceptance of a doctrine of revolutionary suicide as an ultimate expression of loyalty.” (p.284-285). This scenario played out in Washington, D.C. last week, with president Trump inciting his disciples to insurrection by storming the Capitol building. This has resulted in immediate repercussions with an unprecedented second impeachment of a U.S. president and immediate arrests of many of Trump’s disciples. In all three cases – Jones, Asahara, Trump – the significant intervention was too late to save lives, but the complementary schizmogenesis was interrupted. Asahara and his top disciples went to prison, Jones and most followers went to their death, and Trump and his followers are facing legal ramifications. A state institution intervened in all three cases.

The way in which an intervention may occur with someone who is addicted to drugs will differ according to variables such as age, class, gender, psychosocial context, relationship patterns, and timing. As mentioned above, the earlier the intervention the better. With regard to alcoholic addiction, we are perhaps most familiar with family and friends who confront an alcoholic in the form of a group support system, yet the founders of A.A. did not have such a support group intervention. Bill Willson (Bill W.) and Bob Smith (Dr. Bob) had each other. Each of them had multiple fits and starts with alcohol, but found that no external or personal attempts to break the addictive cycle worked. Bill W. was staying in a hotel in Akron, Ohio, in 1935. He called a friend, Henrietta Seiberling, to ask if she could put him in touch with another drunk to preserve his own shaky sobriety. She happened to be a close friend with Dr. Bob Smith, who she had wanted to help with his alcohol addiction. She arranged for them to meet at her house and they spent six hours sharing their life stories and struggles with alcohol addiction. This founders’ story is told in multiple A.A. and other publications. Nan Robertson’s account in “Getting Better: Inside Alcoholic Anonymous” (1988) is particularly engaging, since she was a pulitzer winning writer with the New York Times and she recounts her own alcoholism story as well. She makes an insightful and critical comment about why A.A. is particularly effective: “There could not have been just one founder of A.A. There had to be two, because the process is one person telling his story to another, as honestly as he knows how.”(p.34). Robertson quotes a comment Dr. Bob made in a letter, in which he explains why none of his previous reading, or encounters with professionals or others were as effective as possible interventions as his exchange with Bill Wilson: “‘Of far more importance was the fact that he was the first living human with whom I had ever talked , who knew what he was talking about in regard to alcoholism from actual experience. In other words he talked my language.'” (p.35). So the intervention for Bill W. and Dr. Bob was each other. Robertson says, “The essence of A.A. is conversation, dialogue, one alcoholic talking with another in a meeting or or over a cup of coffee elsewhere. The problem with the active alcoholic is that his life is a monologue- he connects with his addicted self, and that is all. Ninety percent of the recovery process is through peers talking with one another.”(p.126).

The recovery process from any addiction will move from an intervention to some type of detoxifying or deprogramming or reframing. For A.A., once an alcoholic had ceased drinking and his or her body is detoxified, the typical 12 Step Program provides a framework and support system for the ongoing process of recovery. I am not going to discuss the various interpretations and arguments around the 12 steps, such as what the meaning of “higher power” might be. Robertson says, “an A.A. pamphlet points out ‘ Newcomers are rarely helped by ponderous sermonizing about the Twelve Steps, or by complicated interpretations. The Twelve Steps speak plainly for themselves, and all newcomers are, of course , free to use them as they choose’. Members refer to the Twelve Steps not as musts or rules but a kind of road map to an enjoyable sober life.”(p.132) Robertson has boiled down the Twelve Steps to six principles, which I find address a fundamental approach to a recovery process:

  1. We admit we are licked and cannot get well on our own.
  2. We get honest with ourselves.
  3. We talk it out with somebody else.
  4. We try to make amends to people we have harmed.
  5. We pray to whatever greater power we think there is, even as an experiment, or to think of our A.A. group as our “Higher Power’.
  6. We try to give of ourselves for our own sake and without stint to other alcoholics, with no thought of reward. (p. 132).

The first three principles can break the symmetrical schizmogenesis of the alcoholic’s pride believing he can win the battle over the bottle (epistemological error). These three as well as the next three help ensure an ongoing scaffolding for recovery.

Recovery from drug addiction, cult addiction and the arms race, requires consistent maintenance, once an intervention and detoxifying/deprograming/reprograming process occurs. Commitments to reform need to be reiterated and reinforced by both internal (personal) and external (social, relational, economic, political, legal) mechanisms.

This and my previous post on the addiction process are frameworks for further theory development. I encourage readers to comment in this site or to contact me with any questions you might have. I intend to continue developing the theory and my thinking will be informed by your feedback.