BigBook12And12I ran across an author promoting his new book as a ‘holistic’ alternative to Twelve Step recovery. Made no sense to me, since the Steps are a holistic approach to recovery.

The term holistic appeared in the 1920’s along with the idea that since a human being was more than a collection of parts, he or she should be viewed in totality rather than in terms of what had gone wrong with a particular organ. In practice, that meant evaluating emotional, psychological, and spiritual dimensions as well as physiology.

Makes sense, but the notion was temporarily overshadowed by dramatic progress in physical medicine, only to return a few decades later when the limitations of that same medical treatment were clearer. The treatment of chronic pain, for instance, began to focus on psychological sequellae such as depression and anxiety as well as relief of physical sensation. Psychological assessment, counseling and support, along with antidepressants, became an accepted part of pain treatment. Many would argue that this substantially improved the quality of life for pain patients.

“Holistic health” is one of those wiggly terms that covers a lot of ground. In practice, we see it used to describe a dazzling array of approaches, from megavitamin therapies to traditional acupuncture to mindfulness meditation and beyond. What they have in common: a focus on the connection between mind, body, and spirit, and the need for the individual to assume responsibility for the maintenance of health and wellness, rather than assigning it solely to some professional.

That sounds very much in line with 12 Step philosophy. It’s a spiritual program that addresses emotional¬† growth alongside behavior change. The specific problem to be addressed is in a way an afterthought, mentioned only in the first step, possibly just to focus attention on that aspect of the human condition before moving on to exploration of the remainder.

That’s why it’s proved so easy to adapt to a range of personal and interpersonal issues. The Steps and the AA format have adapted to all sorts of other uses and troublesome life situations (try doing that with methadone maintenance). My informal count is 35 offshoots. Here they are.

Heck, I recall one fellow, a newspaperman who hated AA so much he swore to found his own group, ¬†12 Steps Anonymous, to support others who needed help getting over the ill effects of those damn meetings. I don’t know if he ever realized his dream.

To me, the Steps are an example of a holistic approach at its best– adaptable to a wide range of maladies, but in its essence, about the way we live now.


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