An Anniversary Tribute to Women for Sobriety and Secular Organizations for Sobriety

Women for Sobriety (W.F.S) and Secular Organizations for Sobriety (S.O.S) have, respectively, celebrated their 40th and 30th anniversaries in 2015.  Each played an important role in the diversification of addiction recovery support in the United States. 

There is a long and rich tradition of addiction recovery support in the United States.  Formal recovery mutual aid societies date from 18th century Native American recovery circles and extend into an elaborate network of religious, spiritual, and secular recovery mutual aid societies during the mid-late 19th century. Amidst the early twentieth century drive for alcohol prohibition, these early groups collapsed, as did the network of inebriate homes, inebriate asylums, and private addiction cure institutes.  The resulting recovery support vacuum was not filled until the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935, whose 12-Step approach dominated the recovery mutual aid arena for decades.

While there were early adaptations of A.A. for other addictions (e.g., Addicts Anonymous, 1947; Narcotics Anonymous, 1950/1953) and faith-based adaptation of A.A. (e.g., Alcoholics Victorious, 1948), viable secular and gender-specific alternatives to A.A. did not emerge in the United States until the last quarter of the 20th century.  W.F.S and S.O.S. were the earliest of these alternatives.

Women for SobrietyW.F.S. was founded in 1975 by Dr. Jean Kirkpatrick who, based on her own recovery experience, believed there were gender-specific causes of and solutions to alcohol problems.  She viewed the former as rooted in damage to self-esteem and outlined 13 Statements of Acceptance as a framework of long-term recovery for women. The Statements reflect Kirkpatrick’s belief that recovery for women was contingent upon an experience of empowerment, positive thinking, positive feelings about self and others, personal responsibility, and personal growth (Fenner & Gifford, 2012).  When Rita Chaney and I contrasted the W.F.S. approach to other models of recovery based originally and primarily on experience with men, we found that W.F.S. metaphors of change emphasized:  1) empowerment and self-mastery rather than acceptance of powerlessness. 2) hope (seeing the top) rather than pain (hitting bottom), 3) achievement of personal identity rather than connectedness (pronouns of I, my, myself rather than we, our, ourselves), 4) divided attention (fitting sobriety into multiple role responsibilities) rather than focused attention (sobriety as a singular obsession), 5)  the resolution of shame rather than a focus on the resolution of guilt, 6) self-affirmation rather than self-effacement (humility), 7) acts of self-care rather than service to others, 8) the importance of physical and psychological safety, 9) self-acceptance of one’s body, and  10) a greater emphasis on uncovery (exposing aspects of self that have been hidden) and discovery (acquiring that which one never had) than recovery (retrieving what has been lost). 

SOSS.O.S. was founded in 1985 by James Christopher.  Its secular framework of recovery is outlined in its websites (www.sossobriety.org and www.cfiwest.org/sos).  There are many things that distinguish the S.O.S. approach to recovery, but one of the most significant involves the role of personal character in addiction recovery. Where 12-Step and religious frameworks of recovery often posit the source of addiction within the self (character) and define recovery as a larger reconstruction of self, S.O.S. views sobriety and personal character as separate issues.  As illustrated in my 2012 interview with James Christopher, the S.O.S. view is strikingly different:  

Issues that contributed to people becoming addicted may be personally important, but they are not important to the decision to stop drinking and using drugs. Debates over whether addiction is a disease or a behavior rage on, but they are not important to the decision to stop the pain in your life. In SOS, we want people to obey the laws of the land, and we hope that you will and use this time now that you’re no longer pickled to go back to college or go into therapy or whatever you may do to develop yourself, but we see all such decisions as separate from the more primary decision to not drink no matter what….If you’re not drinking, I don’t care how you’ve achieved it. If you used to be a drunk and you’re not drinking but continue to steal hubcaps, I don’t advocate that and I hope people will obey the law, but sobriety is a separate issue from these other decisions in life….It’s nice if people are compassionate and decent in their behavior with their fellow humans, but this is not a requirement for sobriety. Mafia chieftains can stop drinking and continue being mafia chieftains I suppose. I’m not advocating that; I’m just saying it’s a separate issue from recovery.

If there is a new chapter within the contemporary history of addiction recovery in the United States, it is the growing recognition and celebration of multiple pathways and styles of long-term addiction recovery.  W.F.S. and S.O.S. deserve our recognition for helping build the foundation for such diversification. My congratulations to both organizations on reaching these organizational milestones.