Atheist ex-nurse forced into Alcoholics Anonymous substance abuse program

Oct 8, 2016

By Glen Schaefer

A former Vancouver nurse is claiming his rights as an atheist were violated because his employer and union forced him into Alcoholics Anonymous following a psychotic episode.

Byron Wood was involuntarily committed to hospital by a doctor in October 2013, taken there by ambulance after police were called to a walk-in clinic. Wood, 39, said he was suffering withdrawal symptoms from a combination of alcohol and prescription and street drugs.

“I had some time off work and I had been using substances during that time,” Wood said this week. “Before going back to work I stopped using substances, and I experienced severe withdrawal symptoms which caused me to become psychotic.”


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15 comments on “Atheist ex-nurse forced into Alcoholics Anonymous substance abuse program

  • AA provides as much mindless small talk as you want. It also provides a sugar overload. Every minor success is celebrated with a cake. Smoking is mandatory. Let’s is lots of sharing of wild stories of what everyone did before joining AA.

    The book is very religious, but the meetings are not so. I once lived on an island where the only social options were AA and NA.



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  • It seems that no one grasps a couple of essential facts:

    AA does not operate treatment centers. There is no such thing as AA ‘treatment.’
    AA has no rules or requirements for membership. A desire to stop drinking is all.

    That second one doesn’t work out all that well, any individual AA group can fall under the sway of some self-appointed authority figure. This has happened to a scandalous degree in Los Angeles, with this warped version of AA exported as far afield a England. Peruse http://aacultwatch.blogspot.com/
    to get an overview of how helpless AA is to organize or control group’s policies or behaviors.

    I’ve been an atheist member of A for 28 years. It is NOT some constant struggle, and I’ve watched far too many ‘god squadders’ relapse to be impressed with their foolishness.

    This year, there will be an international Atheists in AA conference in Austin TX. In Chicago the overtly atheist ‘Quad A’ meetings have been thriving for over 40 years.

    Smoking is NOT mandatory, zoning laws finally solved that problem in most places. The ‘cake’ thing is a regional eccentricity.

    There is no shortage of odd pop-religion and pop-psychology in AA. Things come and go, but no one should feel that AA is categorically ‘not for them,’ on the basis of internet resentment.



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  • AA does not operate treatment centers. There is no such thing as AA ‘treatment.’
    AA has no rules or requirements for membership. A desire to stop drinking is all.

    I just watched a documentary on the life of Bill Wilson, an anonymous alcoholic for all seasons, who founded AA. He was one of the great humanitarian geniuses of our time who helped unknown numbers stop drinking ( or using) and otherwise afforded millions with “dry spells” providing untold respite from suffering. The guy was a bit too “spiritual” for my taste but to be fair the organization leaned heavily toward ecumenicalism if not secularism with the “higher power” being defined as “God as you understand him.” Unsurprisingly, the religious emphasis will vary significantly from region to region. Alcoholism is a complex, diverse and cunning disorder for which there is no simple reliable “cure.” AA provides the best support group challenge to addiction at little or no expense.

    In the Vancouver area I’m surprised our atheist nurse cannot find a secular emphasis group. I suspect he just likes to argue with anyone who will listen including members in a peer group of addicts dedicated to keeping themselves including him off the bottle. He doesn’t fit the profile of the rare individual persecuted with religious doctrine at AA meetings who may have some legal issues.

    Not incidentally, the account of his offenses should serve as grounds for a lifetime ban from his medical profession; his defiant attitude indicates a poor candidate for rehabilitation. When the rising sewage of a wasted life reaches the nose, the mind should become marvelously focused on doing what one must do.



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  • @OP – Byron Wood was involuntarily committed to hospital by a doctor in October 2013, taken there by ambulance after police were called to a walk-in clinic. Wood, 39, said he was suffering withdrawal symptoms from a combination of alcohol and prescription and street drugs.

    AA offering “faith-based treatment”, is essentially faith-healing, with a bit of counselling thrown in.

    A strange referral from organisations supposedly connected to professional mental health and medical counselling services!



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  • AA does not operate treatment centers. There is no such thing as AA ‘treatment.’
    AA has no rules or requirements for membership. A desire to stop drinking is all.

    Except the rule that you must accept a power, however you define it, as a god. That sounds like religion to me.

    The first three ‘Steps” of AA say it all.

    Accept that you are powerless over alcohol
    That a Power (capitalised on the websites) greater than yourself can restore you to sanity.
    You must make the decision to turn your will and your life over to the care of God as you understand Him.

    The basic tenets of AA are religious in nature. Asking anyone to accept a god in order to solve a problem that they are “powerless” to solve themselves in order to keep their job is absurd.

    I’m sure that AA helps a lot of people, but what AA basically asks is for an individual to say ‘the devil made me do it and only god can heal me.’ No free will then? Or just no acceptance that alcoholism is a disease and can be medically treated if the sufferer has the right support group. Yes, AA provides a support group. It provides a community of people who reinforce the positives of sobriety by discussing the negatives of alcoholism in terms of personal experience. Why bring a god into it? I’d be willing to bet that a secular organisation that provided the same positive reinforcement could achieve the same results.

    I don’t know of any such organisations in Australia (the US might be different). Therefore, AA plays the part and plays it well for those desperate enough to accept a god in order to find a community of similar sufferers. I use the word ‘desperate’ here in terms of someone who really feels they have nowhere else to turn to change their life. I don’t mean it in a derogatory way.

    If someone needs help and chooses AA as their support network and it works for them, then, great. But the idea that you can be forced into accepting a god, by being forced into AA, in order to keep your job just doesn’t sit well with me. And I wonder how quickly the workplace would yo-yo or how quickly the community of fellow sufferers at AA would vanish if you said, “Sure boss, but the god I choose is Allah.”



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  • The AA is in danger of losing its effectiveness and reach amongst its target market as Christian religious faith and the general belief in supernatural agency is lost in the first world.

    Its about time it re-invented itself.

    It is not beyond the wit of man or woman to find a way of appealing to a higher power outside of yourself to help you straighten up and fly right that is not supernatural.

    Diets and relationships committed to with maximum public show and fervour and with frequent recommittments last the longer.

    The power of the group and the watching world willing you on and needing you to succeed, to show success is possible. All human achievements are collective achievements. Even though you may be unknown to others more folk would weep for you if you fail than you realise. (My genius brother ended his life with alcohol.)

    Maybe you need other peoples’ problems put on your plate? Maybe you need to remotely help and mentor a struggling African child, help her with her English or maths. Visit the lonely in hospices. Work in the garden. You don’t need a parent to tell you what to do… you need to become one for more desperate others. You need to re-discover your own agency and how it is simply turbocharged by those around you.

    The AA’s is a tired old formula. It could pull so many more levers to help.



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  • This is a secular alternative to AA that has been around for some years and is building some momentum.

    http://www.smartrecovery.org/professionals/

    https://www.theguardian.com/society/2010/mar/10/alcoholism-treatment-smart-recovery-programme

    Gerstein points out: “At Smart Recovery meetings, we don’t pray, do the Lord’s Prayer or sing Kumbaya. We don’t depend on higher powers to help and we don’t expect people to come forever. They come, recover, and get on with their life”.

    • This article was amended on 16 March 2010. Joe Gerstein described the coercion of people into programmes such as AA as ethically, medically and psychologically wrong, not AA itself. This has been corrected.

    http://www.humanisthub.org/

    EVENT DETAILS
    Join us as we honor Dr. Joe Gerstein with our 2016 Harvard Humanist of the Year Award for his work over the last 25 years as the founding president of SMART Recovery, which we view among the greatest examples of community service in the history of modern humanism.
    This award, created more than 20 years ago, honors an individual whose life and contributions to society exemplify the values of Humanism: compassion, integrity, creativity, and honesty, among others. A list of past Harvard Humanists of the Year includes entertainers such as Seth MacFarlane and Steve Allen; human rights heroes including Gen. Romeo Dallaire and Taslima Nasreen; and world-renowned scientists such as Steven Pinker and E.O. Wilson.



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  • It is not beyond the wit of man or woman to find a way of appealing to a higher power outside of yourself to help you straighten up and fly right that is not supernatural.

    Phil is on the right track for finding sensible alternatives. Programs like Smart Recovery cited by LaurieB are well worth looking into because they offer innovative techniques, therapies and group activities based on empirically verified outcomes from both the hard sciences and the social sciences.

    AA founder Bill Wilson was a humble, open-minded man who would recognize the need for his humanitarian organization to remain open to reforms that helped alcoholics and addicts of every stripe meet the challenges to sobriety.

    The secular power of AA, operating behind the rhetoric of a higher supernatural power, is peer pressure combined with group support. The motivational appeal for membership is “alcoholics helping alcoholics,” – the core identity of the Doctor with the Patient, forging bonds of equality, trust and empathy.

    In the case of Byron Wood, his attitude seems not to bode well for recovery. He appears preoccupied with belligerence and defiance perhaps rationalizing denial, a reluctance to confront the far greater danger he poses to himself.



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  • Melvin,

    In the case of Byron Wood, his attitude seems not to bode well for recovery. He appears preoccupied with belligerence and defiance perhaps rationalizing denial, a reluctance to confront the far greater danger he poses to himself.

    I think you are being too hard on this guy and your particular criticisms come off as myopic.

    Where is the belligerence?

    His behavior in the walk-in clinic is presumably not what you are referring to since that was most likely a result of his psychotic state at the time. Just from this short article I see evidence of the addict’s acceptance of his condition and that he has tried to work with our antiquated shambles of a treatment system the best he could until he couldn’t take it any more. I will also note that many attendees at AA have nasty attitudes in the beginning but those attitudes can stabilize if they manage to stay with it and see some results. Old timers in AA know how to deal with the new attendees that are often court ordered to attend and they are all in the back rows slumped down sullen and glowering.

    Byron Wood was involuntarily committed to hospital by a doctor in October 2013, taken there by ambulance after police were called to a walk-in clinic.

    Shall we assume that he walked into that clinic under his own power somehow? At some level, even in that state I think he realized he needed professional help. If this is true then he deserves credit for getting himself into that clinic. I will also say that alcoholics absolutely cannot detox on their own. They could die from that withdrawal. Heroin addicts can do it on their own at home or wherever they choose (with extreme suffering granted) but alcoholics – absolutely not! This guy needed medical help and got himself into the right place to get it.

    While committed to hospital for two weeks, Wood voluntarily changed his nursing status from practising to non-practising.

    This voluntary change of status is also an acknowledgement of the seriousness of his addiction. It’ a positive move.

    Wood attended a residential treatment program in Ontario in the spring 2014, staying for five weeks, though he took issue with their methods.

    Credit for attending and sticking it out for five weeks even in the face of the bad recovery odds offered by 12 step programs. He must have known what a serious issue he was dealing with and that the treatment “program” was a very bad fit for him and pretty much doomed to failure.

    Families of addicts in the US know that these programs are a long shot and extremely expensive on top of it. I haven’t heard of any that accept insurance and many addicts don’t have insurance in the first place. The price of these residential “clinics” runs about ten thousand dollars on average. The great majority are 12 step programs and are statistically no better than chance. I’ll provide the stats for this if anyone wants to see them. The take away from these stats is that an addict has just as good a chance of recovery whether they attend a residential treatment or not. There is no significant difference in outcome. Outpatient treatment for addiction has better numbers all around.

    “If I questioned the 12-step philosophy or tried to discuss scientific explanations and treatments for addiction, I was labelled as ‘in denial’,” Wood said. “I was told to admit that I am powerless, and to submit to a higher power. It was unhelpful and humiliating.

    Of course he thinks this! He’s absolutely correct. He’s also not unusual whatsoever in voicing his discouraging disappointment with the quality of help that is available to addicts. This is very common. As Phil indicates above, these programs are antiquated, based on superstition and designed for middle aged alcoholics, not young drug addicts. I suspect that Byron Wood is well aware of the shortcomings of the AA 12 step model and this is where his frustration is coming from.

    I gave them names of secular treatment options . . . I asked for alternatives.”

    “The BCNU asserted that, had it known about the complainant’s religious objections, it would have investigated.”

    While I am (predictably) absolutely sympathetic about the religious component of AA being a violation of a patient’s rights (court ordered religious participation) this is only one point of objection that deserved investigation by the BCNU. That they are referring patients to a program with an abysmal recovery rate is malpractice. Drinking water with memory would work just as well.

    Byron Wood informed them of secular options that he knew would be a better fit for him and they didn’t follow up on this – they made a terrible misjudgment. That the medical staff couldn’t find the pertinent scientific facts about what does and doesn’t work in the addiction field is a shocking failure.

    What we need to know is that a combination of professional addiction counseling in combination with outpatient science based medical treatment has the best hope of recovery out there today. Stats on demand.

    I hope Wood gets his tribunal case hearing and I hope he wins it. He’s been done wrong by the system and I hope he goes on to get effective science based treatment and I hope he goes on to long lasting recovery. I hope he keeps his career intact although a change in departments may be in order. Meaningful employment is important for recovery.

    In the world of addiction treatment, a little empathy goes a long way.



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  • He’s been done wrong by the system and I hope he goes on to get effective science based treatment and I hope he goes on to long lasting recovery. I hope he keeps his career intact although a change in departments may be in order. Meaningful employment is important for recovery.
    In the world of addiction treatment, a little empathy goes a long way.

    LaurieB: I hope Wood benefits from any program he chooses to participate in and that public funding is available if he cannot pay for it. (AA is virtually free and their peer group-support methodology does not depend on limited taxpayer dollars that must be cut off after x-number of failed attempts.) . Most treatments have abysmal failure rates because professionals expect that most patients will suffer many relapses. Sadly this is the pattern for drug addicts and alcoholics. As for empathy, all rehabilitation centers including AA extend proactive support to members/patients unconditionally for as long as the addict voluntarily keeps trying or coming back.

    Nonetheless it is necessary to understand the deeply manipulative and deceptive behavior of many addicts.
    (I do not know Byron Wood so I do not presume to judge him personally). I know intelligent cunning addicts who persuasively affirmed their intentions time after time to get clean only to be found dead in some park of a drug overdose after their parents had spent tens of thousands of dollars on admitting them to assorted treatment facilities.

    Mr. Wood’s apparent emphasis on “others” to fix his addiction, aroused suspicion. If he relapses he’s positioned himself with the attitude that the treatment program has failed him. Addiction often generates this kind of pathological incorrigibility.



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  • Melvin

    AA is virtually free

    What good is “free” when the program has a track record of failure?

    Addiction treatment, like any mental health or medical problem must be based on methods that are proven to be effective by empirically derived results. There are NIH sponsored studies that inform the addiction treatment community as to what works and what doesn’t work. This is exactly what we expect from our medical professionals and there is no reason to think that addiction recovery professionals would ignore science based treatments and promote those based on religion, superstition, and delusional thinking.

    Here is a link that will give some idea of the vast amounts of data that is collected on the topic of addiction and gives an idea of how the science community is attempting to deal with the current addiction catastrophe that is increasing at a frightening rate in the US.

    http://www.samhsa.gov/data/

    Melvin, your personal negative feelings about addicts aside, can you concede that addiction is a mental health and medical problem that deserves the best science based professional help that we can possibly deliver? What good is it to condescend to these patients? Do you feel the same about lung cancer patients who smoked their whole lives? How about obese patients in treatment for diabetes? Yes, they contributed to their current medical problems with their own past behavior but when they find themselves in a clinical setting, do they deserve scorn, blaming and condescension as part of their treatment plan? It’s not the place of a medical or mental health professional to deliver a lecture on morality. I would instantly file a complaint against this behavior if I witnessed it.

    Yes, they lie sometimes. Not all the time. They lie to get out of a scrape or to get the substance that they must have to avoid falling into a painful excruciating withdrawal phase. This is all predictable. Addicts are certainly not the only patients who we can expect to lie. Patients lie for all sorts of reasons and medical professionals must be prepared to work around this. My background being in experimental design taught me that it was up to the designer of the experiment to create surveys that subtly work around this particular challenge. It’s not rocket science.

    Yes, addicts can be deeply manipulative. So what? Plenty of people are deeply manipulative and most people in this life are somewhat manipulative. Again, nothing to do with a clinical presentation of addiction or any other malady for that matter.

    The fact that addicts may lie, will lie, could lie, is completely irrelevant to the fact that they deserve the best care our system can give them, just like any other patient that presents themselves for help.

    I know intelligent cunning addicts who persuasively affirmed their intentions time after time to get clean only to be found dead in some park of a drug overdose after their parents had spent tens of thousands of dollars on admitting them to assorted treatment facilities.

    What exactly are you getting at here? What are your feelings as you write something like this? It comes off as sanctimonious to tell the truth. Do you think that the addict in that scenario got what was coming to him? But what I feel on reading that is terrible sadness at the despair that those parents have dealt with for years and for the mountain of guilt that is heaped on that addict for everything that he or she has put their own parents and other family members through. Do you think that those addicts are not capable of feeling that guilt and despair? If you think that they’re immune to these feelings then you’ve never known one.

    Many of those private treatment centers that you mention are predatory and with no accountability for their methods and results. It’s not unusual to hear about addicts getting kicked out of those places for minor infractions and the “clinic” will keep the ten thousand dollars or more with no refund. Yes, parents lose their retirements and sometimes go bankrupt because they’ll try anything to save their child’s life. The whole family including the addict are victims of a corrupt system. Why does the government allow this?!! It’s heartbreaking.

    Most treatments have abysmal failure rates because professionals expect that most patients will suffer many relapses.

    Noooo, first of all, many rehabs are staffed with people who are not professionals at all. Our current requirements for drug councilors are very low level. But blaming the staffs’ low expectations for the revolving rehab door is to ignore the wealth of data on how rehabs are run, the programs they employ and the fact that addiction is not something that can be cured with a few feel good group sessions and a prayer. It is a chronic condition that must be managed over a lifetime. This is exactly what our author above, Wood, is getting at. He already knows this and his frustration is boiling over. He has the right to ask for effective treatment for his illness!

    This is the thing about drug addiction, it used to be so easy for those of us living in the comfortable, upscale, all white suburbs to scorn and roll our eyes at drug addiction while thinking of the inner city black population. Now heroin is all out into the suburbs and afflicting the young people all around us from good upstanding white families but our bad old attitudes persist. Most of us now know someone who has a grown child who is addicted and maybe who has overdosed to death. It’s not a black ghetto problem anymore. It’s a medical crisis across the entire country. Our attitudes need updating along with our knowledge and methods of dealing with addiction.



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  • “I had some time off work and I had been using substances during that time,” Wood said this week. “Before going back to work I stopped using substances, and I experienced severe withdrawal symptoms which caused me to become psychotic.”

    Before the October incident, Wood said he worked for Vancouver Coastal Health for about two years as a mental health nurse in the Downtown Eastside.

    “I was a case manager for a mental health team,” he said. “I had a case load of around 50 clients with severe mental illness. So I would be responsible for managing their medications and helping them with all sorts of social issues that they encounter.”

    OK, maybe it’s just me with my European – more specifically German – paranoia:

    “… a case manager for a mental health team … around 50 clients with severe mental illness … managing their medications … [became] psychotic.”

    Help for his substance (abuse) problems? Without the shadow of a doubt. And without religious indoctrination of whatever level, in this case (BUT! … first and foremost, getting people off substance abuse is the only target for them and those treating them; and whatever works for them – perception is reality – works for them. Think placebo. Apparently one of the most powerful medications known to us.)
    Return to this job with this responsibility now? Hell no! Other responsibilities which are available, yes, but I am utterly incompetent to judge this, so those involved must do so.

    Shortest description: “… psychotic … managing their medications …” all his own words …

    Are the dubious AA methods really the central issue here? Not for Wood, for the patients potentially being medicated by him …



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  • What good is “free” when the program has a track record of failure?

    I’ve attended AA meetings where I’ve met many recovering alcoholics. I’ve personally met many
    recovering addicts in other social settings who pay tribute to AA for playing an indispensable role in
    helping them achieve sobriety. In my view, their testimony fosters credibility not dismissiveness. (Articles and
    books skeptical of the fellowship make points worthy of consideration without obviating it.)

    Addiction treatment, like any mental health or medical problem must be based on methods that are proven to be effective by empirically derived results.

    AA founder Bill Wilson used peer pressure combined with group support founded on a compassionate method of alcoholics helping alcoholics in meetings, in homes and in communities. This proactive approach was rationally, empirically designed to achieve results. To be sure Wilson was a “spiritual” guy, a believer in God shaped by the prevailing ethos of the period in which he lived. His references to a “higher power” and God as you understand him” however promoted a non-sectarian inclusiveness and lent themselves to the secular metaphorical concept of inward motivation and dedication. Surely there are AA groups lopsided with religious confession -say in the Bible Belt, but speaking candidly the meetings I’ve attended barely mention “the higher power” in favor of pursuing the nuts-and-bolts business of recovery. Think of it as empiricism with compassion.

    Alcoholism and drug addiction are not a single “disease.” The causes and effects are too diverse for a simple encompassing description. Seriously addicted persons often do relapse and re-offend as a matter of fact. More significantly, like it or not, society, the legal system, and even the medical profession do not and cannot equate such disorders with “physical” diseases afflicting an innocent victim. At the outset or ultimately they must classify them as “self-inflicted” and therefore conferring various degrees of personal responsibility on persons for substance abuse especially those who commit crimes and misdemeanors while under the influence.



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