Twelve steps to heaven

Earl Spencer's lawyers' jibe has angered fans of the recovery programme, writes Mark Rowe
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The Independent Online
She had had a drink problem so she could not cope with a pounds 3.75m divorce settlement, they claimed. During the acrimonious pre-divorce hearing in Cape Town last week, Earl Spencer's lawyers said that his wife's "12- step approach to life" raised "a question mark over her ability to manage such an award".

The Earl's wife, Victoria, spent five months in Farm Place Clinic in Surrey in 1995 fighting alcoholism and anorexia, principally using the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step recovery programme. The lawyers' remark has provoked anger among support groups and medical consultants.

Liz Cutland, senior counsellor at Farm Place, said she was disappointed with their dismissive view. "We have had quite a lot of businessmen and women through the 12-step programme who handle very large sums of money and are extremely successful at it," she said.

"It takes a lot of courage to come into a treatment programme and look yourself in the face and confront your addiction. It's down to you to make some huge and significant changes in how you lead your life."

Farm Place costs pounds 1,300 per week and courses usually last around eight weeks, and are followed by regular attendance at AA meetings. The 12 steps undertaken by Countess Spencer are the cornerstone of the AA approach to drink dependency and involve an incremental guide to complete recovery. The most familiar step is perhaps the first where people stand up in front of a group of alcoholics, give their names and say that they are alcoholics.

The 12-step approach has attained such popular status that it has been adopted by other addiction-related groups for gambling and drug abuse, along with associations to combat anything from eating disorders to sexual addiction. One of the newest is CoDependents Anonymous, which offers a self-help programme for women who choose the wrong man and stay with him no matter how much it hurts.

Dr Brian Hore, a consultant psychiatrist who runs an alcohol addiction clinic at the University Hospital of South Manchester, said the success rate of the 12-step programme was as high as 70 per cent. "I thought what the lawyers said was disgraceful. It's implying that you are not fit to carry on with your life and deal with large sums of cash.

"It's patently not true. There is always a chance of a relapse but I've known hospital consultants, politicians and lawyers go through alcohol dependency and still hold down senior positions."

The point was supported by Sue Baker of Alcohol Concern. "Anybody who has been through alcoholism, behaved badly towards their friends and let themselves down and then recovered has shown tremendous strength of character.

"People can come out of it a lot stronger and a lot more self aware. They can be better able to deal with important matters and able to cope with life in a different way."

According to Alcohol Concern, one in 21 people in Britain is dependent on alcohol. Dr Hore said: "For every heroin addict there are hundreds of people with drink problems."

This point is illustrated by the extraordinarily long list of celebrities who have turned to AA and still pursued their careers - names like Liz Taylor, Elton John, Anthony Hopkins, Ringo Starr and his wife Barbara Bach, Frasier star Kelsey Grammer, and Al Pacino. Others include the Marquess of Bristol, Ian McShane of Lovejoy, Eastenders' Patsy Palmer and Keith Chegwin. Model Paula Hamilton checked into a clinic last month after suffering a relapse: 'I'd been doing too much and I wasn't going to enough AA meetings. I forgot the main priority in my life was to stay sober."

England international Tony Adams has also offered views on how he can still play at the top level of the game. "The compulsion to drink is out of my system now but six days without a meeting can still be a serious threat to my long-term sobriety. My problem is that I have to live the rest of my life without taking the first drink."

The 12-step programme represents the experience of the first members of AA who became sober in the four years after its foundation in 1935. There is a marked religious element. "The thinking is that there's a higher power you should defer to," said Ms Baker. "Some groups interpret that as God, others take it on a metaphorical level."

AA's view is that alcoholism is a progressive disease innate to some people: you either are an alcoholic or you are not. However, AA has been criticised for its unyielding approach.

"The 12-step approach can give people an enormous strength and provides people with a great closeness with other alcoholics," said Ms Baker. "But it simply doesn't suit everybody. It only helps people who are totally dependent on alcohol every day. Many people are dependent but only binge at weekends. Under the AA model, there is nowhere to go for people who may be concerned with their drinking but are not alcoholics."

Earl Spencer profile: Section Two, page 3

12 rules

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and ourselves over to the care of God as we understood him.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

6. We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. Made direct demands to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10. Continued to make personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practise these principles in all our affairs.