“We haven’t got strong evidence [to show] that actually working through the 12 steps [is] a determinant of future recovery,” says John Kelly, associate director of the Center for Addiction Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. Even so, he adds, some people might “recover by very strict adherence to [the 12 steps] and really focusing on changing their character.”
Example: Pat Smith, 23, of Wakefield. He recalls his teenage years in Peabody as a blurry time in which he spent every day “either trying to get high or trying to stop getting high.” After detox programs, he couldn’t stay sober for more than a few days. Mainstream AA meetings left him thinking the sober life was a miserable one spent barely holding on from one meeting to the next.
Desperate and willing to try anything, Smith trusted Peabody’s advice to enter a rigorous 12-step program and live for a purpose: To help other addicts recover. In taking the step of making amends, he fearfully knocked on a friend’s door and confessed he’d stolen about $30,000 from him. When the man said, ‘You don’t owe me anything, and you’re always welcome here,’ he knew he’d crossed a threshold.
“For the first time, I had this overwhelming feeling that I was never going to use again, and I didn’t,” says Smith, who later worked at Number 16 , a community in Wakefield where as many as 33 male addicts rigorously practice the 12 steps. “It was the amends that did it.”
Jared Kusiak, 25, of Beverly, also swears by the steps taught to him by Peabody, whom he regards as a sponsor and friend. He has a job as a plumber, a fiancée, and a newborn son, but as a teenager, he was a homeless drug addict in Minneapolis. AA didn’t help him, he says, because he needed hope and character reform but instead just heard “drunks and drug addicts talking about how miserable they are.”
“Meetings would never keep me sober,” Kusiak says. “It’s more about what I’m doing in my life . . . doing the right thing and being a good person. It’s just a way of life.”
The AA Central Service Committee of Eastern Mass. declined to comment for this story. Its website lists more than 75 weekly step meetings on the North Shore. Step meetings emphasize doing the 12 steps and generally include reading from The Big Book, as well as a personal testimony.
Kaskutas argues that because step meetings are common, addicts have many opportunities to follow the steps vigilantly in a supportive setting. But Peabody doesn’t see step meetings as necessarily sufficient.
“I have no problem with 12-step meetings,” he says, “but I have never met a recovered person in any of the [step] meetings I’ve been to. I’ve never met anyone who has taken steps the way they were written and intended back in the 1930s. . . . Talking, studying, and having knowledge does not fix us. Action does.”