A voice from the self-help revolution:

I had two abusive, alcoholic marriages. Now I'm in a wonderful and loving marriage that's built out of honesty and self-respect. My children are slowly coming into recovery. My son, a 23-year-old alcoholic addict, I was able to have arrested in my own home.

He went through all of the stages, crying and calling me up, "Mom, post bail for me, this is a really bad place, you gotta get me out of here." I said, "You know, Aaron, some of the greatest masterpieces were written by people in jail. Maybe you could ask for a piece of paper and pencil and write some things down, get in touch with who you are."

I did think, "God, I've got to get this kid out of this mess." But I told him, "I didn't put you in jail. The drugs you are taking and your self-hatred put you there."

Pam Beck was speaking from one of "recovering psychotherapist" Anne Wilson Schaef's "intensives" in Big Sky, Mont. She and the other participants use the 12-step program originally developed by Alcoholics Anonymous -- a method that, in recent years, has spread to groups with focuses ranging from gambling to sex to shoplifting to over-spending to, at the farthest extreme, Schaef's "Living Process Facilitation." While only about a quarter of the 15 million Americans who will attend a support group this week use the 12 steps, it is both the fastest-growing and most controversial part of the self-help movement.

The 12 steps are all about addiction. You begin by admitting you are powerless over the thing that controls you, continue by stating the exact nature of your wrongs and promising to make amends, and conclude by carrying the message to others who are similarly afflicted. The method is nondenominational but highly religious; seven of the steps mention God or "spiritual awakening."

Many have been so awakened during the past decade. Almost any compulsive behavior counts; the addiction of codependency alone gets blamed for everything from chronic tardiness to low self-esteem. AA itself doubled in size in the '80s to a worldwide membership of 1.7 million, which doesn't count the huge growth in its many offshoots. Addiction, apparently, is everywhere.

Says Frank Riessman, co-director of the National Self-Help Clearinghouse: "I would say it is becoming a major problem -- not just alcohol and drug addiction, but gambling, overeating, sex certainly, money. I would be hard pressed to find anyone I know who doesn't have one kind of addiction or another."

That certainly is Schaef's view. "I think even if we had a person who was born addiction-free, the dysfunctional family is the norm for our society," she says. "We learn addictive patterns in the play group, school, church, Boy Scouts -- we learn them in trying to control things, being dishonest, shutting ourselves off from our feelings."

Moreover, Schaef says she's never met anyone who only has one addiction. For instance, "I find there's frequently a cross-over between workaholism and sexual addiction. 'I worked really hard, so I deserve this sexual fling.' Or there can be a cross-addiction between workaholism and alcoholism. You need the alcohol to let down at night so you can sleep." And let's not forget here all the other ways it's possible to be a junkie: with cigarettes, food, caffeine, money, romance, all sorts of relationships, and any combination thereof.

In the intensives and training sessions, Living Process Facilitation works much like other 12-step programs. No expert is present; each person working on his recovery is his own expert. The idea is that as you listen to the problems of others, your own troubles become clearer. There's no gimmick.

Perhaps this all sounds too New Age-ish. As Schaef, who is based in Boulder, Colo., and the author of such bestsellers as When Society Becomes an Addict and Codependence, puts it: "There's more acceptance of addiction in the East as normal. There's also more intellectualizing about it."

But, if everyone is addicted, isn't it possible that such dependencies are synonymous with having a pulse and thus inescapable? Schaef, who says she herself has had problems with relationship addiction, has a standard reply for this: "If everyone has warts, does that mean warts are not a problem?" (Sometimes she uses the example of AIDS instead.)

Schaef is not selling a magical cure. She's not even hustling her own books, which tend to be more theoretical than standard self-help tomes. In fact, on behalf of the whole recovery movement, she'd like to reject that label.

"The 12-step program is a program of surrender, not improvement; the self-help approach is one of trying to fix yourself," she says, adding, "All I can do is share my truth as best as I can. If it rings a chord in you, fine."

She is dismissive of her former occupation, traditional therapy. She told a national conference of female Lutheran ministers in Los Angeles: "I have learned that psychology is very much like trying to have a baby by masturbating. Masturbation can be fun. It can occupy your time. It doesn't cost as much money as therapy. But you don't get a baby."

Psychology, she said, is merely part of the addictive system. She also told the ministers they were all addicts of one kind or some kind. According to the Los Angeles Times, they gave her a standing ovation.

It sounds too easy and simple. But in interviews with four attendees, they spoke with conviction and intensity about how it changed their lives. Are they deluding themselves? Millions in the past decade say they have used the same leaderless, no-cost, widely available technique to keep themselves clear of psychological ailments. Are any of them imagining something that isn't there?

Before, when I wanted my husband to fix something around the house that was clearly part of his duties, I'd just leave it out or say, "Gee, that's broken." Now I say, "Honey, I would really like you to fix that for me. Would you?" And if he says yes, I ask him "When?"

I try to be clear about it, instead of leaving it open-ended. He was a little bit threatened by my directness. Sometimes he did fix it, and sometimes he didn't. The point is that I asked for what I needed, and I was clear and specific about it so I could follow up.

-- Constance Casey, 32, from Minneapolis

Stanton Peele is in a minority. He thinks the 12-step idea is a lot less effective than it's routinely claimed to be. A social-clinical psychologist, Peele is the author of Diseasing of America: Addiction Treatment Out of Control. He calls Schaef's treatment "therapeutic mind control."

The evidence cited by the women at the Big Sky intensive? "A sign of intellectual poverty. It's not evidence. I could find tens of thousands of people who swear they were cured by the laying-on of hands. Does that mean the government should get into the laying-on of hands? We've replaced systematic evaluation of treatment with religious testimony."

Peele's larger quibble is not with Schaef. It's with the pervasiveness of the AA model, and the common conception that this is the best, most helpful thing since Freud. "The most overrated therapeutic system for addiction there is," he charges, citing studies that its success rate is no higher than other forms of treatment.

Among his arguments: by labeling their afflictions "diseases," 12-step groups are encouraging the notion that, in AA's words, "alcoholism is a progressive illness which can never be 'cured' ... 'Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic' is a simple fact." Or as Narcotics Anonymous puts it: "Addiction is a progressive disease such as diabetes. We are allergic to drugs. Our ends are always the same: jails, institutions, or death."

Says Peele: "A lot of kids drink and take drugs, and they grow up to be boring accountants and boring psychologists and boring journalists. But in AA, people are taught they must rely on external props {such as the AA meeting itself}. It's a relief for all of us, the society and the individual, to say 'It's a disease' and 'I couldn't help it.' If you're a parent, you can say 'It's not my fault.' If you're under stress for having run someone over, it's a useful concept."

Contrarian though he may be, Peele's argument isn't that AA should be disregarded. He'd simply like to see some alternatives to "this giant private treatment system that middle-class consumers are happy to use but which has no measurable impact."

As with Schaef, analysis of the problem is easier to come by than methods for getting out of it. But he notes that the less money you have, the less attractive 12-step programs are likely to seem.

"Young people take fewer drugs now, drinking is down, and yet we're saying we've got more addiction. We oversold the problem for middle-class people. And the people where addiction is increasing is, of course, in the inner city, and we don't know how to deal with that. We tell them they have a disease too but that no one gives a damn. They're not getting into the Betty Ford Center."

One last arrow from Peele. An extremely popular addiction these days is codependency. The bible of the movement, "Codependent No More" by Melody Beattie, is in its third year on the trade paperback bestseller list.

"It's ironic and humorous that the main way people define their problems is that they help others too much," says Peele. "With homelessness and all our other problems, I don't get the feeling that lack of selfishness is a massive culture-wide problem."

Peele, meanwhile, confesses to his own addiction. "I'm a compulsive talker, and I have to go to Compulsive Talkers Anonymous with my son, who is the Son of a Compulsive Talker. Ever see the compulsive talking gene? It's shaped like a megaphone."

I run two houses that are long-term residences for women. I used to feel I had to help them. Now I feel I journey with them. I'm not their mother anymore, I'm their friend. I'm more confrontational. When they ask me for an answer I say you have the answer yourself, you have to figure it out now. Sometimes there's anger, disappointment, sometimes attack. I say, "Sit with that. Think about it."

-- Bernadette Ries, 52, from Spokane, Wash.

In an article in the current issue of Community Action, national clearinghouse director Frank Riessman tries to make sense of the new self-help backlash. It isn't really important whether every family in the country is dysfunctional, he argues. The real question is, are people who believe it improving their lives?

He writes: "Studies indicate groups like AA have about the same percentage of success in reforming alcoholics as several other types of treatment ... {But} self-help reaches vastly larger numbers of people than other programs, and at no significant cost ... And self-help programs are free, unbureaucratic, and self-multiplying."

He admits, though, that there's a bit of truth to the political charge: that focusing so much on yourself does nothing to change the political or social realities that got you addicted in the first place.

One of the women in Schaef's intensive put it like this: "I don't want to save the world anymore. I want to save myself."

How, she was asked, was the world then going to be saved?

"Who says it needs to?" she replied. " 'Saving' sounds like a disease concept to me."

A second woman interviewed echoed that view, while a third put it this way: "If we're all taking care of ourselves, then no one needs to worry about being taken care of."

Do people get the whim-whams in Washington more often than elsewhere? A slender reed of evidence suggests that may be the case.

Lisa Saisselin, director of the Self-Help Clearinghouse of Greater Washington, says that it seems to provide more anxiety disorder and panic attack referrals than, for instance, the New Jersey and California clearinghouses. "People don't take breaks here, they're expected to work more hours more often, and their bodies don't know how to handle it," she says.

On the other hand, the type of group you'd expect to find most plentiful here would be workaholics. But Saisselin says that she doesn't know of any working workaholic groups in the city that has a reputation as the premier home of the grind. Maybe everyone's too busy to attend the meetings.

Overall, the Washington clearinghouse made 4,000 referrals in 1989, up from 300 only a few years ago. The number of groups getting the referrals -- only some of which use the 12-step program -- likewise expanded over the decade from 27 to 600.

"I get the sense that, in this area, self-help groups are very well-attended," says Saisselin. "Washington is following the same trends as the nation. Codependency groups and adult children of dysfunctional families are especially big."

When clearinghouse callers don't know exactly what they're looking for, they get a little quick counseling on the phone. If a self-help group isn't what is needed, they're referred back to the sponsoring organization, the Mental Health Association of Northern Virginia, for further referral.

Sometimes the unconventional results. A man called in and said, "I'm a professional, I'm over 40, I was laid off. Is there a support group?" He tried several but rejected them all; this guy wanted something more on the expense-account than the lunch-box level. So he formed his own group, which is still meeting.

The founder, it turns out, no longer has such a driving need for his own group. "He called me back," Saisselin says, "to tell me he got a job."

Resources

Self-Help Clearinghouse of Greater Washington, (703) 941-5465. The Family and Children in Trouble hot line, (202) 628-3228. National Self-Help Clearinghouse, (212) 642-2944. -- David Streitfeld