Everyday Addicts : Therapy: Everybody is hooked on something, says Anne Wilson Schaef, who says ‘unless you’re in recovery you’re part of the problem.’


“My experience is that everybody in this audience is an addict of some kind or another,” declares Anne Wilson Schaef, unabashedly categorizing about 500 women ministers as users and abusers: Workaholics. Shopaholics. Caffeine addicts. Alcoholics. Co-dependents. Prescription pill poppers. Perhaps all of the above.

The women are not offended. Instead, they nod in agreement and cheer her on with frequent applause.

A “recovering psychotherapist,” author of the bestselling 1987 book “When Society Becomes an Addict,” and organizational consultant who works with Fortune 500 corporations and branches of the U.S. government, Schaef is at it again, illuminating the monumental level of addiction she sees in society today.


And it’s not a pretty sight when she gets to work “starting to scrub the teeth of a dragon”--ministerial molars included, as she did at the recent national conference of female Lutheran ministers at Anaheim’s Inn at the Park Hotel. Just listen to her rag these women, many of whom are dressed in clerical collars:

“Unless you’re in recovery (from your addictions), you’re part of the problem,” she warns, having made it clear that she considers “process” addictions such as workaholism just as soul-snatching and life-threatening as chemical addictions such as alcoholism or drug abuse.

“The ‘good Christian woman’ is synonymous with co-dependence (the addiction also known as “the doormat syndrome” or the disease of people who love too much),” continues Schaef, who is also well-known for her 1986 book “Co-dependence: Misunderstood--Mistreated.”

“Dishonesty and niceness--they go together. You can’t give up your dishonesty unless you’re willing to give up your niceness.”

Again, the ministers look at each other knowingly. In a question-and-answer session, they do not contest her assessments. They laugh heartily with apparent self-recognition when she mentions the title of her latest book, “Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much.” And, despite the tough issues she presents, they shower the earthy and feisty author with a standing ovation.

Schaef, who looks more like a meek, bespectacled librarian than the radical, cutting-edge thinker many consider her to be, is preaching her view that it’s virtually impossible to be alive and functioning in U.S. society without being some sort of junkie. She even refers to Pope John Paul II as a “sex addict,” claiming that one needn’t act out sexual behavior to qualify, but merely be obsessed with the subject, or with controlling the sex lives of others. Even those rare individuals who come from healthy, non-dysfunctional families are not safe from the clutches of the addictive society, in Schaef’s opinion. She points out that if you didn’t learn to become a television, relationship, food, gambling, shopping, romance, nicotine, caffeine, alcohol or drug addict at home, you probably learned compulsive behaviors in your neighborhood, your school, your office or your church. Or possibly even your Boy Scout or Girl Scout troop, racking up all those merit badges.


“We live in a society that demands addiction. The person who is best adjusted to this society is not dead and not alive because if you were fully alive, you couldn’t support the system,” she frequently tells audiences, in a warm, Arkansas-flavored accent that softens the edge of her straight-up, confrontive style.

In Anaheim, for example, she mentions that church members in general are prone to prescription-drug addictions (“so much nicer than street drugs”).

“If you were fully alive, you wouldn’t have a meeting in Anaheim,” she contends, having indicated that all addictions suppress awareness. “Look at the air you’re breathing here. You can see it!”

More nods.

“And if you were fully alive, you probably wouldn’t have had the meals you had tonight.”

Schaef’s work is sometimes dismissed by critics as “simplistic” (reviewer Elayne Rapping writing recently in The Nation). Or “meaningless--when everybody in the United States has a problem, it ceases to be a problem by statistical definition” (psychology professor Edith S. Lisansky Gomberg, of the University of Michigan).

Schaef replies that she “doesn’t take that stuff very seriously. I say to them, ‘What if everybody had AIDS? Would it lose its meaning?’ . . . My perception is that if (addiction is) the norm . . . then we’d better start looking at it. The people who know how addicted they are don’t question what I’m saying.”

Some feminists do question the views of 56-year-old Schaef, who encourages people to take responsibility for everything in their lives.

“Some of the feminists are real mad at me right now because they say I’m blaming the victim when I talk about relationship and romance addiction,” she reports. “They say I’m not recognizing the role of the culture, which is ridiculous to anybody who knows my work at all.”


Some feminists may become even more disenchanted with Schaef when they hear her latest notions. She is considered a ground-breaking feminist theorist (her 1981 book “Women’s Reality” has sold nearly a quarter-million copies and is required reading in some women’s studies programs, medical schools, seminaries and social work schools). But Schaef now contends that the feminist movement is stuck. She says it’s log-jammed at the same place many addicts get stranded in the recovery process: making amends.

She figures it’s time for feminists to make amends to the men they’ve wronged and to the men who’ve “tried to support women in being equal, who’ve tried to look at themselves and explore their own sexism, their own macho-ism . . . their birthright of superiority.”

“Some of the meanest women I know are feminists. We need to look at how we’ve tried to put other women down to look good ourselves,” says the Boulder, Colo.-based author, who is the mother of a grown son and daughter and recently became a grandmother.

“We need to make amends to our children. My son has said, ‘Mom, you know it was not easy growing up in a feminist household and living through your rage phase.’ He was right. I went through a phase where I blamed men for my participation in a sexist society. I spent a couple of years of my life being a holy terror.”

Nothing seems to stop this woman from speaking her truth--and what she sees as a society destroying itself through both personal and organizational addictions. She’s particularly rough on professions with which she has close ties, such as psychology and the ministry.

Her first husband was a minister. Her second was a psychologist. While pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology, Schaef interrupted her studies for a year to attend New York City’s Union Theological Seminary to sort out her religious beliefs. She still works as a therapist, of sorts, holding what she calls “Living Process Intensives” for individuals at a facility she owns in Montana; the sessions are so popular they’re booked several months in advance, according to a colleague.


Actor Roy Scheider, the star of such films as “Jaws” and “All That Jazz,” has participated in the intensives.

“I’m as addictive as anyone else is. I found it to be as wonderful a nine days as I’ve ever spent,” he says of his first intensive with Schaef about two years ago.

“There were 25 to 30 people there from every major walk of life. She runs a very relaxed, easy all-day session. . . . Once you confront things and get out of denial, life always becomes easier. And when you have a support group, it’s fabulous. It enables you to find the tools within yourself to deal with your particular problem.”

But in Schaef’s intensives, the traditional analysis component of psychotherapy is eschewed in favor of what she calls “the living process”--taking the time to get in touch with the deeper issues in one’s life, the ones that are hidden by constant activity.

Why skip the analysis?

“I love psychology and I was really good at it, I’m embarrassed to say. I have learned that psychology is very much like trying to have a baby by masturbating,” she tells the ministers. “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.

“I’ve become very clear that what we call psychology--trying to figure out why, trying to understand--is part of the addictive system. Nobody ever got well from understanding. Nobody. And we can figure out forever. (Many) people . . . who’ve been through years of psychotherapy . . . know their dynamics. They know their kids’ dynamics. They know everybody’s dynamics. And they’re crazy as can be.”


Healing doesn’t happen that way, Schaef maintains. Rather, it “takes place when you accept wherever you are.”

But she doesn’t like to prescribe how one should reach that level of acceptance--even though she frequently states that 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Workaholics Anonymous are valuable because “they work.”

Twice-divorced, Schaef points out she is not an alcoholic. But she has lived in households with alcoholics and has repeatedly used 12-step programs to address her own problems with what she terms unhealthy relationship addiction. She most recently transformed her relationship with her 24-year-old son.

“My favorite focus for my addiction in the recent years has been my son. I finally sat down one day last summer and said my life is so great, what areas are still not good? I realized it was what I do to myself in relationship to my son,” she says in a rushaholic interview in speeding car en route to Los Angeles International Airport.

“I’m always worrying about my son . . . I went back to Alanon (the 12-step program for those connected with alcoholics and other addicts) and started working a program. I got a really tough sponsor and really let go. It’s like this tremendous weight lifted off my shoulders. Interestingly, his life also changed dramatically. . . .”

But even though Schaef enthusiastically endorses 12-step programs--and obviously believes in her own intensives--she still says that “once you accept the problem you have to find your own solution.”


“I’m not going to give the solution. People want fixes. That’s not my role,” she insists. “I give information and let it go. I’ll help them facilitate their coming to their own solution, but my solution isn’t their solution and when I think it is, I’m in trouble.”

Not everyone in the addiction/recovery field thinks such “process” work is enough.

Says Terry Kellogg, an addiction specialist and psychotherapist who is the author of “Broken Toys, Broken Dreams,” “I don’t disagree with the theoretical points Anne makes. But in doing therapy with people, in addition to doing the emotional work, the process work, it’s also very important to attach it to the reality of their lives and what happens to them. . . . Just to discharge feelings for the sake of discharging feelings is wonderful, but it can be as addictive as cocaine.”

Despite criticism, Schaef holds fast to her belief that no psychological techniques beyond “trusting the process” are necessary. Even in “Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much, “ her commentary is more observation than advice.

Published about a month ago by Harper & Row, San Francisco, the paperback has already sold 40,000 copies. It features 365 quotations, almost exclusively from women. They include Golda Meir’s technique for combating workaholism: “If you knew how often I say to myself: ‘To hell with everything, to hell with everybody, I’ve done my share, let others do theirs now, enough, enough, enough.’ ”

There’s Mother Teresa’s assessment of spiritual versus financial poverty: “Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.” And from Barbie, the doll, this fictional description of her over-busy life: “I am so keyed up I can’t go to sleep at night. I just can’t relax. I’m lucky if I get five hours of sleep a night.”

After each quotation, Schaef provides a short commentary. Surprisingly, she doesn’t jump on Barbie as the greatest bimbo of all time, but rather empathizes with her and gently reflects on her plight as a negative role model.


Schaef says that part of what prompted her to write the book was that most meditation books available today are “too yucky, so limited and always giving simple, sweet answers.”

She especially dislikes the affirmation-a-day type books frequently written for those in the recovery process, books that begin each day with a goal (“Today I will . . . “) or a positive thought (“I am . . . “).

“If you get up in the morning and you feel like I’ve been feeling lately--I’ve been grouchy and grumpy and I know something is coming up for me--and you look in the mirror and it says, ‘I’m beautiful and wonderful and it’s going to be a great day,’ you want to punch the mirror,” she says. Schaef prefers to experience her negative feelings, accept them and let them dissipate in the face of acceptance and love.

“Trying to convince yourself you’re something you’re not perpetuates the addictive system. And if you give yourself a prescription--’Today I will do thus and thus’--you’ll feel guilty if you don’t do it.”

So her meditations are not designed for instant overhauls. Rather, she says, “They open a door. Sometimes you may chew on what I say all day or it may hurt. They’re really something to meditate on.”

This attitude in her writing and speaking has won Schaef many admirers. At the First National Conference on Co-Dependency in Phoenix last year Schaef received a standing ovation from the crowd and was besieged for an hour after each of her two speeches. Some were so moved they could hardly speak, weeping as they thanked her.


“I haven’t seen too many people get the reaction she does,” says her agent, Minneapolis-based Jonathon Lazear. “She just doesn’t have any pretense. She’s both a pair of old slippers and a good, clear mirror at the same time.” He adds that her books are being translated into Japanese and a sale of French rights is in the works.

Diane Fassel, the organizational consultant who co-authored “The Addictive Organization” with Schaef and works as vice president of Wilson-Schaef Associates, suspects that audiences throughout the world are moved by her colleague’s authenticity and vulnerability.

“I don’t think they feel they’ve watched an actress, a charlatan or a self-promoter,” Fassel speculates. “I’ve seen her give many talks. One minute, she has you laughing at her and knows the joke is on herself. The next minute you see her weeping in front of you. The next minute, she has you completely uncomfortable because she knows exactly who you are and knows all your secrets. . . . I think people feel she’s entirely authentic. There’s a way in which who she is gives us hope.”

Schaef makes no organized effort to solicit business from corporations or predict how companies might implement her ideas, she says.

“What’s unique and valuable about Anne is the perspective she offers on personal and organizational dynamics,” says Susan Stanley, personnel manager for Digital Equipment Corp. in Maynard, Mass., which has employed Schaef as a consultant. “The next step is to figure out how to help people apply it in their work.”

For example, Frank Culley, vice president of Ethicon, a division of Johnson & Johnson in Somerville, N.J., calls Schaef’s perspective both “accurate and revolutionary,” but hasn’t hired her because of uncertainty about how to actually use her ideas.


“She’s looking at addiction in a broader sense than alcohol and understands it as well as anybody I know. I think she’s got vision,” he says, adding that he’s read her books and met with her to discuss their application. “I’m still wrestling with identifying just how it fits in the organization.”

But some companies have found an application for Schaef’s ideas. After Schaef and Fassel worked with The Country Place, a Dallas residential psychiatric center for adolescents dealing with chemical dependency, the facility’s annual revenues quadrupled from about half a million dollars to $2 million.

Recalls Bill Barabas, the executive director and president, describing the organization pre-Schaef: “I and four psychotherapists own the company. We started off being friends. We learned to hate each other. We were constantly in conflict. The program was pathetic. We had to transfer more kids to other facilities than kids we discharged because we hadn’t done them any good.”

When Schaef came in, she recommended that all five of the owners receive intensive, in-patient treatment for their addictions--even though only one of them was an active alcoholic. (The others included a recovering alcoholic and three co-dependents.)

“As each of us began to take a look at our own addiction issues, we saw how our issues were carried right into our corporation. Most of us were playing the same roles in the corporation we’d played in our individual families while we were growing up,” Barabas says.

Over the course of about a year, he reports, the company has completely turned around. Profits are up. The partners like each other again. And, it seems, clients are actually getting help in recovering from their addictions.


“We’re modeling appropriate behavior,” explains Barabas. “We’re a functional recovery center now.”