My Uneasy Relationship with Twelve Step

I have been clean for more than twenty years, after having lived a life of using copious amounts of alcohol and recreational drugs. That’s how I usually say it, that I’ve been clean all of these years, but to some people who aren’t down with the Bill Wilson way of speaking I might say I’ve been clean and sober for more than twenty years, which is something that would upset a lot of twelve steppers. (At least the Narcotics Anonymousers.)

And that’s part of the problem, which will become apparent.

I started off my sobriety in twelve step. I went to a meeting when I realized I really needed to get clean. I had quit using drugs but I had kept drinking, and I realized that if I didn’t stop drinking I was going to go back to using the “hard stuff”.

There are a lot of good things to say about the twelve step community. The best of all: It’s free. Drug rehab programs can be insanely expensive. (It is, after all, a medical expense.) But it doesn’t cost anything to go to a meeting. You can even get a free cup of coffee and maybe even some snacks out of the deal. You get to hang out with others who know your struggle and are dealing with many of the same issues. Indeed, I have made many friends in twelve step, some of who have been there for me in times of crisis, but most of whom have helped me simply by being good friends and providing me with a sense of community that I would otherwise be lacking. The life of a soberite can be quite alienating at times.

I can honestly say that I was able to stay clean in my first year of sobriety because of twelve step. But I was so crazy and detoxy and just simply out of it that I really didn’t get into steps, or sponsors, or traditions during that first year. The real reason I managed to stay clean is because I forced myself to stick around people who weren’t using. That, for me, was the way I stayed clean and didn’t go back out in my first year. I’m not saying that’s what will work for everybody, but it’s what helped me.

But twelve steppers object to this when I say that my community of recovery is what kept me clean. They’ll jab a finger towards me and tell me I’m wrong. “No, no. That’s not what kept you clean. The program is what kept you clean!”

I barely had anything to do with the program in my first year. Later on I got a sponsor and did step work, but in that first year? The machinations of the program were not what was keeping me clean.

I am aware that my experiences are chiefly regional. I got clean in the San Francisco Bay Area, having attended Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. I have been to other meetings, in other cities and other countries. Some have different formats, and some other fellowships have somewhat different vibes. But I’ve never been in a different region long enough to determine what their overall culture is like, so I can admit that I’m coming from a Bay Area perspective.

And I’ll also say there are different pools in twelve step. People new to twelve step are usually assailed by the more aggressive members of the fellowship, the ones who really drill the program message. These aggressive types are usually also the ones who organize meetings and events, and end up being speakers. I have found many good friends in twelve step who aren’t as high-handed or preachy when it comes to the program. As much as twelve step preaches the community aspect, there are cliques within each fellowship. “I’m not one of the cool people in this group,” an NA member once confessed to me.

Asides from the community and the culture that it fosters, how does twelve step work? Twelve step looks at addiction as a disease. And I think that is a good thing. Casting aside for the moment the debate on whether or not it is actually a disease, I believe the disease model is a good way to come at this problem, both for individuals who struggle with addiction and also when considering the problem overall. The problem is that a disease is a scientific concept, and twelve step pledges to attack this disease with spiritual principles. Basically it is psychological faith healing. While the psychological legitimacy of sponsors and steps and traditions is another can of worms I’m not going to necessarily get into just yet, the grounds for which twelve steppers can claim this is an effective way to sober up and stay clean is controversial when it comes to the psychological and scientific community. (There’s a book out there that calls twelve step bad science. I would say it isn’t even science. It bases its method in faith and spirituality.)

The literature of twelve step says it’s a suggested program, and that no one is forced to do or say anything. At least that’s the written dogma. It doesn’t really work that way in practice.

No one has ever told me I wasn’t welcome at a twelve step meeting, and I wouldn’t say I’ve ever been forced to do anything, but there is a tremendous amount of peer pressure to conform to the program. As a newcomer, people were constantly asking me which step I was on, and who was my sponsor? This was distressing and intimidating for me as a newly detoxing newcomer. People would ask me these questions in lieu of saying hello or how are you. They would literally walk up to me and blurt “Which step are you on? Who’s your sponsor?” That’s the first thing they would say to me when they saw me.

I have been told by twelve step members repeatedly for years that twelve step was the only way I could stay clean, that I had no choice. Basically follow the program or you’re doomed. In other words, it was anything but a suggestion.

And you can’t question it. Well, you can, but if you do you risk becoming ostracized and alienated, and can even face open hostility. If you contradict any program principles in your shares, people will oftentimes cross-talk you, something that’s not supposed to happen during a meeting. (The cross talk is always prefaced with a “Not to cross-talk, but…”)

Why would members of a clean and sober community badger and interrogate someone fresh to twelve step in such a way? Because of the program. The program is everything in twelve step, for too many members.

Addict Identity

The central core of twelve step is the surrendering to a higher power. This is where it gets creepy. What exactly your higher power is, whether it’s a God or the God or some sort of spiritual force or vision is (mostly) up to you. But you have to submit to it. And this higher power is a doozy. For if you stay clean, it’s not because of you, it’s your higher power and the program that’s kept you clean. But if you relapse, if you fail to stay clean, it’s you’re own fault for not following the program and surrendering to your higher power. In other words, it’s a guiding power that takes all of the credit and none of the blame. My core self is only capable of sin, and I cannot be the instrument of my own salvation, not in any way or degree.

What’s creepy about this is what it does to one’s identity. You are pledged to the program, and you must be loyal to it and its ideals. In fact, so many people become so obsessed with the program that they forget what it’s about in the first place: Sobriety. The machinations of the program become far more important than anything else.

Many twelve steppers live and breath twelve step. Their lives are dominated by it. Everything they do, outside of what they must absolutely do for family and work, is dominated by meetings, by twelve step service and twelve step events. I would even say I’ve met people who are addicted to twelve step, and I don’t say that lightly. A psychological addiction can be just as consuming as a chemical addiction. As one young friend of mine put it, “I didn’t get clean just so I could go to meetings.” Since I’ve gotten clean I’ve done many things I’ve wanted to do and discovered other things I didn’t know I wanted to do. I’ve written books, I’ve gotten a college degree, and I discovered running, an activity which does take up a good deal of my time and effort, and also helps me stay out of trouble.

I will tell people that these accomplishments are part of my recovery: Running, writing, going to school; These are things I do with myself to stay clean, and keep my life on a path away from addiction. But the suggestion that my life activities are part of my recovery is offensive to many twelve steppers. They would insist that meetings, stepwork, and sponsorship are the only true means of recovery, that how I carry out my life has nothing to do with my recovery, because things such as writing, exercise, and education are not addict related. It’s the addict identity I must always and forever address, every day.

In twelve step you’re constantly being defined by your addict personae. Yes, I am a drug addict. But I’m also a lot of other things: A boyfriend, a son, an employee for a major sports team, a holder of a degree in computer science, a published author, and an amateur long-distance runner. There’s also plenty of other names and labels that I, (and others,) could come up with. Every person is a complex and multi-faceted individual, but the only facet that’s allowed for someone in twelve step is the addict. It’s constantly pounded into you: Addict addict addict, oftentimes to the point where the identification of addicts is basically an addiction. Concentrating on that facet of life is important, of course, as substance abuse can take over your life to the detriment of everything else. But to be consumed by the addict personae, is that really the best way to recover?

The eternal addict is also the message. You can’t just go to meetings regularly for awhile and then cut back. You’re constantly being told that you have to keep going to meetings, that you keep having to do stepwork, over and over again. There is no distinction between someone who’s been clean for two weeks and someone who’s been clean for twenty two years. And other life advancements make no difference in your program. Has one gotten certain behaviors under control? Did someone get a job? A place to live? A degree? Is there some other therapeutic pursuit that they’ve taken up? Has someone resolved psychological issues and problems? All irrelevant. There is no such thing as progress. Each and every individual must keep repeating the same cycle, over and over again.

I can’t imagine this is always a constructive way to tackle the problem. I am nothing like the dazed and confused young man who walked through the doors of his first meeting more than twenty years ago. I am very much a different person now. I have evolved. Do I still have things to work on? Of course. Self improvement is a lifelong process, not a quick fix. It’s also something that shouldn’t just stand in place.

There are reasons why some people are so strongly motivated to stick to the program. One of the most pernicious enemies of the addict is denial. It’s why some people drop out. “I can have one once in awhile.” Anyone can have one once in awhile. It’s making sure it’s only once in awhile that’s the problem. Falling into denial, subconsciously or not so subconsciously, and avoiding important problems are all hallmarks of the chronic addict, which is an acute reason why so many people emphasize the program. But when does that emphasis, that constant drive to conform and keep oneself in a never ending step work cycle, when does it start to work against itself? When does it start to hurt more than help? Or just keep someone in a cycle that they aren’t willing to break out of, despite what it may be doing for one’s personal growth and potential? And when does that rigid dedication become more of a hinderance than help? Is it a cycle that spits certain kinds of people back out, back out into the very problems they were trying to solve?

These are questions that aren’t allowed in the program. They are heresy. And that’s the problem.

Sole Salvation

My biggest reservation with the way twelve step works is how members insist that it is the only salvation. And the dogma sticks. Even people for whom drugs come back into their life.

There are some members of twelve step who are constantly relapsing. They go out and drink and use drugs and then come back the next day and declare themselves a newcomer, yet again. There are people who spend years doing this, constantly going out and coming back, and that familiar face that you’ve been seeing in the rooms for years and years keeps speaking up during newcomer introductions. They are always welcomed back and accepted, because even though they still use drugs, they are committed to the program. The question never arises that perhaps twelve step isn’t for them, precisely because they keep pledging themselves to the program. For someone to suggest that what they’re doing may not be working for them is, quite simply, unthinkable within the realms of twelve step.

This is not to say that a community of addicts and alcoholics have to suddenly become professional psychiatrists who can evaluate the mental stability or psychological progress of a recovering addict. Rather there should be room for people to find their proper path to recovery, whether it be working steps, finding mentors and sponsors, or just simply finding their safe space within the community of recovering addicts to help get their feet on the ground. Getting interrogated for which step you’re on when you’re a fresh newcomer on the scene is not exactly the best way for everyone to find their serenity.

There are also other members in the felloswhip who exhibit severe psychological or problematic mental problems. Some exhibit signs of paranoia, deep-seated depression, and sometimes even borderline schizophrenia. I am no psychologist, but one only has to have rudimentary knowledge of psychology to recognize that there are individuals in those twelve step rooms for whom meetings and step work just are not enough. They need serious professional help, yet more often than not they are treated just the same as everyone else and the program message is pushed onto them. And I have known people who have died in the program, people who died because of their addiction. Could another way have shown them how to break their addiction cycle? We can never know with them, but maybe we can find out with others like them.

I’m sure many people would fire back, “You’re not a psychologist, so you shouldn’t be saying these things.” Fair enough. I will admit I’m not qualified to tell a person with a severe mental illness what to do about their condition. But at the same time people who themselves are not psychologists are telling these people that they need twelve step to get better, and oftentimes will tell them that twelve step is their only hope, even if it’s clear they aren’t getting any better with substance abuse or their mental states of mind despite participating in twelve step.

Even those who return to the using lifestyle seem to accept twelve step as dogma. I’ve seen a lot of people go out, people who decided that the twelve step lifestyle wasn’t for them or just wasn’t helping them break their cycle of substance abuse. And if twelve step is not for them, then recovery overall isn’t for them, because in this culture twelve step has become recovery. It is the end all and be all of getting clean. They would go back to drinking, the “I-can-have-one-once-in-awhile” decision. And I’ve seen many of these people turn back into the wrecks that they used to be, sometimes because their one “sole salvation” wasn’t working for them.

And that’s the quandary: The people who went out, when they decided twelve step wasn’t for them, because they decided there was no other alternative. It was twelve step or nothing. Because, as I said before, there’s nothing suggested about the program once you’re in it. There’s no wiggle room. There’s no trying to find out what works for you: Sponsors, sponsees, step work, traditions. Or else get out. Even with addictions as severe as heroin or meth there are a lot of degrees. No two addicts are alike. As bad as I was there were other addicts whose drug problems were far more acute, and then others whose addictive practices were not as intense. Not all people with a drinking problem are all-out rummy alcoholics who need to get drunk all of the time. Some are bingers. Some are people who have steady alcohol problems, and others who ride a wave of going out and coming back in, while others are just constantly drunken train wrecks. There is no standard model for how people with substance abuse problems function. It would follow that there’s more than one model to find recovery.

For these people, the habitual relapsers and the people who drop back out and never came back, could another way have helped? A different kind of program, or one that wasn’t so steeped in dogma? Or perhaps just a program that isn’t so rigid. As I said, for many people, the machinations of the program become more important than anything else.

Because if they didn’t get so invested in the machinations of the program, people wouldn’t get upset with me for saying clean and sober, or they would not get terse with me for highlighting how my community helped me stay clean in my early recovery rather than the program. For so many, it’s all about semantics, it’s all about the program, and virtually nothing else.


Author: termberkden

I am a writer, a software engineer, and a refugee from the punk/metal/new wave/my-God-what-did-we-do-last-night daze of 1980's and early 90's San Francisco scene. I write, I run, I actually stop and smell the roses, I meow back at cats, and I pet strange yet friendly dogs.

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