December 7, 2021

Are 12-Step Programs Helpful or Just a Cult?

 

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Why am I writing about my take on 12-step programs?

I must imagine there are a thousand articles and books on whether alcohol Anonymous (AA) and any other 12-step programs are effective or suck canal water.

Are they the best thing next to sliced bread or the worst thing that has happened to planet Earth? The last statement came from a prominent psychologist, Stanton Peele. I have read numerous articles that AA is bad science, it’s a cult, and there were Q-anon type articles back in the day, known as the Orange Papers that attempted to convince the readers that AA is a cult aligned with roots from Nazism. There are also a few money-making conspiracies floating out there, which I find laughable. Good luck extorting money from an addict or alcoholic.

So, of course, I am going to chime in. I have been in the mental health and addiction field since 1980. I got clean and sober in 1982 when it became clear that I sucked when I drank. I plan to write a book on what it takes to have a successful recovery, so I must address the good, the bad, and the ugly.

And yes, there are about 2,000 other books on how to get clean and sober and whether 12-step programs should fit in the mixture.

My biggest block in writing such a book is, “Will it make a difference?”

Who knows?

Who cares?

All I know is to fight my own past demons from my addiction, and all I have learned as a clinician is that I need to express my voice regarding my experience in this field while sharing some aspects of my recovery process.

Let’s be clear; AA is not the cure for all recovery and social ills. It is not the perfect cure, nor does it own the market. I will not try and convince anyone that they must go to meetings to successfully stay clean and sober.

When I assess clients for addiction, it’s common to ask what they have done so far to abstain from drugs and drinking. I will hear stories of attempts to attend 12-step meetings and the experience being unpleasant more times than not. Most complaints were that the meetings were too religious, militant, pooky-pooky, boring, and happy, and the coffee tasted like sh*t.

I don’t want to invalidate those complaints; those are real experiences. It’s not right or wrong, good or bad. It just is.

So, does it matter if a person goes to a 12-step program for their ongoing recovery?

I get this question a lot. Instead of answering it, how about I reframe the question this way: What do we need to do to make our recovery process successful?

Through my client’s experiences, I notice stacking the odds in my favor has been the best route. I learned that from playing backgammon with my college roommate. In that game, we are always asking ourselves, “What are the probabilities of hitting my opponent or getting smacked?” So, the probability of staying sober via hanging out at a pool hall with the old drinking buddies versus hanging out at an AA meeting with other people trying to enjoy life without drinking will produce different results.

Yes, I know some people claim they quit drinking and have no problem hanging in old playgrounds with old playmates. Well, good for them. That is not the norm. Those are not the people coming to my office.

I will share one complaint regarding 12-step programs; they do not know how to handle trauma. And some of the slogans and steps can come off as invalidating, demeaning, and triggering to an individual.

The old-timer in AA would say, “That is none of our business,” or “It has nothing to do with our singleness of purpose,” which means just dealing with problem drinking. Well, I will call bullsh*t on that because up to 80 percent of those attending 12-step programs suffer from adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as minor traumas and other various traumas.

One of AA’s most powerful contributions is the inventory. But AA had no idea what it was doing when it developed the fourth step. So much wreckage from the past has been brought to the surface upon writing one’s history (inventory). This allowed members to address past experiences with the rest of the steps or take the material to an outside therapist (the best option). We all know that trauma is the inability to be present. And one thing the 12-steps often do is help people stay in the present.

I have repeatedly watched the old-timers in AA claim that everything that is needed to recover successfully “is in the big book of AA.” However, the big book itself clearly says, “We only know so little.” Thus, seeking help outside of AA has always been and always will be a damn good idea.

I was told, “Take what you like, leave the rest behind.” And if they find anything else outside of AA that stacks the odds toward a successful recovery, oh hell yeah!

~

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