April 15, 2022

12-Step Programs: Conflating Trauma with Ego Since 1939.


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Trauma-informed care was not a concept in 1935 when the father of all 12-step ideology was founded, and neither was self-medicating said trauma.

It was illegal for Black people to vote, women to serve on federal juries, interracial couples to marry, and homosexuality was considered a dangerous mental illness.

Aside from minutiae, socially-conscious amendments being tacked onto the personal stories section of the basic text of Alcoholics Anonymous, the first 164 pages and outline of the program as a lifestyle, have remained—like The Holy Bible it is based on—sacrosanct and largely untouched since its publication in 1939.

Yes, 1939.

Desperate, broken people, of which I once one, cling to a rigid lifestyle program designed 83 years ago.

Not only designed 83 years ago, but designed in the Mid-West by two financially privileged, cishet white men—a surgeon and a stockbroker to be exact. 

I can see the value and even necessity in two textbook representatives of patriarchy learning about honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness.

The 12-steps, after all, is designed as a sort of spirituality 101 for those whose egos have been allowed to run rampant for far too long. Learning to hit one’s knees, literally and metaphorically, is the foundation of this program of a faith-based action, and for Bill and Bob and legions of white men cut from the same privileged cloth, I think that learning to get out of the way, roll up their sleeves, help others, and admit their faults is absolutely a “design for living that really works.” 

But from where I stand, which is in line at food banks and missions, med counters in detox centers, and battered women’s shelters, LGBTQ+ drop-in centers, and The Department of Social and Health Services, 12-step programs, and the stubborn, unquestioned dogma therein, are not only glaringly unequipped to address the structural trauma causing so many people (comprising of vulnerable populations) to self-medicate, but they can be outright dangerous in their outdated information that encourages disadvantaged trauma survivors to make rounds in apologizing for their past behaviors, and houseless people to spend their time volunteering in the form of “service work.”

Or else…

Or else you will be incarcerated, committed to other institutions, or die. As they say.

I say it’s time for the fear-based, coercive mental reprogramming of this omnipresent program to be reexamined in light of new information and social developments.

I spent six years “working the program.”

I attended meetings and chaired meetings and picked up cigarette butts off the ground. I went to conventions and answered hotline calls and worked the steps repeatedly. I helped other women work the steps. I borrowed money from friends to buy diapers because I was giving away all of my labor for free like my life depended on it. Apparently, it did. These ghost daddies of 1939 said so. 

I made amends to all of my abusers. Oddly, they persisted in their abuse. 

Did it work? All of my working it and working it and working it.

If you consider being bone-dry for six years, then yes—yes, it did.

I was married and divorced, I was houseless, I was plagued with PTSD nightmares, depression—both the regular kind and the postpartum kind, and in a series of unequal, abusive relationships, which I compulsively took full responsibility for.

But it worked. I stayed lucid for the duration.

But after six years of 12-stepping, I got drunk.

And then I got high.

Drunker perhaps, and higher than I probably would have if I hadn’t spent the better part of the past 2,190 days chanting 

“I’m an alcoholic. I’m an alcoholic. I’m an addict.” 


“I’m powerless over alcohol and drugs.”

And so I was.

Way to manifest.

Battling addictions, I cycled in and out of 12-step programs for a few years. Convinced that my problems were the result of a physical allergy and spiritual bankruptcy. And, of course, the fire consequence for not “working it” hard enough. This belief prompted me to bare my soul to rooms full of strangers, including predators, and take advice regarding my mental health from untrained civilians without question, because they were my sponsors and my life depended on obedience to their trauma uninformed instruction. 

Was I traumatized in “the rooms?”


Was I retraumatized every time I shared my trauma narrative with people I had no reason to feel safe with


Did I believe my life depended on unquestioned allegiance to an anonymous group and program?

A 100 percent.

Was I told to put “principals before personalities” when it came to predators within the program?


I celebrated nine years clean and sober last week. I don’t have a sponsor, I don’t work the steps, and I haven’t been to more than 10 meetings in almost a decade.

I have a team of LGBTQ+, female, BIPOC, trauma-informed, sex-positive professionals, and nonprofessionals in my support team. I have two therapists, advocates, a reiki teacher, a psychiatrist, a neurologist, a naturopath, and some amazing friends.

My recovery from sexual violence and abuse don’t consist of apologizing, but rather, of recognizing what was not my fault.

It’s not about deflating my ego, but rather learning how to love myself.

Decontextualizing trauma and applying a one-size-fits-all paradigm to diverse groups of individuals representing varying levels of social power and privilege and representing an array of physical disabilities and mental illnesses reeks of the arrogance and pride that Bill and Bob intentionally discouraged. 

It’s truly a regressive, colonial template, and I wouldn’t entrust my life to the care of a mental health professional working from a 1939 version of the DSM. 

My favorite line from The Basic Text of Alcoholics Anonymous is the one that allows for both personal and collective evolution:

“Our book is meant to be suggestive only. We realize we know only a little.” ~ Alcoholics Anonymous, Page 164, 1939.


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