I’ve been reading a lot of articles lately where individuals have been talking negatively about 12 Step fellowships like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, etc. It sometimes feels as if it is some sort of smear campaign. I can only speak for myself, but I completely disagree with the opinions of those who say Fellowships like AA and NA do more damage than good. That just hasn’t been my experience at all. The truth is, it was 12 Step Fellowships and especially the people in those rooms that helped save my life.
These fellowships are only as good as the people who attend the meetings, and just like any other peer support group, some meetings are better than others. We are all human, and if we are in those rooms you have to remember that we are all just sick people trying to get better – no matter how much sobriety we have. We are human, we make mistakes and we say or do the wrong things sometimes, but our hearts are in the right place and we genuinely care about your recovery. I genuinely care about your recovery!
12 Step groups are not for everyone, and I agree that they are not the ONLY way to recover, but I still strongly believe they are one of the best places to start. Whenever I am approached by someone struggling with addiction or their family members, my first question is almost always, “Have they tried meetings yet?”
1. It worked for me – If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! There is no better marketing tool than a first-hand account of how a service has worked for them. Like millions of others, I started in the rooms of the 12 Step Fellowships. I also went through residential and outpatient treatment programs. The treatment centers helped to stabilize me and provided useful information about addiction, however, it was in the rooms of AA and NA where I learned how to live my life in the real world free from alcohol and drugs. All of the knowledge in the world regarding addiction could not keep me sober. I had to learn how to do that with the help of others who walked the same path as me.
2. Anonymity – Tradition 12 states “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.” I don’t know about anyone else, but I take anonymity very seriously in my recovery. In fact, if it wasn’t for the promise of anonymity when I first started my journey, I don’t know that I ever would have kept going back. I was surprised to find that the majority of the people in those meetings abide by the traditions and refrain from speaking about other members outside of the rooms.
As I have continued in my journey, I have chosen to no longer be anonymous in my personal journey to help end the stigma associated with addiction, however, I would never disclose another persons attendance or membership in an anonymous program. That is a clear cut, cardinal rule of the 12 step fellowships. We protect our members as they try to better themselves. There are some who have broken this rule, remember we are still sick and not everyone in those rooms can be trusted, but our intentions are pure. Stick with the people you find the most trustworthy and you will find that overtime you become much more trustworthy yourself. I have an entirely new understanding of words like honesty, trust and integrity.
3. It’s Free! – At a time when treatment centers and sober living facilities have been exposed for patient brokering, sex trafficking and money laundering and just straight up taking advantage of desperate addicts and their family members, anonymous fellowships offer a program free of charge. Yes, they can only operate on donations, but most members understand that not everyone comes into recovery swimming in excess money.
Why are we discouraging so many suffering addicts from attending free peer support groups in their own communities? AODA treatment is a business, and just like any business there are good players and bad players. If you choose treatment, make sure you do your research and find a reputable addiction treatment center.
I have heard some argue that they were “bullied” into donating at meetings. That is both unfortunate and unacceptable, and says more about the person doing the bullying than it does about 12 Step Fellowships as a whole. You are allowed to stand up for yourself and advocate for yourself in recovery! It is written in the literature of 12 Step Fellowships that the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop using and that no addict should EVER be turned away from a meeting if they cannot put money in the basket.
You are not required to donate a penny. If you find yourself in a financial position to begin donating later in your recovery, it will be much appreciated…but still not required. If you are in a position where you are unable to donate money to your local meetings, there are plenty of other ways you can be of service to it’s members – help set up/clean up for meetings, offer to chair the meeting, greet newcomers at the door, make coffee before the meeting, etc.
4. The only requirement is a desire to stop – this means you don’t get kicked to the curb if you relapse. You are simply asked not to attend meetings if you are currently under the influence or asked to speak with someone after the meeting if you have used. Our hope is that if you keep coming back, the desire to use will eventually lessen and your desire to stay clean and sober will increase. We hope that by watching others in the community succeed in their own recovery you might be inspired to have a little faith in yourself too. Recovery starts with a decision to stop using and continues only with vigilance.
5. Human Connection – in treatment centers (if you are lucky enough to be referred to a good one like I was), addicts are kept safe from substances inside a tightly monitored bubble. They are given random alcohol and drug tests and limited access to the outside world. In 12 Step Programs, it is the addict who has to learn to hold them self accountable in every day living. AA and NA taught me what it means to have integrity – how to hold myself accountable when no one else was watching.
Human connection is important for my recovery because – believe me – I know how to disguise a text message to make it appear that everything in my life is OK. If I am talking to a friend over the phone or visiting them in person, however, I am less successful in manipulating the people around me. I need to be surrounded by other human beings who understand me. I need people to notice if I am acting out of character or if I seem sad or overwhelmed. I don’t always recognize these things in myself, so I depend on my friends in recovery to help me pinpoint which areas of my life need work.
6. Singleness of Purpose – I’ve heard it argued many times that AA is not accepting of drug addicts, but that isn’t always the case. Many AA meetings that I attend are 100% accepting of addicts, however, there are some that prefer to stick to talking strictly about addiction as it relates to the use of alcohol. That is their right as a group. They are Alcoholics Anonymous, after all. That is why there are other fellowships that individuals can attend that are geared more towards their drug of choice. Personally, I am an alcoholic who attends Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Why do I attend NA if I am not a drug addict? That’s simple…Alcohol is a drug! Period! Narcotics Anonymous is an all-inclusive fellowship where you can discuss your use of any drug or substance, including alcohol.
I’ve also heard it argued that these fellowships don’t consider those who are receiving medically assisted treatment clean and sober. This one is always going to be up for debate. Again, 12 Step Fellowships have a singleness of purpose, to remain free from all drugs and alcohol. I have attended many 12 Step Group (usually with close ties to hospitals or institutions) that welcome members who are currently on Suboxone or Methadone. There are other meetings who want their members to be free from all substances. It is each groups right and responsibility to convey clear expectations to it’s members.
7. Structure – People often ask me what makes me so successful in my recovery, and I always mention structure. I need structure in my life. It is necessary. Without structure, I am like a lost puppy frantically running around in circles trying to find my way home.
The idea of having a structured schedule was first presented to me in residential treatment. We woke up every morning, made our beds, ate breakfast, did our chores and attended structured therapy sessions throughout the day. We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner at the same time each day, had scheduled phone time and went to bed at the same time. This type of structure taught me how to live in the moment and tackle one task at a time.
When I left treatment, I maintained the same type of structure with work, meetings and getting my daughter to her sports activities. I work Monday – Friday full-time. Meeting nights are Monday, Friday and Saturday. My daughters activity nights are Tuesday/Wednesday and Family days are Thursday night and Sundays. This works for me, and often times when something in this schedule changes I feel off kilter, but it is only for a moment.
There are also 12 steps in these programs – which is why they are called 12 step programs! You work through those steps one at a time. It is structured. The 12 steps are where I truly learned to hold myself accountable and to forgive myself for the mistakes I made while I was sick. I can honestly say that I would not be the person I am today had I not worked those steps with a sponsor. I continue to work the steps today, because once again – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
8. Service Work – while living in active addiction, I was selfish. Selfish is probably an understatement. I was probably more like the most self-centered, self-absorbed and narcissistic woman you had ever come across. I have heard it described as an “egomaniac with an inferiority complex.” 12 Step Fellowships have taught me how to be the opposite – they’ve taught me to be selfless.
This can be as simple as providing rides to meetings, or handing out flyers for recovery events or simply answering the phone when another addict is struggling. I have also gotten involved with service in jails and institutions and currently spend my Friday nights with the women incarcerated at the Milwaukee women’s prison. This type of service has transferred into my personal life as well, and I have found that I am more involved in volunteering through work and my daughters school.
9. God – Gasp! Yeah, I said it! Like many addicts and alcoholics, when I came into the rooms I was not a fan of the word God either and didn’t want a bunch of religious whackadoos quoting Bible verses while shaking their rosary beads in my face. But just like almost every other stereotype I had about 12 step programs, I was wrong. I was simply told this: “You are not required to believe in God, but are asked to be willing to believe that there is a power greater than yourself at work in your life.”
Translation – you can believe in whatever Higher Power you want to, as long as that Higher Power is not YOU!
I have since made peace with a God of my understanding and, as a result, I have grown spiritually and emotionally.
Again, this is simply my opinion and just one addicts experience with 12 step fellowships. I don’t deny that there are some areas of the program that are outdated, but I will say that the positives highly outweigh any negatives. Maybe I am just lucky to have found the help that I needed in a community that embraces the 12 steps. Maybe I was lucky to meet women who took me under their wings and allowed me to grow in my recovery at my own pace with my own beliefs. Maybe I was lucky that I didn’t experience sexual harassment or bullying or religious pressure in my meetings or community. Maybe I was lucky, but I am also grateful.
The 12 steps saved my life and I would suggest that anyone struggling with addiction at least try it out (for more than 1 or 2 meetings) and make a decision for yourself if this is the right path for you. There is a lot of misinformation on the internet. Hell, some may even call my article misinformation, that is why it is necessary to become self-aware and follow your own recovery path. If you show up at one of my meetings, I will welcome you with open arms.