12-step conditioning: the cure and the cost

…by Eric Nada…

This remarkable guest post dives back into the controversy surrounding the rigidity of the 12-step approach.

………………………………..

I left 12-step involvement after 20 years of committed membership. It was surprisingly difficult. Of course, it was difficult to stop shooting heroin too — so difficult that I eventually stopped trying to stop. By then, the course of my life drug dealwas almost totally dictated by my rigid attachment to the heroin itself and by my overwhelming fear of withdrawal. By the time I finally quit, 24 years ago, I was homeless, panhandling for hours a day, supplementing my begging with daily theft, and facing a mandatory prison sentence on felony distribution charges. I had attended over a dozen rehabilitation and detoxification centers but made no progress with recovery — until I begrudgingly committed myself to the 12-step program. And while this worked, at least insofar as helping me break my bond to drugs, it did so at a cost: I had to join a powerful subculture that required me to ignore key elements of my personality and my beliefs.

(See Eric’s Guest Memoir, which conveys the details of his experience.)

small intenseIn the beginning, I thrived through the social connections I developed. I felt understood, and supported for the first time in years. Following this initial connection to its members, I slowly began to accept other elements of the 12-step philosophy, allowing them to influence and shape my views on the nature of addiction and, in some ways, on my approach to life.

I estimate that I spent at least 5800 hours in meetings, not to mention the hours I spent both in sponsorship and casual conversation with other members. Meetings were spent in repeated discussions extolling the validity and certainty of 12-step truth — an almost daily feedback loop of self-reinforcement. This was carried out with others who, by the very nature of selection bias, were guaranteed to agree with me. Within a year, I was thoroughly conditioned. I tough lovecame to believe that I was plagued by a fixed condition that required a very particular solution — a solution that didn’t evolve and was unaffected by any personal changes I might make along the way. It’s not an exaggeration to describe the basic 12-step formula as follows: You have an unchangeable condition, X, the cure for which is Y and only Y. If you stop doing Y, you will eventually die of X.

For almost two decades I believed in and applied this formula. But as I matured and grew, expanding my understanding of the mechanics of addiction and emotional development, I couldn’t help but begin to question its certainty. Eventually, I realized that I had developed a very real dilemma which pitted my evolving instincts against my 12-step training. I found myself at a crossroad: do I trust myself or do I continue to trust the 12-step message? Ultimately, I decided to trust myself.

The program had “programmed” me and I needed deprogramming. This was actually a precarious process and one that is rarely discussed, let alone studied. Immediately upon leaving, I felt a great relief. But any positive and encouraging feelings I had were initially accompanied by feelings of guilt, shame, and self-doubt. I became aware of a deep internal message that challenged the idea of trusting myself over the 12-step dogma I had lived by for so long. Also, from deep inside came a haunting temptation: to play out the scenario of relapse and a return to out-of-control drug use, viewed as the inevitable consequence of leaving the 12-step fold. It was an established meditation practice that helped meditationhone my awareness. Only through the use of mindfulness was I able to decipher the 12-step message and avoid its prophecy. I also spent much time online scouring the internet for stories and forums written by others who had made similar moves. It has been over three years now, and although it is no longer acutely difficult, I am still sorting out and ridding myself of the last tendrils of doubt and conditioned 12-step messaging.

We are born to be conditioned. We are, indeed, conditioned even before we are born — molded by the experiences of the woman carrying us in her womb. Without conditioning there would only be chaos. There would be no tribe or men in suitscommunity, no culture or customs. Our human egos need these containers to make sense of and navigate daily life. But obviously not all conditioning is healthy or optimal. We need to examine and upgrade our conditioning continuously as we grow and require different versions of containment. I have never been so conditioned, obsessed, or emotionally rigid as when I was using heroin. And certainly the conditioning I developed through my 12-step membership aided in breaking through this rigidity. It was a definite upgrade. But as I continued to grow, I didn’t take regular stock of whether I was still benefiting from my 12-step involvement; because, by its own definition, the 12-step approach can’t be outgrown.

I have often heard discussions suggesting that 12-step recovery would be more effective if it weren’t so rigid, if it were truly permissible for members to come and go without judgement. But I don’t think it would work. It’s the underlying rigidity that accompanies 12-step involvement that makes it potentially effective. Unfortunately, I commonly see this hard-lined rigidity follow long-term 12-step members into other areas of their lives.

Optimal mental health is found neither in rigidity nor in chaos, but in the nuanced flexibility that lies between these poles. Recovery, too, can be nuanced. There just isn’t a one-size that fits all, and recovery needs room to evolve, especially after the initial bond between person and drug has been broken. I still have moments when I deeply want those 20 years back, to live fully, untethered from the “program” that scripted so many precious hours of my life and prescribed so many of my relationships and personal interactions. I do not condemn the 12-step approach to addiction, and there are certainly other positive components that could be discussed. But ever-present is its underlying rigidity. And as I look back at its stifling influence over half of my life, I have yet to decide whether the benefits were worth the damage.

113 thoughts on “12-step conditioning: the cure and the cost

  1. John George Graham February 3, 2019 at 4:34 am #

    So sad to hear you feel “damaged” by your exposure to and involvement with the Twelve Step philosophy for an extended period, which resonates — I have a history not dissimilar to your own — while also having suspended my Meeting attendance (although due to the use of vaping devices rather than any objection to the Twelve steps). I personally believe, based on my own life experience, that it is abstinence which allows recovery from active addiction. The Twelve Steps provide a supportive structured framework rather than being the source cause of recovery.
    Of course, your own admission that you came to the Twelve Steps reluctantly might be at least part of the reason why you have struggled. But I agree with you that a significant shortcoming is the absence of opportunity to explore progression in recovery, in favour of remaining oriented towards Step One, which seems to be the focus while sharing in Meetings.

    Wishing you well in you ongoing journey, Eric.

    John.

    • Eric Nada February 3, 2019 at 12:10 pm #

      John, thank you for the comment and well-wishes. I, too, believe that abstinence is an important tool, one that creates space to do the actual work. Any modality that helps to provide this space to someone in need is very valuable in its own right. Everything evolves! I wish you well on your journey, as well. Eric.

    • Matthew Graves September 25, 2019 at 9:48 am #

      I know this is a bit older Marc but I wanted to comment.
      I tried to do as you did and failed the first time.
      I am a 10 year long member of AA, although addicted to heroin, alcohol, benzos, meth at various times. My obsession over the way I feel and, the cost of drug use is the outward problem but AA says I have a disease of the Spirit.

      I relapsed this year after 8 years clean…6 years into recovery I stopped attending meetings, I felt as you described the thought of using far from my mind, never even a consideration. I stopped talking to like minded folks and started to resent my wife and animals.
      After losing a job and being forced to sell our home I relapsed.
      I feel so damn trapped.
      I’m a medical cannabis patient as I have bipolar, major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders, likely as a result of drug abuse and whether or not being clean will cure them (2 years did not help those disorders and I went through all sorts of hell both abstinent from everything to taking Xanax, Gabapentin and Methadone!
      12 steps would ostracize and say I’m not working a program and I don’t know if that’s true!
      Dr tell me I need something, My GP and I agree the least side effects is cannabis.
      Do you agree with the proposition that addiction is a “Spiritual” malady? In that it requires self sacrifice to cure?
      If the structure and self sacrifice are they key, I would start a group for those who are also Medical Cannabis Patients in recovery from addiction. I think honesty is key and in 12 steps too much judgement for outside issue medication takers to feel a part of. Thoughts?

      • Marc September 25, 2019 at 10:24 am #

        Hi Matthew, Yes, this is a pretty old post, so I don’t know if your comment will get as much exposure as if you were commenting on something recent. But I read it — I get an email alert with every comment — and I resonate with a lot of what you’re saying.

        I don’t use the expression “malady” at all. It just doesn’t mean much to me, and I think it gives the impression of some static evil entity, like leprosy or something. But I’ve found, and so have many others, that some kind of “spiritual” work can help tremendously. Again, a hard word to make sense of. But one concrete expression, as you say, is the urge to help others…just because you can and because their suffering gets to you deeply. That kind of helping has been hugely beneficial to many who’ve quit or are in the process of quitting or staying off. It just changes the internal landscape — I don’t know quite how.

        I guess you can see it in a sort of Buddhist way: you practice “lovingkindness” and that in itself centers you and brings peace. Or, in more practical terms, strengthening (growing?) your empathy/compassion for others also stimulates more compassion for yourself. And I think that self-compassion is absolutely magical when it comes to getting and staying off drugs.

        Don’t give up, man. I have had what some would call a relapse…a number of years ago. I don’t usually talk about it, but…since then, I’ve done some work and found a lot more peace and acceptance…and these days I’m happy and drug-free.

  2. Peter Sheath February 3, 2019 at 5:36 am #

    Hi Eric, I could simply pull your name out of this and replace it with my own. I do believe that the programming people receive from 12 step ideologies can be really damaging. I have not been to a meeting for well over 5 years but I can still find myself looking at situations and things through the lens of the 12 steps as opposed to just accepting their beauty and novelty. Like yourself I’ve studied behavioural health and found most of the ideologies around addiction are in direct conflict to the indoctrination I received in the rooms. Lots of the people I knew back then have turned their backs on me, because I share my learning across social media and they didn’t like it.
    I’m not a fan of dogma or fundamentalism per se and, the more I look at the quasi religiousity of 12 step programmes, the more I see of it.

    • Eric Nada February 3, 2019 at 12:14 pm #

      Peter, I’m so glad you relate. The power of identification is so important and certainly one thing that I truly did benefit from during my years in 12-step involvement. I certainly don’t think the programming is intentional or malevolent, in any way, but it seemed to override the beneficial aspects after a while, at least for me. Best to you, Eric.

    • Stephen Weigert, M.S. April 21, 2019 at 10:12 am #

      Peter and Eric, As a rehab counselor and psychotherapist since 1972 to thousands of teens and adults facing and recovering from addiction, I fully share your concerns about the 12-Step approach. In my recent book, Fabulous Falsehoods: The Addiction Recovery Game, I dedicate a chapter to how the rigid 12-Step approach marginalizes the inner strength and cognitive repair/ resilience actually within every addicted individual. In truth, an addict is not “powerless” over addiction and he (she) never was, The mythology of disease and powerlessness distracts one from the element of daily choice/decision which drives addiction. Despite 12-Step insistence, relapse is not part of recovery, it’s part of addiction. A person’s best chance for lasting recovery is, indeed, their FIRST attempt. Continuing relapses break down one’s confidence and often communicate to their subconscious mind that they’ll Always be an addict. Addiction is, I firmly believe, a “learning disability.” Recovery comes form learning substantially new beliefs about how one can face life’s inevitable struggles, disappointments, setbacks,and physical/emotional pain without substance relief or escape. It’s controversial, of course, yet I outline in detail how there isn’t really an “addictive personality”–it’s primarily a learned behavior syndrome. One recovers FULLY when they realize that no person or program (treatment of 12-Step fellowship), i.e., any external source, is going to simply “fix” your addiction. True change comes only from WITHIN. That change can, indeed, be guided by capable others. In my book, I explain also that one in recovery, one doesn’t moves forward less by contact with others in recovery ( rehab staff , mentors, or fellowship mentors) and more from learning how those who’ve never been addicted, maybe never even smoked, found effective ways to live move through, not away from, difficult challenges, and lead abundant lives.

  3. Annette February 3, 2019 at 6:04 am #

    Thanks, Eric! A very helpful and nuanced post, based on lots of experience. When it comes to overcomin addiction, I feel that we must ask ourselves: “am I capable of becoming the very best version of myself that I can?”

    I’ve tried the Fellowship, firstly through Al-Anon (we were a hard drinking family) and most recently CoDA. I appreciated the fellowship, but knew, in a deep way, that I had to find my personal way through: I found the sharing tough, because I was mentally comparing myself with others, and that definitely was not productive!

    I really BELIEVED I could get better and leave the addiction and trauma behind. I gave up my addiction, because I saw it was destroying me and my potential. (I stopped drinking at 62, btw.)

    I learnt through family history that I had addictive genes (from a fourth generation ancestor), through therapy that my father’s cruelty had resulted in high levels of anxiety in me and my two brothers and that environmental trauma was the trigger for our combined descent into addictive substances. I found, through caring for others that I am indeed, a good and honourable person.

    I also found many online forums where people share deeply and honestly, including Club Soda and BOOM, where I write about spirituality. Meditation and mindfulness, along with daily exercise, gratitude and good nutrition, are absolutely vital in remaining grounded and wholly myself, rather than someone in need of ‘obliteration’. I’m definitely not an alcoholic, I’m someone who had a problem, but no longer drinks, and that’s far kinder to myself, and helps others open up when they have issues.

    Stick with it Eric. (My younger brother’s name was Eric – he never made it through his heroin addiction, but I still love him dearly. ) xxx

    • Eric Nada February 3, 2019 at 12:24 pm #

      Anette, first and foremost, I’m so sorry to hear about your brother. Obviously it is a far too common outcome of heroin addiction. Thank you for the comments. I, too, found that a deep understanding of my personal traumas, especially those associated with my emotional attachment patterns, provided me with a story that explained my pursuit of what became my addictions. I, too, don’t identify with being an “addict or alcoholic,” but simply someone who had emotional wounds that I attempted to pacify through external means. I will stick with it, you too! Eric.

  4. Jon Royle February 3, 2019 at 6:14 am #

    Eric, I sympathise that your experience leaving 12 step fellowship was so difficult. I spent about 5 years immersed in personal 12 step attendance and then gradually fell away as I developed new interests and relationships. I learnt many useful techniques that I still use today and made wonderful 12 step friends who are still in my life. I credit the fellowship with saving my life and even though I’ve not been to more than half a dozen meetings in the last 20 years I still have a great affection and affinity for the movement and its people. I also know many others who have had a similar positive disengagement process, so I hope that people hearing your story can understand that not everyone who gives the fellowship a try risks joining a brainwashing cult.

    • Eric Nada February 3, 2019 at 12:32 pm #

      Jon, Thank you for the comment. I, too, still have very close friendships that began in the 12-step fellowships. I, too, honor anyone who finds what they are looking for through almost any modality, and certainly through 12-step involvement. And yes, I would never refer the 12-step groups as “brainwashing cults.” They are, however, a very influential sub-culture often introduced to people at their most vulnerable and potentially dependent. But I agree that this is not a reason for outright avoidance. It’s possible that I would be dead had it not been for my 12-step exposure. I’d certainly rather be strongly conditioned than dead. Best to you, Eric.

  5. Tim Greenwood February 3, 2019 at 9:02 am #

    Wow. What an amazing piece of thought-provoking sharing borne out of hard experience. I can connect wholeheartedly with everything that Eric shared here. I too was deeply immersed in the 12 Steps for many years, but not quite as tenaciously, as my own addictions were not life threatening just life limiting. Got a lot out of the 12 Steps but did not feel caught in the vice-like grip of the belief system.

    I have come to realize that the journey of healing is about developing a “living relationship” with the substances in our lives that surround us and have the potential to draw us in. For some of us, that might mean developing a more responsible life-supportive relationship to these substances, where they no longer control us but we (as much as possible) learn to use them to enhance our lives. For others, like myself with alcohol, the relationship means abstinence. This does not mean I do not have a relationship with alcohol. I still miss it and get vicarious enjoyment from drinking really good fake beer, and I feel okay being around friends who drink moderately. I realize that Harm Reduction is about helping people gain freedom in relationship to substances, and it is about awakening the “Healthy Life Force” within, even while using.

    Just a final thought. In the past two years I have been introduced to the work of Wim Hof, the Ice Man. I start each day with cold showers and his breathing techniques. I have come to experience very powerfully that starting the day this way awakens not only my physical body but also what I experience as my “spiritual body” — that healthy life-oriented force within. I am starting to believe that the Wim Hof method could be a powerful tool to be explored and used for people on the journey of recovery. Be well. Tim

    • Eric Nada February 3, 2019 at 12:49 pm #

      Tim, I have been practicing the Wim Hoff method for about 4 years–ice baths and all. (I may take one hot shower a month). I have been lucky enough to study from three of his students and really can’t tell you how enthusiastic a practitioner I am. I’m so glad you found that modality. I couldn’t agree more that there is much that the WHM has to offer to anyone with emotional problems. It does a wonderful job of effecting underlying physiological changes in very positive ways very quickly. Not enough is discussed about the need for addressing the physiology of those with addiction problems (check out the latest meditation on my website posted on hour ago! about this very subject, if you are so inclined).

      I used to take everything to extremes, which may be why my addiction problems as well as my attachment to my 12-step turned out to be debilitating, in ways. I, too, agree that abstinence is a tool, and like all tools, it may be necessary at one point in a person’s life, and not in another. I didn’t drink alcohol for 20 years, but do now in a totally different way than I did when I had addiction problems. Obviously the alcohol didn’t change, I did. As I mention in my post, there is not one path for everyone but nor is there only one path for each person. Options change as we do. Best to you, keep breathing! Eric.

  6. Don February 3, 2019 at 9:03 am #

    I don’t feel the need to defend AA. I just wonder from your story if you really needed a certain amount of time in a structured environment to truly get free from your addiction? I mean you say you want that 20 years back but how do you know that you would be where you are now as a sober person rather than having relapsed or maybe even died?
    But yes, structures are meant to be outgrown. I concur with you on that point.

    • Eric Nada February 3, 2019 at 12:57 pm #

      Don, great question. First, the sentence that you are referring to says, “I still have moments when I deeply want those 20 years back.” I only make the correction because it’s more like a passing regret. I have a wonderful life that I wouldn’t have if every moment that led up to this precise one wasn’t exactly as it was. I can’t imagine not having my wife and daughter in my life and don’t wish it were otherwise (my daughter is playing quietly with her stuffed animals at my feet as I address these comments–true bliss). That sentence is more a testament to the difference in the underlying level of freedom and connection to myself that I feel pre and post 12-step involvement. And there is no need to defend the 12-step fellowships because I am open to the idea that they may have had a different overall effect on a different person. Thanks for the comment. Best, Eric.

  7. Lisa K February 3, 2019 at 9:35 am #

    I am shocked, shocked! to find yet another anti-12-step/”AA is a cult” post on Marc’s blog. Eric I am glad you are clean and recovering and have found freedom from another ‘substance’ that seemed repressive to you. I also remain confounded by the difference between descriptions of 12-step experiences that make it sound like a cult, and my own experience. I feel like the notion that AA itself, requires people to adhere to strict construction of the idea that if you don’t recover VIA IT you will relapse and die–or that there is such a thing as “AA truth” is one that has been imposed upon it by particular strict constructionist members, and is not inherent to it. That idea (the ‘disease concept’–also not invented by AA) was somewhat helpful at the beginning, or rather, the fear that it was true, kept me clean long enough for long enough, such that it no longer mattered. If it was a useful fiction, that helped keep me from using for the first months or years, fine. Now that I was clean and recovering, I chose to stay that way not out of fear that I had to, but out of appreciation for the ‘blossoming of consciousness’ and increasing joy in the richness of experience. (And eventually because I had children who needed at least one clean and sober parent). I also chose to keep going to NA and then AA, because I found a whole lot of people there who ‘got it’ and who were creative and articulate; because it was centering and consoling to hear people talk about their own feelings and recovery journey, and because at times the steps offered me some perspective on my own struggles with things like: depression, anxiety, social discomfort, grief, ambition, self-consciousness, shame, etc. The one or two times I came across a meeting that felt ‘strict constructionist’ (“Keep it to the alcohol”) I just didn’t go there again. Instead I took to heart another piece of AA ‘dogma’, namely, ‘take what you like and leave the rest.’ Maybe it is because the religion of my upbringing, reform Judaism, sees the Bible as metaphorical and historical, not literal, that I never felt like I “had to” take the steps or literature or indeed anything anyone said about them, literally. Eventually, when first my then-husband relapsed, and then my daughter developed an opiate addiction, I started going to Al-anon meetings, where my 12-step journey continued, and where there the ‘if i don’t come here i will relapse’ idea has little relevance and is rarely discussed. In any case, no deprogramming has been necessary for me to continue evolving. I go 2 or 3 times a month, and still find solace and companionship there. I have also found many other pathways of growth: therapy, yoga, mindfulness, meditation, antidepressant medication, writing, raising children, love, work, education…. I say this all not to ‘argue’ about your experience of 12-step fellowship and philosophy. I say it so someone reading this blog who is finding help recovering in a 12-step fellowship, doesn’t feel like they must be a ‘cult member’ or insufficiently evolved or uncool, and is at risk of losing their personality or individuality if they keep going.
    Maybe my experience is colored by the fact that I live in New York City, where ‘the rooms’ and the people in them are so diverse, the number of available meetings so enormous, that strict constructionists are vastly outnumbered and conformity never ‘required’ even on a social level. In any case, I always feel a need to raise my hand when someone shares negatives about their own AA experience or reflects a narrow interpretation of its ‘doctrine’ to say: You are always free to choose how to think about addiction, about your own recovery, about yourself, and about life, whether you are in AA or not; and if you are ‘in’, you are always free to interpret the meaning of the steps (including the meaning of ‘higher power’) for yourself, and to listen or not listen to other people’s ideas or experiences. Maybe what Eric needed to deprogram himself from, was a notion of recovery he had formed while in AA, and then outgrown; but it was HIS notion–influenced no doubt by what he needed to do to stay clean early on, the people he met in the rooms, the friends he made, and the course of his own growth. A philosophy cannot require you to believe it, and in my experience, I have not had to believe anything in particular, to find continued personal, spiritual, and emotional growth, and a useful framework for navigating the difficulties of life, in 12-step principles and in the companionship of people I’ve met in the rooms of NA, AA & Alanon.

    • Marc February 3, 2019 at 10:21 am #

      I’m shocked that you’re so shocked, Lisa. I don’t see Eric’s post as “anti-AA” as much as trying to articulate a balance between what’s helpful and what’s harmful. We already know that different people have such different experiences. And it’s good that you’re bringing up geography and culture to help explain some of this diversity.

      And of course it’s good to hear your voice — a voice with a very different message. But let’s see what Eric has to say…

      • Lisa K February 3, 2019 at 11:17 am #

        I love you Marc, and I would probably love Eric too if we met. But Eric’s characterization of 12-step philosophy as a form of conditioning is certainly ‘anti-AA’: “12-step dogma,” “conditioned 12-step messaging” “underlying rigidity” “scripted so many precious hours of my life and prescribed so many of my relationships and personal interactions” “repeated discussions extolling the validity and certainty of 12-step truth” etc. And I wanted to venture an opinion that what he is characterizing is in essence his own approach to and experience in AA, and not actually the program. It’s like blaming Jesus for fundamentalism. AA groups and meetings, are very different from one another by virtue of the people who comprise them. The ‘hard-line’-ness he experienced is something that likely came from the rigidity of other people in the groups he attended. I feel bad that he, and so many others, come to feel ‘conditioned and programmed’ rather than nourished and stimulated, but I also feel bad when someone ‘throws out the baby with the bathwater”. You can stop being a fundamentalist who thinks the Bible is the literal Word of God, and still think Jesus had some pretty valuable things to say.

        • Marc February 4, 2019 at 3:35 am #

          Lisa and Dan: I don’t think it’s reasonable to say that the “rigidity” just came from Eric. If you walked into a fundamentalist congregation when you were spiritually down and out, you might well become a fundamentalist as a result. The way Eric uses the word “conditioning” doesn’t seem much different from what psychologists call “learning,” or what anyone calls “learning.”. If you accept that, then there’s no doubt that 12-step groups will condition their members.

          People learn how to think and how to act from their groups — their families, cliques, clubs, schools, neighbourhoods, churches, synagogues. And certainly from their 12-step groups too — especially given the emotional intensity of people’s connections to those groups.

          This does NOT mean that all AA groups “teach” their members in a dogmatic fashion. Apparently some do and some don’t. But we’ve heard similar stories often enough to recognize that the “style” of the learning — both the content and the structure — can indeed be dogmatic. Would that be 20%, 30%, 40%, 50%….? I don’t know. But with any of those proportions, it would be unreasonable to see it as an accident or simply “what the person brings in.”

          Just as a significant proportion of religious people are indeed fundamentalist, it seems a significant proportion of 12-steppers adhere to a dogmatic regime. I wouldn’t blame Jesus for religious fundamentalism, Lisa, but I’d say that fundamentalism is a natural outcropping of the mechanics of religious practice (even if we just see it 20% of the time). We see it often enough to want to examine what those mechanics might be.

          (I love you too, Lisa.)

          • Carlton February 4, 2019 at 11:28 am #

            Hi Eric, AA felt like a “Convoy” of people going though life together.

            The clear-cut statements INITIALLY like islands that you can finally land on during the storm of addiction.

            But questioning them was not welcomed, and for people whose nature is to ask questions, such as you, myself and a lot of readers here, it would probably become problematic sooner or later.

            • Eric Nada February 4, 2019 at 3:25 pm #

              Carlton, damn well put. I love to question and there are rarely perfect, clear-cut answers. Furthermore, often the answers that do feel clear-cut at first soon soften and become less so after some time applying them. Here’s to the questioners! Best to you, Eric.

    • Dan February 3, 2019 at 12:45 pm #

      What she said ☝️

      • Dan February 3, 2019 at 12:58 pm #

        I’m in the rooms for about 2 years now and I feel that I cultivate a healthy sensibility about the AA program. While I agree it isn’t a perfect system (labeling oneself an “alcoholic” for life, the notion of being eternally powerless vs. having becoming temporarily disempowered), the benefits far outweigh the negatives to me. While it abides by the principles it has set forth, I feel that there’s nothing rigid about it. You don’t have to sign any contracts, you don’t have to pay anything, no one comes after you or sabotages your life if you leave. This notion of rigidity seems to me to be entirely self-imposed. In your head as it were. Nothing to do with AA.

        • Eric Nada February 4, 2019 at 10:42 am #

          Dan, Thank you for the comment. Remember that I am mostly giving a personal account, here. I agree with everything you said but am also suggesting that overtime, a covert contract commonly develops without notice. When I was 2, 5, even 7 years into my 12-step involvement, the benefits still seemed to outweigh the negatives. If this remains the case for you (or for anyone) then, of course, there is no need to change course. But if it doesn’t remain that way, if, after years of involvement one finds themselves intuitively drawn to a different way of addressing the emotional patterns behind their addictions, it can be difficult to safely break away from the fold. I would suggest, additionally, that the conditioning that underlies the 12-step philosophy can very easily sabotage one’s life if one simply stops doing what they are repeatedly telling themselves they must do to stay stabilized. I think that this is one of the reasons that you hear of so many catastrophic relapse stories when people leave. Not so much because that truly is the nature of addiction, but because the conditioning creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. I took my 12-step recovery very seriously, so I was very disciplined with it. Maybe that discipline created a form of rigid compliance. But I’m fairly certain that this isn’t what I’m taking about in this post. That said, I’m not condemning the 12-step approach and am certainly not suggesting that people shouldn’t use it. It sounds like you have what feels like a healthy relationship to your involvement, and I totally honor that and don’t doubt it. Best to you, Eric.

    • Dan February 3, 2019 at 1:05 pm #

      What he said too ☝️

    • Eric Nada February 3, 2019 at 1:10 pm #

      Lisa, thank you for the comments, truly. It’s important that you know that I have put a lot of thought toward the question of whether 12-step fellowships are cults or not and have come to the personal conclusion that they are not (there are a couple of well know meetings in my area that are, but they are the exception and, as you say, they can be avoided). I’m also not anti-AA, and avoid discussions that are framed this way. It was difficult to put every angle of a discussion into a short post, but my hope is that this is read simply as a personal experience, not as a categorical indictment. I also want you to know that I did many other forms of emotional work during my time spent in AA. I was also very traditionally involved, one of there vocal participants in meetings, and sponsored as many men as anyone I knew. There is nothing wrong with being involved, but I do think it is more emotionally invasive as members think it is, and it was difficult for me to break free of it safely. That is all I meant to say. It is not malevolent, in any way, and not created with the intent to capture people’s mind in any way. It sounds to me like you may have a more reasonable relationship to it than I did. I think you may have read between my lines a little, but please know that I totally honor your experience and personal connection to your 12-step involvement and also honor the fact that yours might be different than mine. Best to you, Eric.

      • Eric Nada February 3, 2019 at 1:18 pm #

        (Lisa, sorry about the typos, and that was after proofreading my response to you twice! Hopefully you can see what I meant to say. I’ve been responding to comments for a while now, I’d better take a breather).

      • Lisa K February 3, 2019 at 1:33 pm #

        Thank you Eric for your generosity of spirit, and I apologize if anything I said seemed to mischaracterize YOU or the intention of your post. I do remember that in my early days clean, when it did feel literally like ‘recover or die’, and I saw people relapse and die up close, my own thinking was certainly black and white, and did not know how to maintain relationships with people who were still getting high and not ‘in the rooms’–just had to cut them off with an axe, something I regret in a few cases. It was NA, still a young fellowship, and very few people had more than 2 years clean, and we were fearful and fundamentalist ourselves. So what you say about the ‘conditioning’ and ‘testifying’ is not exactly unfamiliar to me! Eventually recovery itself–and evolution of our understanding of addiction–allows us to relax into acceptance of the “many paths to the Buddha.” Best wishes to you, too –

        • Marc February 4, 2019 at 3:45 am #

          Right on!

        • Eric Nada February 4, 2019 at 3:27 pm #

          No apologies necessary, and yes, many paths. Here’s to you finding and staying on the ones that work!

      • Marc February 4, 2019 at 3:43 am #

        Hi Eric, Yu’ll cee from my coment above that I wouldnt bak off quite that far miself. But I thinck yuo are beeing very gracious to accommodate other’s vues and values.

        (your ovbiously the tipe of guy whoo makes tipos, rite?)

    • Steve K February 8, 2019 at 10:36 am #

      Great comments Lisa! My experience in AA is very similar to yours in terms of my evolution and growth. I think it’s pretty easy to think for oneself in 12 Step fellowships once the liberal principles of the overall philosophy are truly understood and absorbed. The truth is members are free to believe what they want to in AA, NA etc, and there are plenty of diverse groups that members can attend which will support the individual (including secular groups for non-believers). I think people early on in recovery can be black and white in their thinking and it’s probably necessary at that point for them, but this tends to change with time and experience.

      • Eric Nada February 9, 2019 at 10:26 am #

        Steve, While I certainly appreciate the comment, I have to respectfully disagree. In concept any 12-step member can believe what they want, but if a member wants to really receive the benefits (and it is genuine benefit) of connection to the group, they will have to adhere to certain beliefs. Certainly they can have their own core beliefs, so long as they don’t run counter to those held by the 12-step philosophy. I attended meetings for 20 years and attended meetings around the world. And, yes, meetings differ meeting to meeting and, generally, from local to local, but there is an underlying set of concepts that it makes no sense to disagree with and still remain a member. There is one type of black and white adherence that happens to people who are new and another that develops over time, the former useful, the latter often harmful, in my opinion. All that said, I’m certainly not suggesting that 12-step attendance is bad, or that you (or anyone else) shouldn’t attend, nor am I accusing you, personally, of being conditioned at any given level. But it was really only after leaving that I was able to see just how much this conditioning existed. It’s very difficult while still being involved to see whatever level of conditioning is happening for any particular individual.

        • steve kirkham February 9, 2019 at 11:50 am #

          I’ve been around the rooms 28 years and as you suggest there is a basic conditioning in the fellowship (as with most group activity) and I certainly don’t agree with everything I hear at meetings or read in the literature. I accept the imperfect. However, I’ve found I have been able to find my voice in AA and keep my integrity and this is possible once the liberal foundational principles of the philosophy have been truely accepted. I live in the UK and the meetings are pretty easy going and I choose which ones to attend that don’t push fundamentalism. I’m a humanist and don’t have a problem being open about this. I’m also well educated in relation to the complexity of addiction and realise that AA’s message is limited in this respect. I’ve worked for different organisations within different approaches to addiction and its treatment. I suppose what I’m suggesting is it is possible to be a member of 12 Step fellowships and not buy into the dogma, be honest and true to oneself, and benefit from the philosophy and group friendship and support. It depends upon personality and we are all unique. Each there own!

          • Steve Kirkham February 11, 2019 at 8:35 am #

            A related to post written by me… https://12stepphilosophy.org/2019/02/11/the-opposite-of-addiction-connection/

          • Marc February 11, 2019 at 1:32 pm #

            Thanks, Steve. This seems like a very balanced perspective — one that will be helpful to those caught in the tug-of-war between the value of “the cure” and the potential harm we’ve referred to as “the cost.” I think what you’re saying here resonates with Lisa K’s sense of AA. Like her, you were able to find what you needed and, like her, it left you feeling some affection and generosity toward the organization as a whole.

            • Steve Kirkham February 12, 2019 at 4:01 am #

              Hi Marc. If you think my comments are a balanced viewpoint why not consider posting my linked article above. I was inspired to write it partly by reading Eric’s response to my comments. It’s goes into detail in relation to group dogma and judgmentalism in AA being a barrier to recovery. The first part of the article outlines the recovery process from a Person-Centred point of view which I think you would like. Check it out when you get a chance.

          • Eric Nada February 13, 2019 at 10:50 am #

            Steve, it sounds as if you have found a healthy way to relate to and remain involved with your 12-step experience. Certainly the point of this article is not that it’s impossible to find a healthy was to relate, or that 12-step involvement is categorically unhealthy. There is much that could be written about the positive aspects of involvement. For me, though, I never wanted to be involved. It was only after I ‘came to believe’ that I had to attend to remain abstinent that I dedicated myself to the 12-step path. I did not become a non-entity, and kept myself firmly connected to the world outside of 12-step, as well, but I traditionally adhered. If I could have taken a more nuanced approach, it would have negated the need to attend at all–by what I was taught. There are certainly those who can find a healthy relationship with it and benefit. The problem is for those of us who didn’t want it but were eventually convinced that it truly was the only possible way to treat our addiction problems. And that is, undeniably, the message that is passed on in the rooms, even if there are members such as yourself that find a less rigid way to be involved. That said, I totally honor your path and personal experience and wish there were more who attend with your understanding. Obviously, we are all on the same side of the larger addiction discussion.

    • Kristina May 28, 2019 at 1:41 pm #

      I think you hit the nail on the head, when you said that maybe it’s because you’re in NYC. AA will always come down to the culture in which it flourishes.

      Here, the men that started meetings back in the ’50’s passed on a culture that you can’t think for yourself or you’ll relapse, if you don’t attend AA, you’ll relapse, and that you HAVE to work the steps, or again, you’ll relapse. You will die without AA. There’s a subtext of fear, control and obedience in every mixed meeting I’ve attended. And that culture has pervaded throughout the decades.

      Women here deviated from this long ago – probably because a lot started going to Al-Anon too, lol. The “Live and Let Live” tenant is stronger in women’s meetings. But still, that dogmatic approach can’t help but seep in. I brought up at my women’s group business meeting that saying the Lord’s Prayer all the time at the close of meetings was violating the Preamble, and confuses folks who are new that we’re a Christian organization. Holy crap, did I get attacked for that one. People were genuinely upset that I dared question it, and wouldn’t even consider bringing it to the table for a vote.

      There’s also a culture here of people treating sponsors like parents, and sponsors treat their sponsees like children. There’s an obedience expectation, versus what are supposed to be suggestions. Sponsors here get angry and fire sponsees for not doing what they tell them. And this isn’t “a few bad apples” – it’s about a 70/30 split to find ones that aren’t like this. I told one friend of mine in the program that I felt it was time to quit therapy for awhile, and her first question was “Did you ask your sponsor if that was ok?”, lol. I laugh now, but that attitude is dangerous.

      It took a series of unfortunate events, where I was unable to attend local meetings, while I simultaneously started attending Al-Anon phone meetings, that I realized it’s our whole local culture that’s unhealthy.

      But it took me being outside of it for awhile to get that perspective, that the groupthink here is a real problem. While I was regularly attending, whenever I questioned things with friends, I was told that my thinking was the problem, not the program. I was told “Well, it works for some”, instead of facing the fact that it really, really doesn’t for so many others. And from what I’ve read, that attitude is *everywhere*. The conditioning Eric is talking about is real, and it’s so easy to fall into thinking as the group does, when all your friends in recovery are telling you that you’re wrong if you question it.

      It’s why I love Al-Anon – that type of thinking is discouraged.

      My point is, it all comes down to the culture surrounding the program that makes the difference. When there’s healthy approaches, that health spreads. When there’s sick approaches, that sickness spreads.

      I love the things I’ve learned in AA. I love the steps, especially on the other side from an Al-Anon perspective. I love how I’ve learned what humility and amends are, how I’ve found a spiritual connection, and found some true friends. But there are real issues here locally that I can’t handle. It’s not worth it to attend meetings just to walk out upset because people here confuse humility with humiliation.

      • Lisa K May 28, 2019 at 8:51 pm #

        Thanks Kristina. I hear you. I’m lucky. It’s also true that I got clean in NA, still rarely go to AA, and for the past 10 years have been basically most at home in and getting the most out of Al-anon. My daughter is now 6 yrs sober in AA in Florida and it is pretty strict constructionist down there: work the steps or die, intense sponsorship ‘lineages’ that kind of thing. I truly think that if that’s what I’d encountered in the beginning, I would never have stayed as long as I did….

      • Marc May 29, 2019 at 2:25 am #

        Really helpful dose of perspective, Kristina. Thanks for that. I still find it hard to believe the degree of humiliation people are reporting. And your anecdote about the Lord’s Prayer speaks volumes.

        Others, including April, connect the 12-step missteps with the larger culture — its roots in patriarchal thinking for example. You connect it with the local culture. Apparently LIsa (see nearby comment) agrees with you. And it makes a lot of sense.

  8. Marie February 3, 2019 at 9:40 am #

    I’m not sure how I feel about this article; it sounds like a lot of blaming. It seems more reasonable to say “I found AA helpful and life-saving…then I helped others within its framework….then I began to feel constrained….and so I left. Thank you, it was time to move on.”

    I am not an addict (possibly of sugar, but nothing illegal) but my son is and I come here looking for information. I have never for a microsecond considered addiction to be a “disease” rather than a temporary condition and I never thought that I would benefit from “group.” I also, from my albeit limited research, don’t see many opinions outside the standard addiction paradigm…but still…if you felt the stirrings of needing to move away from AA years ago, but chose not to, then you should probably be getting to the meaning of that rather than blaming AA for proudly emphasizing a system that has worked for millions of people.

    p.s. Congratulations on maintaining your sobriety for 20+ years! It encourages me to read of those lost at 21 (my son’s age) but who are now successful, fully-functioning adults.

    • Eric Nada February 3, 2019 at 4:10 pm #

      Marie, Thanks for the comment. I’m not trying to be defensive when I say that I’m not sure who you think I would be blaming in this piece. I take total responsibility for any decisions to be in or out of 12-step involvement. That said, apropos to my point, I didn’t believe that I had a choice until I left after 20 years. While it may seem like a simpler process than I describe, there are only degrees (maybe many degrees) between what you see as a more reasonable description and suggesting that it would be that simple to stop using heroin or other drugs when it becomes obvious that they are problematic. I think it’s more akin, however, to someone who spent two decades in a particular religion. Separating oneself from the process and the group is more complicated than just leaving. (And I was much less engulfed in the 12-step world than most were who attended as often or as long as I did). This is one of the points I was trying to make, that it isn’t as benign a decision as it might seem to the average outsider to devote oneself to this modality.

      Thank you for your congratulatory comment as well, though you should know that I am not traditionally abstinent anymore. Certainly I would never use narcotics again, but I do drink alcohol moderately now. I say this by way of clarification, but I was traditionally abstinent for 20 years. I wish the best of luck (and healthy exploration and healing) to your son. Be well, Eric.

  9. Beth February 3, 2019 at 9:56 am #

    It struck me how this — “Immediately upon leaving, I felt a great relief. But any positive and encouraging feelings I had were initially accompanied by feelings of guilt, shame, and self-doubt. I became aware of a deep internal message that challenged the idea of trusting myself over the 12-step dogma I had lived by for so long.” — applied to me when I became a Unitarian after growing up in the Catholic Church.

    That said, I did Richard Rohr’s Breathing Under Water program a year or so ago, and that, in combination with my experience with Celebrate Recovery has led me to believe that there truly is something meaningful in the 12 steps as a practice towards recovery and spiritual growth.

    Alas, as with the steps, or the Church, or government, or whatever, we humans can really muck up a good thing. Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory is a great explanation for this IMO.

    • Eric Nada February 3, 2019 at 4:18 pm #

      Beth, it is, indeed, just leaving a religion, or changing from one to another. The important point, of course, is to allow oneself to evolve and grow, shedding the proverbial skins when it’s time. Incidentally, I have a daily breath practice myself and wouldn’t leave home without it. And yes, the 12-step approach has evolved itself since its inception in 1935. It has its own modern cultural expression and will continue to manifest somewhat differently as it ages. Humans are interesting but certainly fallible. Best, Eric.

  10. Denise February 3, 2019 at 10:42 am #

    Eric, I would guess that the issue of “rigidity” is one that you will have to deal with again. We each bring our own personal traits to whatever we do, and you seem to home in on whatever makes you feel that rigidity is being imposed on you, which is to say it’s a turning inside out of what is within you. Notice how people have different reactions to 12-Step. It’s like that story of the blind men describing an elephant. I’m guessing that rigidity is one of your own traits.

    All this is to say it’s great that you’re doing mindfulness because through that you’ll be able to notice your own reactions to things and thereby avoid feeling victimized. I’m all too familiar myself, as an addict in my own version of recovery, with the feeling of having “wasted” x number of years. It’s likely that being mindful will lead you to the same conclusion that it’s all part of the process of each individual’s own growth path. For me, it’s still ongoing though I’m getting up there in years.

    I get the impression that you’re a serious person who tends to be quite hard on himself. Hopefully you will use this to your benefit. I’m resisting the impulse to say “lighten up” because in the end we are who we are, but we can adjust what we choose to do.

    Thank you for your heartfelt essay.

    • Eric Nada February 3, 2019 at 4:32 pm #

      Denise, thank you for the comment. You’ve put me in the precarious position of having to assess myself–not an easy thing to do with any accuracy. I do have a tendency err on the side of rigidity, in some ways, but less so as the years go by. And I don’t think those who knew me would ever see it as one of my more glaring traits. But of course we bring parts of ourselves into all areas of our lives and then we often look for validation of what we unconsciously look for in the world around us. And while I tried to be clear about my comments being just my experience or assessment of my experience, I think the problem that I describe is bigger than its just being an extension of my own idiosyncrasies. This is partly because those personal characteristics that you somewhat accurately derive from my writing are very common in those who end up with addiction problems–as are dependency and, initially, a lost sense of self. For this reason I think it is a common problem that I describe, even if it is also personal to me. It’s OK to tell me to lighten up, that is a large part of what I endeavor to do in life, actually. But it was much more difficult when I thought I had a deadly condition that was waiting to pounce on me should I let down my guard at all. Again, thanks for the comment. Be well, Eric.

  11. peter shapiro February 3, 2019 at 11:20 am #

    Marc, it would be so helpful if I could communicate with you directly. I would like you to take a look at my new recovery platform.

    What we’ve done has never been done before!

    I would love for you to find this project makes sense and you could support it.

    • Marc February 4, 2019 at 5:16 am #

      Hi Peter. I’m already overwhelmed with my commitments — I’m sorry but I can’t take anymore on right now. But if your project is working well, then surely it will grow on its own. Good luck to you!

  12. Shannon G. February 3, 2019 at 6:03 pm #

    Thank you Eric. I am in the early stages of being out of 12 Step and am still mired, somewhat, in fear and shame. In looking back, I realized how often, when I questioned something, I was told, by many, that I was “delusional”. “That’s the disease talking!” and I didn’t feel I was in a place to disagree with anyone. And that lead to enhanced bitterness, which obviously does me no good. I witnessed people who were verbally and emotionally abused, who were told to reject the advice of medical doctors and trained mental health professionals. I saw people paralyzed with fear over what their sponsor would say or do. I have tried to explain to more than one person that you don’t work for your sponsor, therefore being “fired” is impossible. As recently as yesterday, I saw someone on a 12 Step forum discuss how they were treated rather rudely at a meeting and being told that it was their fault and “once you do your 4th Step, you’ll be able to handle this better.” I spent so much time angry and bitter over time “wasted” in 12 Step, until my therapist pointed out that it worked for a time, then it didn’t and that nothing is permanent. And it was time to move on. So now, I am fashioning my own story, making my own choices and applying flexible fluidity to my life. And so much of the anger and guilt has subsided. Thank you so much for sharing your story. It was immensely helpful.

    • Marc February 4, 2019 at 5:14 am #

      Hi Shannon. This is a powerful story and surely an endorsement of Eric’s message. I don’t think anyone here is “bashing” the 12-steps, but I hear stories like yours and Eric’s so often, it seems completely unreasonable to imagine that Eric (or you) came in with a rigid (or shame-based) disposition and THAT’S why you experienced 12-step meetings the way you did. No…there is something about this organization and philosophy that breeds these experiences, at least some of the time. I wonder why that’s so hard to hear for people who haven’t experienced the rigid and authoritarian group dynamics. Lucky them!

      Congratulations to you and Eric for moving on. But also congratulations to others for having found 12-step groups that don’t function in the way you’ve described.

    • Eric Nada February 4, 2019 at 10:59 am #

      Shannon, Thank you for sharing. I know that there are those who will read this and want to immediately give reasons why these types of experiences aren’t what the 12-step approach is all about…and they’re right. There is more to the story, and in the beginning, it is much easier to experience and benefit form the positive parts and not even see the sticker aspects. But they are there and often develop overtime. But I totally relate to what you are talking about and it is that very underlying layer that I am discussing in my post. There is an overt message that trusting oneself is dangerous and this is exactly where things get problematic. Because…there may be a time when we can’t trust ourselves to make healthy decisions that will help us recover from our addictions. And it is difficult to say when we may have developed enough to trust ourselves. (And even if we think we can trust ourselves, it’s still OK at that point to decide to remain involved in the program, of course). But for those who find themselves at that place where they want to trust themselves, even when it means disagreeing with one’s sponsor or a 12-step tenet, then there can be problems. There’s no simple answer to all of this–or, indeed, to emotional growth, generally, but keep up the search. It’s totally worth it. Best, Eric.

  13. Terry McGrath February 3, 2019 at 7:01 pm #

    I went to AA when I was 22 years old. I like so many others were convinced within no time I was an alcoholic even though my experiences at that age went nowhere near chronic alcoholism. I then embarked upon on a 20 year journey in AA that saw me have some hard won white knuckle sobriety that never lasted a year but which saw repeated relapses all worse than the last ending as a park drunk drinking methylated spirits. I gave up recovery and have spent the last 25 years fully functional utilising cannabis each night as a medicine. without it I am sure I would be dead. How much did I become a self fulfilling prophecy, after hearing so often at meetings what would happen should I pick up again. I will never know. I do know now though that I could never have continued meetings many times weekly following steps I never understood. I was so depressed back then, at least today I may still be classified addicted but I am functional and relatively happy and make my way in life helping others in my work every day. Those in AA saved my life at one time simply by their personal care for me when no one else would but as for the program I could not accept its rigidity and would have died trying I think. I believe in the notion of recovered to the point that one must move past living in the past and seeking perfection, or what is called sobriety. what I have always seen is people moving sideways in addiction, replacing bad habits with better ones. Sobriety is an illusion saved for Buddist monks. My ideas on what addiction is change all the time now, from Marks writings, to Gabor Mate, to Maia Slavitz and now to Bruce Alexander, and all resonate in some way, as does AA in part. when I was an active drunk I had no time for philosophy, its only those distanced that spent their time debating cause.

    • Eric Nada February 4, 2019 at 11:15 am #

      Terry, thanks for the comment. I’m not sure even monks reach “sobriety.” I don’t think anyone is addiction free. Addictions are a natural part of the human experience, even if they aren’t supposed to become so imbedded that they cause debilitation as in the case of those of us who end up in recovery. You are reading all the authors I would suggest to find very fulfilling answers to this dilemma, and traditional abstinence is not required for everyone all the time. Certainly, abstinence is, at best, used to create emotional space to figure out how get better. If that space can include certain substances without getting in the way of getting better, then why not? I have a stimulant every morning (caffeine) and no one has ever suggested that I be labeled an “addict” because of it. I am no longer traditionally abstinent in other ways, either, but that’s because I now trust myself to know what will get in the way of my living a healthy life and what will not. Best to you, Eric.

      • Jill February 5, 2019 at 9:15 am #

        Love it, “not sure even monks reach “sobriety” “….and no one is addiction free!!! My thoughts exactly and have many starts to blogs written about this from my experience, but you’ve done the job here so eloquently and have an exceptional reach and discussion going already. Bravo!

        • Eric Nada February 5, 2019 at 11:33 am #

          Jill, thanks for the comment. It’s a topic for another day, but viewing addicts as being in a totally different category than the rest of humanity is a mistake. Of course when addictions have been extreme for a long time there certainly is a benefit to spending time with others who have been to that extreme as well during the healing process. But once balance has been restored, I don’t think it remains beneficial to keep identifying with the extremity. Thanks again, Eric.

  14. Rita February 3, 2019 at 9:18 pm #

    Many times when one stops one addiction, another one begins. It is often religion, or in this case 12 steps program. The important thing is that the substituting addiction should be less harmful than the previous one, with the ultimate goal being to live addiction free.

    • Eric Nada February 4, 2019 at 11:22 am #

      Rita, I agree. Upgrade when necessary. I also think there may be a time when addictions turn into simple dependencies. This is when we may have to be more discerning in deciding whether we want to rely on them or not. This is where one-size really stops fitting all. It was helpful to depend on my 12-step involvement for a while until it wasn’t. Thanks for the comment. Eric.

  15. April February 3, 2019 at 10:24 pm #

    Ouch. 20 years. It’s extremely brave of you to get out. Through Monica Richardson I’ve met many others who have had to deprogram from such a long time as well. I spent nine months in therapy with a cult deprogramming therapist to deal with the rage I felt. It turned out to be rage at much more than 12 Step programming – rage at the patriarchy that underlies it, and at the emphasis on sin.

    I have had lots of pressure to go back to 12 Steps, and at times have popped in and found some comfort in the familiar sayings and the friendly people (as long as you agree with them) and the coffee that has gotten better over the years. But it never takes long for the cognitive dissonance to get to me. I do not believe that any problem I may have had with substance was caused by character defects, and if they were, it was the character defects of those who abused me, not my own, that sent me over the edge.

    Steppers love to say that’s blaming others. I like to say it’s telling it like it is. After my last round I got so tired of living every day in a constant mental loop of self-hatred, repeating to myself how utterly worthless I was and how, no matter what I did, I would never be more than a worthless alcoholic – even if I was “sober” (a word I despise) for the rest of my life.

    Finally, I had this revelation in the middle of a 12-Step event: if I’m going to be worthless no matter what I achieve… it’s not what you think…I didn’t think: then I may as well drink myself to death. I thought: I may as well get back everything I’ve lost to overdrinking and the effects of debilitating PTSD and, in fact, get more than I lost. Not so much in terms of money, as I’ve never been materialistic and in fact despise the kind of materialism (that I rebelled against by becoming a union organizer and a harm reductionist). Rather, get more in terms of achieving more, doing more of what I want to do, and being smarter, faster, more creative, and all around better than those who put me down.

    It’s the polar opposite of accepting the addict identity. I flat out rejected it. I watched Game of Thrones videos and worked in dangerous situations that most people would run away from the first day. I’m halfway through a PhD. I don’t consider what I put in my body, from alcohol to cheesecake, to be anyone else’s business. I tend to find that both alcohol and cheesecake make me anxious and at times nauseous, but that’s between me and my stomach, and certainly not grounds for confession, any more than food poisoning is grounds for calling yourself a sinner.

    I wish the 12 Steps weren’t so ubiquitous. They lead so many so far down a path that is so hard to get off of. Life is a self-fulfilling prophecy unless you have the tools (such as a meditation practice, and some really good teachers and mentors) to fight to change that path.

    Thank you for your brilliant piece.

    • Eric Nada February 4, 2019 at 11:38 am #

      April, yes, your experience mirrors that of many (but obviously not all). It’s interesting that people have such varying experience–and thus descriptions–of their 12-step experience. This is why I think it is so important to honor each person’s without telling them that it is wrong and the other’s is right. And it can change for each person, overtime, as well. My experience of life changed immensely when I shed the identity of “addict” and simply became a person who had addiction in his past. Granted I needed to pay very close attention to that part of me in the beginning. I’m glad that you found a path that is working for you. Best, Eric.

      • April February 7, 2019 at 6:53 pm #

        Thank you for your comments Eric. I wish recovery wasn’t defined as either 12 Step or non – it’s a false dichotomy. The vast majority of people recover with no treatment, AA or any such thing at all. (See NESARC: this is from the NIAA’s own website: https://www.spectrum.niaaa.nih.gov/archives/v1i1Sept2009/features/Alcoholism.html) The idea that AA is one way to recover then there is non-AA is just silly, yet 12 step ideology has such a hold on our culture that people think that it’s the best/only way, or else there are those outliers who recover some other way. The silent majority, those who recover with no treatment, are silent because they went on with their lives. They don’t think of themselves as addicts, they don’t feel the need to keep retelling their addict story. Just like anyone who has had an illness, a period of unemployment, failed out of college, or gone through a divorce, they may identify addiction as a bad period in their lives, one they would not wish to repeat, but they don’t see it as a medical condition or an identity.

        In short, they act like normal, sane people. They may have any number of other problems, but they don’t make a temporary condition a permanent curse.

        • Eric Nada February 8, 2019 at 10:28 am #

          April, you are right. It amazes me just how ubiquitous 12-step recovery is in American society. In film and most other media, it is synonymous with addiction recovery. And you are right that most people figure out how to quit on their own just like most people who quit cigarettes.

          • Carlton February 8, 2019 at 12:29 pm #

            April, Eric, just to add to this topic;

            It is presumed that addicts maintain a “quit-mode” by strength and control.

            But from what I have seen and experienced, a large percentage of former addicts had a series of realizations that actually changed how the addiction is experienced.

            Personally, for decades alcohol was experienced as a guaranteed sense of freedom and relief, and seemed a daily essential like water, air and food. Nightly blackout was the norm.

            But profound realizations occurred during the recovery process.

            Alcohol is now experienced as a confining and limiting altered state that is no longer alluring or desirable.

            This occurred, and is not something that was “figured out” or can passed on or made into a formula, , but I am sure these changes occur with a large percentage of people that used to be addicts, especially the “natural” recovery people you mentioned April.

            Again, it’s not maintaining resistance though strength, control, nor going through life; “one day at a time”.

            It’s like when one deeply realizes that they no longer love something they thought they would love forever.

            This aspect of the recovery process is not currently mentioned really, but is important for people and researchers to know, and may even effect the definition of Addiction and Recovery.

    • Matt April 2, 2019 at 2:21 am #

      Thank you Eric for your piece and also you April for your reply.
      I was in 12 step ‘fellowship’ (their words not mine, anymore) for over 18 years, I’m not even going down the ‘ok it helps some people route’ because that’s not me, the 12 steps really messed me up, I left a few years ago and I am still deprogramming. I can see how it messed me up now. My tendency to abuse substances when I was younger came from abuse in my childhood, the solution to that problem, resulting in cptsd, would/should have been empowerment, what I learnt in the 12 step process was that I was powerless and that I had a part to play in my abuse and that there was something fundamentally wrong with me that required daily attention, along with the fact that something was out to get me that wanted me dead………needless to say that I was a nervous, people pleasing, wreak at the end. As soon as I started singing a different tune in the meetings I was ostracised. It’s been a very painful process leaving, I still miss the emeshment part because there’s still a part of me that wants to be accepted by everyone, but I can no longer do that in conflict to how I know I should live my life now

      • Kristina May 29, 2019 at 3:16 pm #

        I really appreciate your comment, Matt. This is a tangent of what you’ve written, but as you brought up trauma, I had some thoughts to share about it.

        Trauma and alcoholism isn’t recognized on the scale I’d like to see in AA, because of the whole “outside issue” thing. Although, tbh, I’ve seen how much easier it is for us women to talk about it. But, it’s a complex interaction that I personally believes needs more than just AA to address. Science has progressed well beyond AA on this point. I’m of the opinion that when it comes to trauma, this is where AA and the steps can be harmful.

        I’ve met one person in my 8 years around AA that didn’t have some kind of trauma occur in childhood, with some of us experiencing worse than others. I always called her “The Unicorn of AA”, lol. So yeah, the voices of those with trauma experience are important, because that is the fuel behind addiction imho.

        It’s one of the things about Steps 4, 5, 6 and 7 that bugs me. For me, Steps 4 & 5 meant digging up a lifetime of trauma, since those were all the people I was pissed at. And I avoided it for years because of that one simple question…”What was your part in it?”

        Well, none. The abusive things people did to me, they can go own up to that themselves, thank you very much.

        If I hadn’t have had the sponsor I had at the time, a healthy woman who understood that, I wouldn’t have finished them. But I also had to overcome that general attitude of “Well, what did you do?” that had been drilled into my head for years with her, before I could start.

        And steps 6 & 7 – character defects? I had to reframe that as “Things that no longer serve me and others”, and then later, a cool thing I heard which was “character *defaults*” – again, those behaviors that I fall back on that don’t work anymore. I can’t abide shaming language these days. Again, I had a supportive sponsor who was all about “You do you, boo. This is your program” to even feel like it was ok to adapt as necessary.

        Turns out she was a unicorn, too.

        But STILL, it took another year for me to come out of the severe depression that happened after the steps. I was nothing if not thorough, and bringing up all that trauma at once? Yeah, I got suicidal at one point.

        So, whenever I hear people being shamed about only being able to do Steps 1, 2 & 3, I think about what I went through and want to slap whoever’s shaming them. I mean, trained mental health professionals would never, EVER ask people to expose every trauma you’ve experienced all at once.

        I do have a friend in AA who reiterated at meetings, whenever we would talk about Step 5, that she absolutely had to do that step in therapy, over a long period of time. She knew her capabilities to handle all that abuse, and so did what was best for her. Honestly, I wish I’d taken that route. I so appreciate that she says this, because I think people need to know it’s ok, if they’re ready to look at their past, that they don’t have to do it everyone else’s way. That we all need to take care of ourselves first.

        Which is what you’re doing now. I appreciate what you said. I just wish it was able to be discussed with open-mindedness in the rooms. Like Eric and Marc have said, addiction and emotional growth are so complex. I just wish that complexity was more recognized and discussed in AA.

      • April May 31, 2019 at 7:12 am #

        Amen Matt! I mean, in a non-religious type of way. I so agree. I had enough self-hatred – that’s why I almost drank myself to death. More didn’t help. It made me worse. Lots of love to you. I spent nine months in cult deprorgramming therapy with a cult deprogramming specialist to get over it.

    • Marc May 29, 2019 at 2:20 am #

      April, thanks for your brilliant comment. I am becoming a fan of yours. Everything you write not only makes me think and wonder and reevaluate…it also keeps me reading to the end….even though I’m developing an allergy to non-fiction…longer than a comic strip.

      Maybe I’ll watch Game of Thrones now… I tried it once but gave it up. Is there a vaping version? Because it sometimes burned my throat and made me nauseous.

      • April May 31, 2019 at 7:16 am #

        Thank you Marc! Game of Thrones is definitely worth watching. One easy way to get the idea is to watch the clips on YouTube. I recently sent a few summarizing the main ideas of the series to a rather iconic figure in harm reduction who saw the relevance to this work. The transformation of the female characters through trauma to a place of not just empowerment but conquering/commanding/learning to fight better than the men who originally victimized them is particularly powerful. I watched most of it on YouTube, as I didn’t have access to HBO at the time. Here’s a great clip, one of my favorites: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mk1DXwb-XbM

        • April May 31, 2019 at 7:27 am #

          Here’s another. Arya has trained to be a “Faceless Man,” a group of assassins who kill people and take their faces, then can become that person. She’s finally killed her arch-nemesis who was a Faceless Man/Woman in training and was very jealous of the attention their master paid to Arya. Arya is actually a noble born young woman whose father was executed as a traitor, but she had always wanted to fight and ran away to join the Faceless Men. Here’s the best part. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrlG9Ri3VAY

  16. Alison lewis February 3, 2019 at 11:33 pm #

    Eric …. I agree with everything you write, thank you for your bravery! You are not alone.
    I talk to people at sa rehabs in greater nyc area… they dont connect with AA, especially younger generations. They’ve been told they are lazy or in denial if they don’t embrace AA steps…. some of these people are the most insightful people I’ve ever met…

    The AA steps don’t empower people and I feel people need self-empowerment to manage addiction… or you keep looking for someone else to give you the answer, when each persons answer is unique to them.

    Step 4 often leads to guilt and shame … and can be dangerous when used for tools of change… they only destroy people.
    The AA philosophy contradicts…. if you have a “ disease” why do you have to take a moral inventory?

    Also, we don’t look that AA is very focused on
    group work and many introverts are not comfortable in small or large groups. I’ve had some told to get over it or they won’t get better….

    The problem with AA it segregates drugs and alcohol from addiction…
    and I believe addiction is a human condition… that’s what I believe backed up by 25 years of listening to people..
    Ironically, I feel AA can stigmatize people by “keeping them separate”
    from the population.

    We all are addicted to something…. if we had less judgement and stigma in society
    we wouldn’t need to flee for safety and acceptance in AA meetings.

    • Eric Nada February 4, 2019 at 11:55 am #

      Alison, Thanks. If you look at my response to Terry, you will see that, I too believe that addictions are part of the human condition. Obviously when they are out of control they need to be addressed, but we all need some emotional shortcuts and avenues to transcendence, so long as they don’t become all encompassing or fundamentally preferable to our normal selves. One of my other criticisms of 12-step philosophy is that there are “addicts (or alcoholics) and normies.” But really there are no normies; we are all dealing with the human condition in our own, often highly imperfect ways. We are all trying to heal and find a sense of connection and belonging. In the beginning I did need to put a lot of focus on the “addict” part of me. But as that part healed, it became damaging to keep it on a pedestal that it no longer belonged on. Lo and behold, I am a different person than I was when I got clean, and I have different needs.

      • Alison Lewis February 4, 2019 at 9:50 pm #

        Yes agreed Eric … thank you again for your honesty …
        what keeps me managing addiction? …
        living with the truth and riding the power of it!

        • Janet February 7, 2019 at 11:42 am #

          Well said. !

  17. Jill Woodworth February 4, 2019 at 5:50 am #

    Yes, I have had a similar experience with the 12 step program and while there are a few things I appreciate about the program, I often wonder if it did more harm than good overall. As a mother of 5, 3 with special needs, in an abusive relationship with drinking as my only relief/respite and joy, AA only reinforced my feelings of self-doubt, shame, guilt, and overall weakness. Never was there a glimpse at the extenuating circumstances of my life situation while I was unraveling and then again, after landing in “recovery”. I was a hero, albeit with addiction issues, but should have been treated with respect and admiration, lauded in my efforts for getting help instead of forced to leave my children in the care of those who did not have my best interests in mind. I and hung in there for years beyond what was natural, reasonable or imaginable b/c I was independently responsible for keeping my kids alive. I was truly the only one not in denial in regards to the weight and needs of having, caring for and planning for a future for kids with issues. Even my own family pegged me as the problem. No family support or wrap around services was ever even mentioned. Finally, after deciding to come off the 5 different psych meds prescribed in “recovery” and step away from AA, was I able to understand the trauma I’d experienced and how AA was keeping me ‘locked in” repeated loops of shame guilt and self-blame. Going to meetings and repeatedly sharing the story of my demise at the hands of alcohol as well as hearing others horror stories, was a trap and a trigger. Women, often on psych meds, being pulled away from their children, told they’re the problem and forced to attend meetings with men who cross boundaries repeatedly and share stories of our failures and weakness is so not helpful. I see so many incredible people stuck in guilt and shame loops. I was a woman who had been abused for years AND the mother of children with incredible needs whom she had all but saved, I continually came away from AA feeling defeated, out of control and hopeless. It wasn’t until I got off multiple psych meds, stopped going to meetings, started using cannabis as medicine and enlisted the help of a family therapist that I started to understand how much of my addiction issues were rooted in deep trauma. I got a divorce and custody of my children and while living on the edge of poverty necessary to get the social services, SSI and other supports needed to exist and keep my children moving forward, I cannot share strongly enough how damaging AA was to my life situation. Thanks for sharing this article. We need better solutions to help those struggling with addiction issues and immediately upon identification of a person struggling, their life circumstances should inform the track of treatment and supports needed. Alternative treatments, a more holistic approach and wrap-around family support is a start. The black and white nature of AA creates a church like atmosphere and while espousing equality, there is a hierarchical nature that equates years of sobriety with success. All or nothing. This is impossible, unreasonable and ridiculous and needs to change!

    • Eric Nada February 4, 2019 at 12:09 pm #

      Jill, Thank you for your reply and for sharing your story. One of my great frustrations (and not actually the direct fault of 12-step) is that no one addressed my personal underlying traumas as part of the professional help I received in the many treatment facilities I attended. They just prescribed 12-step involvement. Furthermore, after I figured out how to address my underlying attachment issues, I got better. That’s when I stopped relating to the 12-step process. We really can heal, addiction is not a static condition but a dysfunctional reaction to personal pain. But being involved in 12-step recovery can lead to an accidental ignoring of the underlying problems if we see addiction as an unchangeable inherent condition that we must learn to deal with “one day at a time.” I’m glad you found healing. Best, Eric.

      • Jill February 4, 2019 at 2:19 pm #

        Thank you Eric for responding and sharing your own experience and again validating mine!

    • Alison Lewis February 4, 2019 at 10:07 pm #

      Your ending paragraph about black and white of AA is so accurate…. very inspiring post you wrote….
      And we need to stop blaming parents we need to support parents especially those dealing w special needs children! Parenting is a tough tough job!
      You are a hero to me cause special needs children is a double job!
      I just had the parent of an adult child say she was told to stop helping her son she is enabling him.
      This is upseting…yet I hear it often …. I hate that word enabling … what are you suppose to do if you love your child? It’s not black and white …

      • Marc February 5, 2019 at 6:35 am #

        Thanks for sharing your experiences, Alison and Jill. The issue of “enabling” is complicated. That was one of the main themes of the movie, Ben is Back. Parents often ask me how to support an adult child in addiction, keeping a door open without making it easier to use, without bringing the family to its knees, and taking care to keep oneself emotionally intact at the same time. Where’s the line? people ask. And all I can say is: there isn’t one.

        To delve more into some of the complexities, check out some of Janet’s entries, including her Memoir here: https://www.memoirsofanaddictedbrain.com/guest-memoir/immortal-pain-loving-an-addict/ and her contributions to the discussion following last month’s post, here: https://www.memoirsofanaddictedbrain.com/connect/ben-is-back-or-is-he/#comments

        • Jill February 5, 2019 at 9:12 am #

          Thank you Marc. I read the links (very heartwrenching!!) and appreciate all the varying perspectives and experiences presented. It truly goes to show that no two people have the same exact experience with addiction issues and the minute one locks down on some idea that he or she has a solution, there is a certain barrier that goes up and the conversation gets stunted. So, grateful for the blog, the comments and all the supporting links shared, etc. Great to have a platform like this and as a podcaster the blogs, and comments are screaming to be heard in a podcast format!! I think so much of our conversation online is only just a starting point and so much more can be gained from a casual conversation in an interview format…. tapping the “story” as well as the surrounding circumstances. Sharing the good, bad and ugly via audio format can be quite a validating and healing process and I highly recommend the podcast format as a way to further flesh out these complicated aspects and issues raised in relation to how we all understand “addiction” and “recovery” in our society. My two cents again. And yes the special needs population is at grave risk for turning to addictive methods to cope with what is far outside the margins and scope and understanding by those trained and educated to treat. This problem will only become worse if efforts not made to better understand and support the burden of those affected by special needs as individuals, as well as parents/caregivers and how treatment encompasses the full scope of the human experience in a nonjudgemental, fluid approach with wrap around family involvement in recovery. As someone actively involved in the parent/caregiver community related to tuberous sclerosis complex, I can tell you that moral apathy is commonplace and so many are crippled by dealing with ongoing chronic traumas in their children, often daily, and what we need are solutions that can be implemented immediately in our current situations before the seeds of addictive behavior become firmly rooted and more difficult to manage. Jill, TSC Talks (https://www.spreaker.com/show/1666046)

        • Janet February 7, 2019 at 11:48 am #

          Thank you, Marc, for being here for all of us. There is no line, you are so correct. I did ALANON for years and it helped me because it was a therapeutic act of going, sitting, listening, learning and just being with the pain and the pain of others. I did not find a solution… but I found a lot of truth and space to breathe.

      • Jill February 5, 2019 at 8:32 am #

        Awww, Thanks Alison for reading and commenting and yes “enabling” is a nice little boxy label so we can look away from the full panorama of what exactly is going on and all the multitudes of factors that are involved in family dynamics and addiction. It’s never simple, and every situation is different. I’ve seen much suffering on the part of those mired in addiction and their families being told that “tough love” is the only option. I truly believe getting everyone involved and talking on the same level is a path to healing, but our society does not support the time and energy this sort of effort takes. Best, Jill

      • Eric Nada February 8, 2019 at 10:40 am #

        Alison, yes, an extension of 12-step’s influence is how people traditionally address loved ones with addiction. It has turned into the “tough love” movement. Like 12-step itself, I see this as an idea that has some important merit, but ultimately misses the mark. Of course it is important not to enable, and of course this often requires that loved ones of addicts learn to avoid catering to their own fears by doing things that enable their addicted loved ones. But there should remain an emotional support if at all possible. All loving is potentially tough at times, but I really don’t care for that term. I really like Gabor Mate’s discussions that see the addict as a manifestation of any dysfunctional family patterns, not simply as the identified problem. It’s a very nuanced concept to apply properly, but I think it is the best way to address the overall issue.

    • Marc February 5, 2019 at 6:50 am #

      What a crazy story, Jill — I wish some of your insights had more traction at the front line, especially in situations where often self-righteous men are in a position to criticize and correct women in situations that few men ever have to contend with — an abusive partner and the demands of protecting one’s special-needs children. Either sort of challenge, in and of itself, can nudge people into addiction en route to seeking some emotional relief. Both together make for a monstrously difficult climb. And I’ve frequently heard of “men who cross boundaries repeatedly” in (often 12-step) group settings. I think such people should be barred from the group immediately. They’ve got no right to add to your burden.

      I think you really are a hero to have put up with the blame, abuse, and humiliation and come out the other side. Thanks for sharing.

      (also please see my reply to Alison, just above)

    • April February 7, 2019 at 6:59 pm #

      Jill, you are amazing!!! I am so impressed with what you’ve done. I too felt incredibly disempowered by AA. The endless loop of self-hatred can’t possibly help people who have been abused, raped, blamed, deprived of basic needs, etc.

      AA was originally created by a man who was an abuser and a well known sexual harasser. Many men I’ve met in AA talk openly about being or having been abusers. I am actually very impressed when they are open about how they were abusive to women in their drinking days, and ways they have changed those behaviors and are truly making living amends to women and children they’ve harmed. That is a good part of AA. Not when AA co-signs abuse by blaming the women or others who are the victims of abuse, whether it’s by drinkers or non-drinkers. When a woman drinks to cope with abuse, she’s the one who gets blamed.

      Oh yeah, I wrote an article about that:

      https://filtermag.org/2018/10/15/women-imprisoned-when-substance-use-and-treatment-become-means-of-control/

      • Jill February 8, 2019 at 10:32 am #

        April, Thank you so much for reading my post and responding so thoroughly. I read your well written, progressive and mind blowing article and it was almost a trigger bc it is so dead on and brings me back to when I was going to meetings and couldn’t figure out why I felt so awful and shame- filled, guilty, etc. So eloquently and powerfully written. I will share it with my posse that dropped out of AA and kind of banded together to form our own little support group. Fallen AAngels…lol. We all got our MMJ cards for various reasons and it’s been like a rebirth. Not that MMJ is necessary, just a tool, and I am brazen and bold for sharing it here, but it definitely is better (for me) than 5 different psych meds, and the AA mind eff. I do have to say that I threw AA under the bus hard and there were good things too. Like my friends that I still have. And I was able to stop drinking completely. More than a year in AA though is more than enough and as you and others have said, we need to rethink the way our country understands addiction and recovery before the divide further deepens between the method clingers and those of us who have let go of any method and become more self healers. Thank you so very much for all the work you’ve done for raising awareness of this issue and am so grateful our paths crossed.

        • Carlton February 14, 2019 at 8:52 am #

          Jill, agreed, “…we need to rethink the way our country understands addiction and recovery before the divide further deepens between the method clingers and those of us who have let go of any method and become more self healers.”

          Re-thinking it so that the different programs are seen as parallels, rather than “one verses the other”.

    • jo February 13, 2019 at 4:11 am #

      Great story Jill thank you and pleased you have got away and are feeling better,keep moving forward sounds like you have a great grasp on your situation i salute you

      • Jill February 13, 2019 at 6:05 am #

        Thank you jo for reading and commenting! I appreciate it greatly. All the best to you on your path of recovery, whatever that looks like for you.

  18. Gary February 4, 2019 at 7:29 am #

    For me, I was never a joiner of groups of any kind unless of course it was a group of my drinking and/or drug using buds. However, the most difficult thing I ever had to face was myself. Back in Aug. the 17th, 1988 on a Wednesday afternoon at 2:30 I signed myself into Detox. I was as green as green can be when it comes to terms like recovery, self-help treatment and/or overall programming. However, like the saying goes, I was so low I had to jump up to reach bottom. This was the very beginning of a change I could never had predicted.

    It wasn’t long into the Detox program I was introduced to A.A. and because I recognized some of it’s members (who were indeed clean/sober) I sensed for the first time there was after all hope for me. What I felt I needed was to have support of others who also shared parts of my story and/or experience. I was an active member of A.A. for a number of years and still feel my sobriety today was a result of being involved into the A.A. program.

    However, it’s been at least 15 years since I attended an A.A. meeting, I found a bit stagnated hearing much of the same old stories and felt my growth was being held back. This was my own experience and I’m not knocking the program knowing that it has been successful in helping many suffering alcoholics.

    However, I definitely felt and was a bit uneasy regarding the “religious flavors” of the A.A. program. I was able to ignore what I didn’t like and held unto what worked until eventually it was time to leave and as Jiddu Krishnamurti puts it “Be A Light Unto Yourself”. To ask and inquire to find out for yourself, what your truth is and your ability to function as you see fit.

    We have all been conditioned from the time of birth within the context of family, school, religion, work, community, technology, ect. As long as we look and/or observe through a mind that has been conditioned can we ever really know what is true?

    A.A., for me, provided, at the time, structure and/or a guide to a better way of being and in many respects it allowed me to examine this “Self” in a way that I would never had done otherwise. It was only through the program that I found my way out…if you know what I mean. For that I am truly grateful to the A.A. program. It wasn’t “recovery’ as much as it was a “Discovery” for me to learn, to think and to be what it is I am, which, by the way is much, more than a recovering alcoholic or addict.

    It’s important, at least for me, to clean the slate, not only from a program perspective but from my whole life. To think afresh perhaps for the first time since being a young child. To let go it a way that is effortless otherwise one my get caught up and confused in the anxiousness of wanting instead of doing. John Bradshaw once said that we have become “Human-Doings” instead of “Human-Beings”.

    • Eric Nada February 4, 2019 at 12:12 pm #

      Gary, thanks for the comment. Obviously it won’t surprise you to know that I relate to what you shared. It mirrors my experience very closely. Be well, Eric.

  19. Lew February 4, 2019 at 4:20 pm #

    I never call myself a drug addict because I have been clean for 46 years. I never wake up needing to talk myself out of getting high. I never wonder if I will be in some gutter with a needle sticking out of my arm by nightfall. I also didn’t get sober via the 12 step road. I got sober by allowing my Creator to change my heart and life.

    Here is my advise to everyone:

    Churches; some are good…some are bad, and some are downright toxic.

    12 step groups: some are good, some are bad, and some are downright toxic. Everyone has to find what will work for them, and when they outgrow it they might need to move on. I broke my leg skiing many years ago and the doctor put my leg in a cast and gave me a set of crutches. When my leg healed he took off the cast and removed the crutches. If I had tried to convince the doctor to let me keep the crutches I would never have learned to run again. When it is time to walk with crutches we will need them…when the healing is complete we need to get rid of the crutches and learn to fly.

    • Eric Nada February 5, 2019 at 11:41 am #

      Lew, thanks for commenting. I agree with what you say here but have two comments, myself. First, the component to 12-step recovery that I discuss here is a part of the “good” meetings as much as it is a part of any other. It’s not a toxic component found only in fringe meetings but is an unintentional aspect of the mainstream 12-step approach. Secondly, I agree completely with the broken leg metaphor but it doesn’t apply to the 12-step philosophy which, to use your metaphor, would suggest that we remain broken and can only walk (or run) if we continue to take care of the cast properly. That said, I’m glad that you seem to have found a healthy way to own your past addiction problems. Be well, Eric.

  20. matt February 5, 2019 at 7:27 am #

    No matter what method one uses to change their harmful, hyperfocused habit, they have to feel safe in the various milieux that propose to assist that change. Part of that feeling of safety comes from the shared experience and identity with others with similar experience. Then comes awareness. Light dawns on marblehead. Then directed experience– one has to consciously, intentionally and routinely practice a different behavior than the one now driven by their addiction. Then practice differential perspective taking…being able to viscerally imagine how others close to us are being affected by our harmful hyperfocused habit. When our perspective starts to shift, then so does mood, behavior and all the rest. It doesn’t matter what you do, it matters why you’re doing it. We should be generating and extolling options, not quibbling over experience. It dampens openness, closes people off, walls go up and we’re back where we started with stigma and secrets… the very thing AA illuminated in the ‘30s.

    • Eric Nada February 5, 2019 at 8:25 pm #

      Matt, if by this comment you are suggesting that we are “quibbling over experience,” then I’m sorry to hear that. I don’t consider this quibbling, in the least. I consider this to be more an example of, “…feeling of safety comes from the shared experience and identity others with similar experience.” Obviously not everyone who has had an experience with 12-step involvement had one that mirrors mine, but as you can see, many do. As for extolling options, yes, let’s continue to do more of that. Best to you, Eric.

      • matt February 5, 2019 at 10:06 pm #

        Hi Eric
        Sorry. I meant quibbling over individual, personal experiences, which are all going to be different. Particularly, if addiction is viewed as an adaptive phenomenon of human behavior and learning, as in Marc’s model. 12-step paved the way out of the dark ages, but it was essentially the only game in town for the next 65 years. 12-step works because it meets certain basic human needs, but can be rather arbitrary about others (or rather, the people in it can). There are so many ways to do this! I’m hoping the younger generation tweaks 12-step, and combines it with everything else we’ve learned about addiction and re-entry in the meantime. There are as many ways to “recover” as there are people trying to.

        Thanks so much for your thought provoking piece!

        • Marc February 7, 2019 at 2:32 am #

          Hi Matt. I don’t know if 12-step really can evolve, or be “tweaked” by the younger generation. Just as younger people are turning away from conventional religion (at least in the West) it seems they’ll turn away from institutions like 12-step that have sprung (in part) from that world view. So…we get a sister species, SMART recovery, that seems to be growing fast. I think that’s a very good thing. Maybe 20 years from now there will be two parallel recovery support entities, SMART for people tuned one way and 12-step for a perhaps more conservative crowd. Unless SMART actually incorporates “steps”…that’s an interesting speculation but I don’t see it. Perhaps the steps really belong to an older order (which I know is still helpful to some, but not a huge number, based on outcome stats). To what degree do the 12 steps fit with our current world? Would six steps be enough? …a pared down version? Just speculating on a rainy Dutch morning.

          • Carlton February 7, 2019 at 8:05 am #

            I agree with Marc…having been in both, AA and SMART will probably be the two prominent recovery approaches;

            AA, for those attracted to a life-time community, and SMART for those attracted to a “means to an end”.

            Since AA has a tried-and-true map, the notion of “tweaking” is countered by, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”, and will always have the most members.

            SMART, by its nature, will always have people leaving, but that is what attracts those types of people to it.

            Currently, people that recover “naturally” and people that leave recovery groups like SMART are not as extensively researched, but a fuller understanding of Addiction and Recovery may be discovered if it was.

          • Eric Nada February 7, 2019 at 10:06 am #

            Marc (and Matt), I agree (and briefly refer to the subject of tweaking the 12-sep approach at the end of my post). One of the ways that 12-step groups are very similar to a religion is that its “truths” are written in their book. The first 164 pages of the Big Book will never be changed and will always contain the basis for what is and isn’t a part of 12-step dogma. And while that may make it, well, dogmatic, I think that this is where the strength (and rigidity) that can sometimes counteract addictive patterns comes from. It’s an agreement that binds the members together. I know that overtime some people find their own way of navigating their 12-step experiences, but for the most part if someone “tweaks” their approach much, they will be considered an outsider of sorts and the “benefits” of involvement are greatly impaired.

            • Marc May 29, 2019 at 2:11 am #

              Eric, that is fascinating….about the first 164 pages and the idea of a commitment as an agreement that binds participants…with each other and with their “forefathers”. That explains a lot!

          • Carlton February 7, 2019 at 6:54 pm #

            Marc, Interesting.. the idea of a “pared down version”.

            I think if you asked a typical AA member, the fact-sounding reply would be: “You don’t get it”.

            BTW, an interesting difference between the two:

            At SMART meetings we had hand-out sheets, including lists and contact information about recovery resources and groups, including AA.

            Although this was not the case at AA, I think AA’s thinking was this:

            “AA is the true and proven way, so handing out sheets with new fangled programs and info would just confuse and put an extra burden on a desperately struggling human being seeking our help.”

            Depending on the person, either way could be right/wrong, good/ bad, etc..

          • matt February 8, 2019 at 6:13 am #

            Hey there

            Speculating on rainy mornings is good. I’m doing so in Boston right now when it should be snowing, but I’m comforted by the fact that global warming isn’t real…;)

            Well…I think people people are “tweaking” it (12-step) all the time (and not by sprinkling it with meth. pardon the unfortunate reference) There is Refuge, 8-step, others…but they all seem to be versions of refashioning a tool, like turning a rock into a hammer, or a model T into a Maserati. I don’t know if we can repackage freedom or wholeness, or “recovery.” It’s not linear. It’s synchronous, atemporal, harmonious… it has a history, a progression, a purpose…but like existence in general, it’s ineffable and indefinite till one gets established there. Is there a linear progression to freedom? Probably. But what is it? It’s different for everyone. Intractable habits are coping reactions to the high impact stress of modern life. Then we try to cram everything into its “appropriate” box and label it so we can understand it. Then we like to argue about the intricacies and fallibilities of the boxes– another blessing and curse of being human. It’s progressive with a lot of chasing down red herrings and bolting after squirrels down blind alleyways…

  21. Joe T February 5, 2019 at 1:53 pm #

    Great article and thanks for sharing your experiences with us. Not any direct dialectical comments here but just a few thoughts. Systems exist for people, people do not exist for systems. A similar conundrum was faced by a person with the name of Jesus Christ where he desired the people of his time would not be so enslaved to the Law and broke all the rules. I read so much more in your article then what was being discussed. The perennial clash between man and institution as expounded upon by many prophets, sages and philosophers of the past and present. To me it’s a cycle and and like all cycles one comes to an end and another begins. The 12 steps although rigid but at the time was the only answer. Now that cycle is over and a new one begins, so we saddle up and look for higher pastures. All part of the grand plan for our transcendence. God Speed Eric!

  22. jASON February 7, 2019 at 4:51 am #

    Thank you so much for this blog!! After spending several years in AA/NA I look back and wonder could I have gotten clean some other way? Did I NEED the structure of the program?? I also jumped in head first because that’s what other addicts told me to do. I set up meetings,made coffee,was a greeter,etc. After going for quite some time I just looked around the meeting and thought to myself, is this it? Is this what my life will be forever? I HAVE to have these people as friends now?? I did cut all of my old friendships prior to going to the program so maybe I longed for people I could just talk to?? I think all human beings long for connections to others-maybe that’s what I needed so badly?? I got a sponsor and started to do the steps with my handy 12 step workbook!! I truly could not get past step 1! I had to admit that I was powerless over my addiction?? I gave my power away to my drug of choice! So now I’m going to be an addict for life?? Hello, I’m Jay the addict?? Isn’t life all about empowering yourself and make your life better?? Did I miss something here?? I sat in too many meetings with such shame and guilt about my prior actions while I was using. I felt like I was in quicksand with no way to move forward. The program kept me in the past and programmed me to believe I’d relapse and die if I left!! I just wanted to stay clean and enjoy my life! That’s all I wanted, simple happiness. I was not happy in meetings anymore, my wife had to drag me to go at the end. I could not relate with any of my fellow attendees with no end in site. These people hugged me at the door, had me over for parties, called me on the phone. I WANTED MORE than the program had to offer. I wanted freedom, I wanted to stop giving away such quality time(most of my meetings were at 7pm ish which is family time) I was sick of waking up in the morning and thinking what time do I have to come home to get ready for my nightly meeting? My life went from drugs to meetings- almost another drug of sorts. At this same time my wife got pregnant and needed me around the house to help her out a bit. Here it is!! My way out of meetings!! BUT could I survive without meetings?? I was conditioned to believe AA/NA was the only way to recover. How could I remain drug & alcohol free?? In my heart of hearts I knew there was something more. I had just read the low, low success rate of 12 step from several studies. Doing homework opened my eyes to others paths. Meditation, church, hobbies and my GAME CHANGER, CBT Therapy. I have a wonderful therapist that I’m truly honest with(first in my lifetime) She holds me accountable which meetings could never do. Get a 24 hr chip and everyone claps like you just got a grand slam in the bottom of the 9th inning. What?? Keep coming back- more will be revealed-fake it til you make it, blah blah. I TOOK back the power that drugs had over me. In my first session with my therapist she flat out told me AA and NA were cults, OMG I love this woman haha. Since then we have worked hard to teach me coping skills I can use in my everyday life- not just with drugs, with life in general. I’m clean, work in a MAT and 12step rehab(helping people) love life and don’t find it weird to be friends with people I didn’t even feel friendly with(like in the program) I have real friends at work many whom are also ex-users . I have a WONDERFUL WIFE WHO NEVER EVER TURNED HER BACK ON ME, even when I was the lowest of lows. I have a great family who also never turned away from me. Most of all, I have my baby boy, Joshua who is my light and angel. Who is better than me?? LOL Its called true happiness which many people in the program simply lie about. I find many to be slaves to an archaic system that holds you in the past with little promise for the future. I’m just truly happy now!! I’m a first time Dad at age 47(he just turned 2) and finally know what real love is. More importantly, I could care less about drugs- I consider myself a recovered addict or a person that had a problem and found ways to overcome that problem. Now I’m just a normal Joe Shmo. And that’s ok by me 🙂
    Ok, back to the 12 steps- I do believe the whole program does fit the cult mold. I’ve found most followers brainwashed to only follow a book written in 1936. Science has changed a whole lot since then, but the book hasn’t and attitudes haven’t at all. Now I have some issues such as bipolar,moderate anxiety and PTSD. My wonderful sponsor told me to come off my meds and I ended up in a hospital in a manic state. I have no idea why I even listened other than being brainwashed to think it was the only way. He’s a roofer for God’s sake!!! My whole family was somehow connected to the 12 steps. My wife grew up in AA because her Mom brought her to meetings as a child.(her Mom still lives by it) My parents had ZERO idea about addiction as I am the first person in my entire family tree to use hard drugs. Wow that’s such a wonderful feeling 🙁 But my parents have two very close friends that brainwashed them into thinking if I don’t go to meetings I’ll never be well. I sat my parents down and explained to them that being clean is NOT the same for everyone and that goes for meetings as well. They actually don’t bug me about it anymore which is nice. The two people that my parents know are very cool in respect to how I feel about what works for me. We talk on the phone all the time and never do they try and get me to go to a meeting. I respect that-that is also very unusual for program people. One less hassle for me I guess. We can all talk about 12 steps until we are blue in the face but the bottom line is do whatever keeps you clean. If you can figure out a way to make it on sheer willpower, have at it!!! If you need therapy and/or meds, woohoo stay clean! IF YOU NEED meetings, then do your thing and go. ( just don’t push it on me) I’m sorry this reply has been all over the place!! I’m actually at work at a rehab in the greater Boston area and have been typing this in my downtime. GO PATRIOTS!!!!! lol

    • Eric Nada February 8, 2019 at 10:52 am #

      Jason, thanks for the comment (and great use of question and exclamation marks, I didn’t once have to wonder how strongly you felt about any particular sentence). I am from Boston, by the way. I attended most of the treatment centers that were open in the 1990s. (McLean and Bournwood in the beginning and then just free detoxes). I had many of the same questions and felt many of the same sticking points that you describe. I also had the same healthy commitment to staying clean which kept me from making any decisions based on my agnosticism with the 12-step process for longer than necessary. I’m glad you have found your way to a relationship with your past addiction that speaks to you. And, yeah, go Pats!!!

      • Jason February 10, 2019 at 4:22 am #

        Thank you Marc 🙂 [Did you mean “thank you Eric? Not sure. So much traffic in the comment section, it’s easy to get lost.] I did miss a couple of points that I wanted to make. Its funny because like I said my wife grew up in AA and firmly believes in the 12 steps. We started talking about how I said I wrote in a blog the I’d be dead without her support-she then began to yell at me because the blog was basically against 12 steps. I simply told her I’m clean and you should be proud of me!! I won’t bring that up again LOL I wanted to touch base on all of my GREAT friends in the program. People acted like life-long best friends which is odd because guess how many people called to check in with me after I stopped going to meetings?? Yes, you guessed it!! NOT EVEN ONE SINGLE PERSON. So much for helping each other out. What a joke

        • jo February 13, 2019 at 4:16 am #

          same experience as me…where are they now!!!

        • Eric Nafa February 13, 2019 at 10:30 am #

          Jason, (and, yes, I think you were responding to me not Marc, above) there is a somewhat related topic referred to in your comment. I have met many people for whom 12-step attendance is almost a family tradition. Many grow up raised by parents who incorporate 12-step philosophy into their lives at level that it can’t help but influence their children–certainly not always in negative ways. But there is often an overt expectation that their kids may end up also needing 12-step membership and it is extremely common to hear members suggesting that even their toddler (yes, toddlers!) are already showing signs of becoming “addicts or alcoholics.” The point is that this conditioning can be as easily passed down through the generations as any other form of conditioned thinking. (Obviously this may not relate to you wife, personally).

          • Jason February 15, 2019 at 4:55 am #

            ERIC…Yes you are spot on!! Her Mother is an alcoholic and a current member of AA. My wife has been going to AA since being a teenager so she is very conditioned to think its the only way. Her Mom always praises how the steps are the only answer yada,yada. I caught a lot of heat when I said the steps don’t work for me-well, you’re not being honest with yourself, your not trying hard enough. We’ve all heard the excuses. I told her my CBT therapy is more than enough and she still pushes meetings every chance she gets. Its not just about my prior drug use, its everything bad that arises in my life. Arguing with my wife, the steps will solve that, dogs peeing on the rug, steps will also solve that. its amazing how some program people can be brainwashed!!
            I just wish I could undo this type of thinking these two have. sometimes its just too much! I refuse to let it drag me down though……..

  23. Janet February 7, 2019 at 4:34 pm #

    If a clear path to “recovery” existed, it would long ago have been discovered. I think the best thing about 12 step programs is that they are available and they are free. The less desirable aspects are the hard lines and embedded belief by many, that it is the way and possibly the only way, to stay clean. I don’t agree. It’s not the 12 Steps… it’s a step.
    Take it.. and keep going. Keep loving, keep breathing, keep believing. The steps you take belong to you.

    “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” …
    Albert Camus.

  24. Dawn Schepis April 17, 2019 at 10:58 am #

    Wow…has anyone ever heard in the rooms…”Take what you like and leave the rest”? And what about service…helping other Alcoholics? Okay, Marc you don’t want to believe this is a disease and you’ve wrote a book about it and anyone else who didn’t want to believe that either, bought it and you profited from it…good for you!!! Shame…of course I felt shame when I came into the rooms. I had many blackouts and didn’t recall what I had done. I hurt many people and lost people’s trust. I’m fortunate that I don’t have kids and was only 2 years into my marriage when I got sober. When Grandfather had Cirrhosis of the liver by his early 50’s and had the bag. My brother had a gun to his head at 18 and my parents got him help and into a treatment center and sobered up. He was sober for 32 years. He stopped going to meeting for the last 10 years. he started drinking again (4 years), back up to a 12 pack a day. He had a bad heart and ended up getting pneumonia and died last year. Again he was suicidal and on a lot of anti-depressants and couldn’t get sober. He was in so much pain mentally when he died. I have no doubt, that I inherited this disease. As far as other drugs go, they are illegal and that is a choice they make to do them and I believe they are highly addictive. Most people doing Crack, meth, heroine, etc don’t just say, yeah, I did it for a while and just walk away from it easy peasy. They become junkies! And they’re recovery rate is very low. I have had to have a few operations in my 21 years of recovery and am fortunate to say that the pain killers that they put me on, I did not become addicted to and did not make me relapse. I was only on them for a few days. I did experience a lot of trauma as a child and I did use alcohol to mask my problems as they say alcohol is only a symptom of the disease, it’s the problems that you are dealing with. The first and the 3rd time I drank, I blacked out. I had constant blackouts. I was not an everyday drinker, never drank in the morning, on the job, got in trouble with the law, had a car accident, but there was no doubt in my mind that when I drank, I had a problem. AA and the steps teach you to work on your character defects, which EVERYONE has, through the 9th step, they help you to go back to the ones that you have hurt and not just say, “I’m sorry”, but it is an on-going practice of changing you that they see a difference in your behavior that helps them build that trust. Some you may never get it back from, but at least you did your part. You do not have to believe in GOD. This is a spiritual program, not a religious one. I find from the 11th step that meditation is very helpful in my life and helps with stress and anxiety and the 12th step is service. Not everyone makes the best Sponsor, but you can give people rides to meetings, there are all kinds of ways that you can help. There are sometimes, that I go for periods of time without going, but to put in people’s minds that this program is authoritarian is awful! It has saved so many lives. My neighbor 79 days sober is 32 years old and one point away from being on the liver transplant list. What other alternative at this point in his sobriety where his life is hanging by a thread can you offer him other then AA? He is also in therapy. I also believe in going to therapy along with AA, as so many members suffer from depression also. I tend to have an addictive personality – money, food. It has taken me years to try and get them all under control. So why is my husband able to have 2 glasses of wine, plug of that wine bottle and save it for the next day? I have no concept of that? My last drunk, I had a bottle and a half of wine in an hours time at home by myself. Passed out, blacked out and woke up in the middle of the night with a hang over with cuts and wine stains all over me not knowing how they got there? Obviously I figured out that I had somehow dropped the wine glass and it broke and splashed on me and gave me a few cuts. That’s when I decided it was time for me to stop. And unbelievable that someone expressed that they’ve come out with some other idea and you tell them that your plate is too full to discuss. The arrogance!!! Why even bother doing this blog! I’ll bet this won’t even get posted! For those who are wondering out there…just google “Is alcoholism a disease”? Wikipedia and almost all articles that I read said yes except for the ones mentioned with Marc’s name on it and were promoting his book.

  25. Veronica May 14, 2019 at 9:10 pm #

    This is a great insight on AA. There are many people (including myself) who don’t feel comfortable sharing their problems with strangers. Recently I heard about online programs to quit drinking like this one: https://healthbeautyproductreview.wordpress.com/2018/08/29/alcohol-free-forever/ or this one: https://www.udemy.com/stop-drinking-alcohol-get-sober-from-home. They look like a course with lessons and home works that you can do on your own without witnesses. I am quite skeptical about the motivation part though. Have you heard of or know anybody who tried this type of a program and how effective was it? Any feedback will be helpful. Thank you.

    • Marc May 17, 2019 at 3:49 am #

      Hi Veronica. I don’t know how effective these courses are, but I worry that they seem sort of home-made. They don’t effuse expertise. And the comments/reviews by customers are rather appalling, if that matters. I might recommend instead going to Insight Timer or one of the other downloadable guided meditation apps. Or check out Headspace, which has guided meditation “courses” for many purposes, including reducing cravings. These “teachers” are pros. Give it a think.

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