Moving on from the Twelve Steps: They truly helped until they truly hindered

…by Eric Nada…

Hello again, and Happy September!  This guest post accomplishes something far too rare: a balanced perspective on the Twelve Steps. They can be a real boon when structure and connection are most needed, and a hindrance when it’s time to keep growing.


I am 22 years away from heroin and the desperation that it both created and exposed in my life. I didn’t plan on becoming addicted to heroin. I did, however, have a profoundly positive reaction to drugs of all kinds right from the start. My drug use began with alcohol as a young teenager. I added daily cannabis soon afterward and recreational psychedelics as well, although these substances never brought me the deep sense of comfort I was seeking. I left my parents’ home when I was 16 and started drinking heavily daily. I began using cocaine as well, and tried heroin for the first time soon afterward. Apparently, heroin really agreed with me, and I eventually became physiologically dependent, fairly quickly losing the ability to navigate within relationships or the workplace. I was eventually homeless, feeding my habit through hours of daily panhandling and petty theft.

But drugs were not the only way I sought to regulate my feelings of longing. I used romantic connections to the same end. My romantic attachments formed very quickly and intensely and were eventually laced with feelings of desperation and neediness. This pattern followed me well into traditional recovery and abstinence, and would ultimately be as important a part of my recovery story as learning to live without drugs. In fact it wasn’t until I really addressed this foundational attachment problem (after ten years of abstinence from drugs)—through psychotherapy and the right books read at the right time—that I started to grow apart from the 12-step process and from identification with its fellowship.

rehabcenWhen I was 24 years old I went to the last of over a dozen treatment and detoxification centers I have attended. I was, and had always been, resistant to the 12-step approach to recovery, and I did not resonate with many of its underlying principles regarding the causes and treatment of addiction. But I followed the lead of some open-minded people at my last treatment center and began attending 12-step meetings voluntarily. And I began to recover. There is much that I learned from my 12-step involvement, the most important being the utilization of supportsome kind of growth modality instead of simply trying to stop using. I also began identifying with others who had attachment wounds like mine, even if these concepts were not discussed overtly. I created some deep and lifelong friendships and learned about the fulfillment that comes from service to others. The Twelve Steps taught me that deep emotional change must be incrementally worked toward with diligence and sustained focus, and gave me a prescribed external structure (meetings, sofatalkcommitments, and step-work) upon which to start building these changes. Finally, in the beginning, it gave me a large group of people with whom I could openly share my struggles and successes, finally building a sense of personal competence and esteem.

But there was another side to all this.

There were some aspects of 12-step involvement that I couldn’t, and didn’t, agree with. I don’t agree with the disease theory of addiction, a concept which is embraced higherpowerby most members. I am also not remotely religious, and never attributed my ability to abstain to a higher power. Finally, and this became more apparent after I left 12-step involvement—especially after I incorporated moderate alcohol use into my life a few months later—listening to similar messages dogmaticrepeatedly for years created a type of programming that made the idea of leaving difficult. To do so, I had to contend with deep feelings of fear caused by overt messages that leaving would inevitably lead to relapse and the loss of everything that I had spent so many years creating. Leaving also elicited deep feelings of shame and guilt that lasted acutely for months, and their tendrils still infect me two years later.

I am disappointed that there weren’t more nuanced approaches available to me when I first needed help. As a result, I consider myself to be in the process of recovering from the recovery process, from a host of deeply embedded erroneous statements about the causes and nature of addiction, and the cult-like psychological after-effects of having identified with a particular group for so long. But with the options available to me in 1995 when I attended my last treatment center, I understand why 12-step involvement may have been the only viable aftercare option—for a young man without a built-in ability for healthy emotional navigation.

balanceMy addiction story is ruled by two deep, seemingly contradictory, truths: first, that deciding to become a 12-step member was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. And second, that deciding to leave 12-step membership was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I wish that it weren’t anathema within the 12-step paradigm to leave either for periods or forever, but I kind of get it. I benefited from the same rigidity within 12-step doctrine that eventually repelled me. I may have temporarily needed that rigidity to counteract the evermore rigid attachment I had to heroin. I needed the external structure offered by the 12-step program and traditional abstinence until I could incorporate my own version of structure, inwardly. I needed form until I could safely find formlessness.

My story is as anecdotal as any other individual story and not proof that it’s safe to simply discard abstinence after a time. But I am convinced that the decision to trust myself has been immeasurably important, as was my decision not to trust myself for a while. I do wish, however, that I had moved on much sooner, that I would have decided to trust myself years earlier. But late is always better than never.



Please see Eric’s less abridged memoir here. And while you’re at it, check out some of the other Guest Memoirs. Many of these stories are truly compelling.

86 thoughts on “Moving on from the Twelve Steps: They truly helped until they truly hindered

  1. Kellie OConnor September 14, 2017 at 4:46 am #

    Wow that was amazingly insightful. Thanks for sharing.

    • William Abbott September 14, 2017 at 8:34 am #

      This is indeed insightful, meaningful and wonderfully enlightening , Thanks for sharing it .

      • Eric September 14, 2017 at 5:10 pm #


        Thank you, it is my absolute pleasure to share.

        • Terry September 15, 2017 at 12:06 am #

          I agree with you both in respect of 12 Step and attachment. There has to be a Recovered – a word not found in 12 Step literature but a notion essential if one doesn’t want to stay stuck forever in Recovery. I do now also watch the words – Addiction & Recovery are both words that support notions of disease and morality – personally I prefer Habits and Change as words that are more likely to support the fact that all humans use behaviours, foods, sex, drugs in habitual ways in order to deal with stress, boredom and the loneliness the typically lonely drug user feels resulting from the seemingly inherent difficulty in forming and keeping functional and happy relationships with other humans. Your description of your relationship issues remaining well after putting down the drug is very familiar to me – its as if a relationship with a drug is easier than those with humans, at least until the drug no longer plays the game. I am currently reading Unbroken Brain by Maia Szalavitz and its fascinating. Along with Marc, Carl Hart (and Johann Hari) neuroscientists and journalists are giving me more insight into habitual drug misuse than AA ever did. I wish they were round 35 years ago when I had nothing but AA. It then took me 25 more years via possibly some of the same self help books to unravel the confusion Recovery causes to those who cannot “thoroughly follow this path” – in other words those of us who ask questions.

          • Marc September 15, 2017 at 1:37 am #

            Habit and Change. Those are good words, Terry. I agree that “recovery” simply doesn’t work. It’s a term borrowed directly from medicine. As for “addiction”….I find it hard to get away from. I’ve argued for years that addiction is a deeply learned habit, but we need words to represent how very deep that learning can be.

            I’m honoured to be included in that gang of current writers, and I agree that we are all trying to transform how people see what the 12 steps often obscure.

            • Terry September 15, 2017 at 2:06 am #

              its been years in the coming Marc that people are having different and enlightening views on, yes I agree its hard to get away from the word, addiction. But don’t get me wrong either, like Eric, if it wasn’t for AA years ago maybe I’d be dead, but I had to move past that for my sanity, and most do. My main concern today is in assisting in the removal of the stigma and discrimination constantly placed upon those who chose only one form of stress relief (drugs) in a world where all humans seek that in some form or other and in todays world its electronic drug use in the form of mobile phones, Facebook etc – drugs in disguises. What interests me very much right now is Szalavitz’s connection with Autism and a learning disorder but one has to be careful because for those with drug using habits many theories sound plausible as AA did all those years ago in my desperation. And Marc you have played a part in re-opening my interest in all things theoretical about Addiction in a different and very interesting way. I would also include Gabor Mate in that line of acknowledgement and Stanton Peele, though each may not agree with the other, they all have aspects worth considering. Peele especially began my questioning of 12 Step in the 80’s with his book The Truth About Addiction and Recivery.

            • Chris V. August 25, 2019 at 5:21 pm #

              I have been sober in AA for 20 years and am very interested in any books you would recommend regarding attachment therapy and recovering from unhealthy attachment. Thanks!

          • Eric Nada September 15, 2017 at 11:44 am #


            Thanks for the reply. Wording is very important, and reflects the beliefs any given speaker has about that which he is speaking. I think the important thing is that each person who is dealing with their addiction problems eventually use words that best describe their individual relationship to the process, even if these words change over time just as that relationship does. And I totally agree that in the recovery world, too much emphasis is put on a limited definition of abstinence, and more harmfully on the length of time that that definition of abstinence is continuously adhered to. This approach often ends up ignoring the myriad of directions that the emotional patterns underlying addiction can still take if they are not properly attended. I loved Maia’s Unbroken Brain, and if you add Gabor Mate to that author list you have all of my favorites all lined up! I, too, wish that these ideas were out there when I was getting cleaned up, but we all did the best with what we had.

          • Julie September 15, 2017 at 2:29 pm #

            I too stepped out of the 12 step program after 12 years because I thought that I was stuck with a label of being forever an ill person and that in order to belong to the program I had to be sick. I was okay for about 12-15 years and slowly but surely my use of alcohol became my solution for everything and I did end up bottoming out again- when I returned to AA I found that I did I had a lot of misunderstandings how the program works- the big book’s title page says how ” The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism” I am recovered today- I am not only free from alcohol, I also am able to live an emotionally sober life as well- I have principals that are not religious that are basic human rights for myself and others that I pay attention to each day to the best of my ability- I do not have to be perfect at it either. I realized for me the feeling of being trapped or guilted or whatever was coming from my own fears and gave me lots of excuses to stay stuck and feel sorry for myself- and keep drinking- I do not have to go to meetings or work the steps. No one has power over me- One thing I keep in mind is that because AA is a self-help group and is organized and run by people who lived dysfunctional and destructive lives and perhaps still do. Even if someone has a long term “sobriety”- they may still be emotionally unstable and not healthy- Through the process of working the steps I have learned how to trust myself (and for me that means realizing that my thoughts and emotions can be deceiving at first and I need to check my motives) in discerning who to trust and who is not someone who has what I want. I respect that no program, treatment or self-help anything is a one size fits all- life is a journey and we are all finding out what works for us and what does not

          • Cheryk September 20, 2017 at 2:28 pm #

            Thank you Terry.

            • Terry September 20, 2017 at 6:24 pm #

              Thank You Cheryl- it is pleasing that someone reads what I might rave about. For 35 years I have asked myself questions about what was ‘wrong’ with me. My conclusion after lots of reading, formal study and “treatment”. I am a normal human being who has primal fear. I just happened to choose a form of stress relief in alcohol and drugs that society in its judgement does not see as appropriate and thus called me sick. I now reject the labels. The treatment did nothing and I survived it, in many ways my greatest achievement.

          • bill December 9, 2017 at 1:07 pm #

            “There has to be a Recovered – a word not found in 12 Step literature but a notion essential if one doesn’t want to stay stuck forever in Recovery.”

            While I am not a big fan of A.A. for myself, I must say that “recovered” is found multiple times in the Big Book. See pages 17, 20, 29, 45, 90, 96, 113, 132, 133, 146, and in the Forward of all editions, and the Doctor’s Opinion.

            • Shelley November 4, 2019 at 5:25 pm #

              Thank you for pointing this out. I was going to refer to these pages as well ☺️

              • Carlton November 6, 2019 at 1:42 pm #

                A proposal for a definition of “recovered”

                “Recovered” is when a persons thoughts, feelings, and behavior are no longer in dangerous conflict.” (regarding the addiction).

                This can describe some of those people that abstain for life, and some of those people that continue in some degree.

                This cannot be measured or regulated, it can only be known by the individual.

  2. April Wilson Smith September 14, 2017 at 4:58 am #

    Excellent post! I think the underlying points of creating structure in your life in early recovery, finding a growth path, and addressing attachment issues are the key. AA can do that, and for many that’s still the only option they can find, and certainly most rehabs still push the 12 Step fellowships. I too am in recovery from recovery… but I went to rehab at 40, with a successful career behind me, an education in science, and some secure relationships and family support. The idea that my life was unmanageable without AA was pretty ridiculous to me. I spent nine months in cult deprogramming therapy after I left with the awesome Rachel Bernstein, a cult deprogramming specialist who has only recently started to work with XA refugees, and she helped me deal with extreme rage that was getting in the way of my every day life. I found my structure and growth in Zen meditation and becoming a part of a Zen school that has a psychoanalytic bent, the Ordinary Mind School. It provides structure (I sit every day with a group for an hour solid, with more on Sundays) and also has helped me address attachment issues.

    Thank you for sharing your story!

    • Graham September 14, 2017 at 5:42 am #

      Hi April,

      Do you think your extreme rage was closely linked to XA? I ask, because our stories are very similar – I was 39, educated, good family etc when I went to rehab – and having been sober for over two years, and out of XA for six months, I’m having definite problems with rage that I simply never, ever had before, pre-XA. A lot of it is directed at AA/NA itself, but I’m also getting angry about small things that never bothered me before.


      • April September 14, 2017 at 5:52 am #

        Hey Graham!

        I totally identify. I think that XA sparked the rage, but it definitely spilled over into a lot of other things and probably led me to access long repressed rage. When I tried to do my Fourth Step, I found myself on a trolley home in Philly blaming myself for the sexual abuse I endured. That’s when I quit doing the Steps. Then I started to get mad about everything.

        There are some great Facebook groups for those leaving XA. Deprogramming from AA or any 12 Step Group, led by the great Monica Richardson, producer of the movie The Thirteenth Step, is the best.

        • matt September 14, 2017 at 2:49 pm #

          Hi April

          Do you think the anger and rage that emerge are symptomatic? They seem pretty universal. Is it helpful to recognize the source? For example, is it anger directed inward for having become addicted, or at the conditioning and situational causes? Or both?

          I know my anger at all programs and treatment in early “recovery” was due to the authoritarian prescriptivism that presumed to know what was best for me– which at face value is pragmatically ludicrous. And it’s a philosophical bent that is perpetuated by the disease/medical model of addiction.

          • Julie Carney September 15, 2017 at 2:37 pm #

            What I finally realized is that I was not at fault at all for the sexual abuse of my childhood- what was in my control was living as if I was a victim today due to what happened (I was “broken” and “unlovable”) and not taking responsibility to live in the moment as a whole person today- a responsible adult- not a victim- Living a victimized life is what my insanity and my unmanageability was-I no longer am fearful of people and am no longer plagued by symptoms of PTSD that I experienced for over 40 years because I finally understood this by working through the 12 steps and seeing how I am really no different from any other human being on this earth no matter what I went through as a young person

        • Graham September 15, 2017 at 9:13 am #

          That’s great, I’ll have a look. Thanks April 🙂

    • Eric September 14, 2017 at 5:27 pm #


      So glad that you enjoyed the post. You bring up a few important topics, the first being the importance of individualized treatment. As I point out in my post, I became involved with severely problematic drug-use as a young man, well before I had developed adult coping tools, interests, or even a developed sense of self. This is one of the reasons that being involved with a recovering community may have really helped while I developed these things. I took my involvement in my recovery very seriously, driven by an honest and deep appreciation for finally being successfully away from drugs. And this may have been part of the reason that I attached quite rigidly to the approach, thus creating a difficult transition when I decided to leave. Suffice to say that it has been a serious process of depgrogramming. Although I don’t currently consider 12-step programs to be cults, my involvement did have a cult-like effect on me, in some ways. If it weren’t for mindfulness cultivated through my own consciousness practice, I think I would have been overwhelmed by leaving and may have had a more self-destructive path out.

  3. Louise Sutherland-Hoyt September 14, 2017 at 5:01 am #

    What a great perspective! Much like my own experience, I will add. What’s become interesting is that the research around rewiring the traumatized brain (the one often behind abuse of alcohol/other drugs) comes back to many of the essential premises behind the steps: Narrative, service to others, interconnectedness in community, and meditation (step 11). The problem in practice, however, as you stated, is in application and a devotion to literature that is outdated. I have also found that sponsorship is highly overemphasized and potentially damaging to a vulnerable “pigeon”. Nonetheless, as you stated, the 12 steps are a starting point for many of us, and I am very grateful to have developed the foundation I needed to get on with my life.

    • Eric September 14, 2017 at 5:37 pm #


      Yes, there is a lot of polarized thinking within the pro/anti-12-step discussion. There is much that 12-step involvement can provide for the right person at the right time, provided that it isn’t offered as the only true path to success. At the time that AA, specifically, began, it was way ahead of its time in many ways. It’s funny to think about now, but much of what they proposed was very controversial, especially their liberal approach to finding spirituality personal to each person. Of course, when an approach can’t yield to new research, concepts, and language, it necessarily becomes less useful over time. And if it can’t evolve, it is hard for it not to become part of an either/or discussion.

  4. James Morris September 14, 2017 at 5:09 am #

    Brilliant post thank you. Although anecdotal I think it chimes with the work by John Kelly on AA effectiveness – i.e it’s mainly the peer support element that works for most people. But another issue I suppose is the inevitable variation in the meetings.

    • Eric September 14, 2017 at 5:46 pm #


      Thank you for the comment. I have heard of John Kelly, but am not familiar with his work. I will check him out. I know that, for me, it was certainly the peer support aspect that helped me most during the first months and years of abstinence. I think that there are other reasons that other people may find the 12-step approach to be more compatible to them, specially if they are some combination of extroverted, religious, or enjoy the safety offered by a set prescription. And there is a great deal of variation in meetings form town to town, state to state, country to country. This is one of the reasons that it is difficult to speak about 12-step affiliation, on the whole, and yet another reason I stay away from polarized discussions on the topic.

  5. Colin Brewer September 14, 2017 at 5:35 am #

    I might respond in detail to this later but for the moment I’ll just share one telling experience. When I was attending my first US addiction conference in New Mexico, I saw an advertisement in the local paper, among ads for other 12-step groups, for a group for people addicted to – 12-step groups!

    • April September 14, 2017 at 5:55 am #

      Like in Fight Club! I think it’s easy to get addicted to recovery in early recovery. It beats being addicted to a drug, but most people eventually move on, and that’s why I prefer the approach of SMART where lifelong attendance isn’t expected or encouraged. The point of recovering is to recover! I didn’t recover to be in recovery… I recovered to live life!

      Well, then I went on to make a career out of researching and writing about this stuff, but you gotta do something, right? 🙂

      • Graham December 3, 2017 at 6:51 am #

        Hi April,

        Ah, ‘the point of recovery is to recover”. Yes! But, when I tentatively brought this up in rehab, I was treated like a heretic. Ironically, I suspect that the ‘you’ll be doing this for ever – this is your life now’ message is what triggers a fair amount of relapses. I too prefer SMART – I do one meeting a week, and don’t stress if I can’t make it – as it’s a message of personal empowerment, instead of one of dependence.

    • Marc September 14, 2017 at 6:01 am #

      Hi Colin. That’s hilarious. Or….maybe not so funny. Cheers!

      • matt September 14, 2017 at 9:31 am #

        It’s funny because it is true.

        It’s not about going into 12-step recovery or leaving 12-step recovery…or SMART, or LifeRing, or SOS or WFS or WTF. It’s not about “recovery” of anything at all. It’s about making the decision to change, about helping others make that decision. It’s about returning to life…life which has always and will always be there.

        Until it’s not.

    • Eric September 14, 2017 at 5:51 pm #


      That is hilarious. And appropriate. So long, of course, that it isn’t 12-step based.

  6. Gary September 14, 2017 at 10:06 am #

    My first introduction to A.A. was back in 1988 and I was Never a joiner of any groups unless, of course, they consisted of using alcohol and/or other drugs etc. However, “I” came to the conclusion that I couldn’t live life anymore the way I was existing and because many of the “familiar” faces I saw in A.A. it opened my mind to like minded people who wanted to stay clean and sober. At first, I have to admit, I had trouble digesting the idea that “I” was an alcoholic, “I mean I knew it” but! announcing it at both closed and/or open-meetings was a challenge in the beginning.

    I was always very inquisitive as well as learning new ways perhaps better ways of being especially when I was recovering from a bender. “Name it to tame it” I heard and realized I first have to know what the problem is in order to deal with it. The matter-of-fact simplicity of the A.A. program got my attention…”just don’t drink and go to meetings” seemed, to me, easy enough, which, is what I did for a number of years.

    Eventually, I felt my “recovery” or perhaps “self-discovery” was stuck in idle and the message I was hearing in my heart was to not be dependent or reliant on anything not even A.A. . To be totally free as a human being reminds me of the statement from Jiddu Krishnamurti ; “Be A Light Unto Yourself” ! However, in many ways, for me, it actually took being an active member of A.A. to come to this realization and so I am forever grateful to A.A. without question.

    It’s a fact that I will always have room for growth but the freedom I have today is based on the decisions I make and not based on any rituals, dogmas, patterns, groups, that require any sense of conformity, rigidity etc…,.

    I’m know today that I am much more than an alcohol or drug addict and the real gift, “for me” is I don’t know exactly what or even who I am but what I know for sure is that I am a part of the wholeness of life and have more awareness and sensitivity to the world. If there is such a thing as a spiritual awakening, for me, it is the realization of true freedom!~

    • Eric Nada September 14, 2017 at 6:40 pm #


      Thanks for the comment. I think our experiences are similar. I have always valued my emotional freedom above all else. In some ways, my problematic drug-use evolved from a feeling of freedom that certain forms of intoxication provided me. Unfortunately, it kept evolving, eventually into physiological addiction, which is about as far from emotional freedom as I have been. I felt very free in my early days of recovery and even within my 12-step involvement. If it had remained that way, I would not have left. Of course it is different for everyone, but for me, too, my 12-step involvement eventually felt like a burden instead of a liberating experience.

  7. Lisa K September 14, 2017 at 11:30 am #

    “Thanks for sharing” (LOL). I am one of those lucky people, I guess, who has never felt ‘programmed’ or inhibited or squashed in re further growth by my participation in 12 step recovery. Maybe that’s because I got clean in New York City where there are so many meetings–hundreds each day–each of them different in tone, population & custom, with people in them so diverse, that there is clearly no ‘one way’ to recover, and coercive personalities/meeting cultures can easily be avoided. The meetings I ended up feeling comfortable in and inspired by were populated by other smart creative people of all faiths and none. It’s also true that I stopped attending AA/NA about a decade ago and now am a weekly/semi-monthly attendee at Al-Anon, where we deal with relationships and, as you so articulately put it, ‘foundational attachment problems’ , and where the voluntary nature of membership has not been compromised by the institutionalization of 12-step ideas by rehabs and treatment programs and courts. I truly feel that the cooptation of 12-step principles by institutions, while well meant at the time, and an improvement over imprisonment or mandatory methadone, was a mistake for those institutions which became rigid and had a financial interest in being ‘right,’ and sowed the seed for disillusionment among “members” who were out into the world beyond treatment with the message that there was only one way to recover. As I worked with Marc on his last book, I was inspired to do research into the birth of the ‘disease model’ and discovered that initially, and in all the early literature, the term ‘dis-ease’ (with the hyphen) when it was used (rarely) was always intended as a metaphor. (“We are not doctors”) One early AA member, a PR exec, took it upon herself to turn this metaphor into a publicity campaign for the ‘disease concept’ in an attempt to persuade medical professionals to open hospital beds to detoxing alcoholics and to reframe addiction as something other than a moral failing. Even later, health professionals/scientists again adopted this idea and set out to prove it, again with good intentions to encourage abandonment of moralistic & punitive approaches to dealing with addicts, but ultimately using that inexact word to describe, as Marc so clearly explains in his book, the brain doing exactly what it is designed to do, except that drugs have deceived the reward circuit, in order to rationalize their own research and continue to secure funding. Anyways I know I’m an outlier on this blog but I always want to speak up a little on behalf of the usefulness and complexity of twelve step principles, and its philosophy, which have helped me even as I continue to grow and move forward in many other ways, over the past 31 years. I am not religious, I don’t need deprogramming, and I have continued to develop. It’s not the 12 Steps themselves, that are inflexible or inhibiting of growth. IMHO.

    • Nancy Minden September 14, 2017 at 1:45 pm #

      Thank you for taking the time and the effort to contribute a very cogent reply. Gratitude also to the guest blog contribution that initiated this thread, and to you Marc for providing a space to continually evolve our own opinions.

    • Eric Nada September 14, 2017 at 6:54 pm #


      Thank you for the thoughtful response. I agree that the steps are not inflexible. Actually, they are flexible enough that anyone with a little creativity can find a beneficial growth experience through them, I think. There is much misunderstanding about what the disease theory really is, inside of the 12-step meetings that I attended. I am aware of the history of the theory and where it is and isn’t part of the 12-step philosophy. While I hope that I never sound inflammatory or dismissive of the 12-step approach, on the whole, I always had an underlying feeling of being the proverbial square peg while attending. That being said, I know many people who I truly respect, who continue to find personal growth and fulfillment within 12-step membership, and would never suggest that everyone should eventually leave, or that staying is a sign of stagnancy. Recovery, and growth itself, is so personal. To add to my underlying issues, the 12-step community in my area has been inundated with the proliferation of recovery homes/IOPs who’s main treatment approach is taking their clients to 12-step meetings. It has completely changed the experience and feel of our local meetings. (I’m not suggesting that they shouldn’t be there, just commenting on the changes). I look forward to further exchanges.

      • Lisa K September 14, 2017 at 7:59 pm #

        Thanks Eric! I did really appreciate your thoughtfulness on a subject that is often just kneejerk-polarizing. And maybe you live near my daughter in South Florida? She has seen (and resents) the same phenomenon of busfulls of newbies arriving from the IOPs or court-mandated people needing papers signed who all silently endure meetings–and their presence has indeed changed the experience and not in a good way. It’s a conundrum, really. You don’t want to prohibit it of course, though it feels like the fellowship are being ‘used’ by for-profit institutions and tax-supported governmental institutions, and though mandatory attendance is actually inimical to the whole enterprise…. Anyways I didn’t feel criticized by your thoughtful post and hope you continue to find that light within yourself.

        • Eric Nada September 14, 2017 at 8:10 pm #

          Lisa, I actually live in southern California where the same phenomenon is well underway as in Florida. These are actually the two places in the US where this is happening. Florida is even worse and slightly more fraudulent but both areas are completely inundated. I have worked with addicts who feed their habits through the illegal kickbacks they get from referring one another to the fly-by-night outfits that are popping up all over the place. (Of course not all of them are a problem). Glad you didn’t feel criticized and although it may get dim from time to time, I’ll continue to find that light.

    • matt September 14, 2017 at 10:00 pm #

      Hi Lisa!

      Hope all is well! I agree that the steps are not inflexible. Institutions are. People sick and struggling in acute recovery can be. But suggestions and advice are not. The Steps are just a moral compass for those who’ve lost their way, and can be interpreted and used in the way that is most helpful to the individual.

      I also always thought it odd that the disease model is so often attributed to AA when the word appears in the Big Book a total of once. Even then it is referring to resentment as the source of “spiritual disease,” not addiction or alcoholism.

      • Lisa K. September 14, 2017 at 10:46 pm #

        Hi Matt & hope all’s well with you too! I was fascinated to learn that the disease model was, well before there was any scientific research done whatsover, essentially a PR campaign aimed at ‘rebranding’ alcoholism as a health problem. But now most 12-steppers take the word ‘disease’ literally in a way that is ultimately unhelpful… Should we say it’s ‘fake news?’ xo

        • Marc September 15, 2017 at 1:46 am #

          Great to hear from you, Lisa. With you, Matt, and Peter on this thread it’s like a class reunion. It would be good to chat. For other readers, Lisa was the editor of my book, Biology of Desire. She mentions her connection with the 12 steps in a comment further down and talks about an enlightened approach called LEAP.

          • Lisa K September 15, 2017 at 11:18 am #

            Marc, I would love to talk – maybe we could make a phone date for Oct? I think often of our great minds meeting, feel guilty for my not doing what I said I would, wonder how you are & how ‘retirement’ is shaping up, whether I. got the grant she was going for when we were there, etc.

      • Brad February 18, 2020 at 12:00 am #

        The source of spiritual disease is the belief that there is separation.

        Interdependence is nature’s law.

        The Occidental mind with its’ kneejerk reification

        • matt February 18, 2020 at 4:05 pm #

          So true, Brad…although I don’t think it’s only Westerners. I think humans in general have difficulty with interdependence and the illusory nature of relative phenomena, even when it’s being pointed out to us!

  8. Mary September 14, 2017 at 11:53 am #

    I am doing Richard Rohr’s Breathing Under Water online class (based on the book of the same name), which is his take on the connections between the 12 steps and the Gospel. I’m learning that there are the 12 steps and there are the 12 steps. I.e., there can be a LOT more to them than you might get at first glance. Or you might get at your typical meeting.

    I totally get that this may not at all appeal to those who have issues with the whole higher power/God thing, as that described me for 40 years. But Father Rohr calls* the 12 steps the “American contribution to the history of spirituality” and makes an interesting case (IMO) for how the 12 steps can be a map to fuller recovery (even enlightenment) and not just sobriety.


    • Eric Nada September 16, 2017 at 10:50 am #


      Thank you for commenting. (I had to look up Richard Rohr before commenting back). One of the strengths of the 12-steps is that they can be applied to almost any person’s experience of life, spiritual or not. I have met people who have all forms of beliefs, from devout to atheist, who can apply the 12-steps in a way that is personal to them. Furthermore, as you point out, they can be reapplied as people, themselves, change. Personally, and apropos to my own experiential understanding, I got more out of the steps that didn’t relate to a higher power, specifically steps eight and nine, after which I felt an instant release of guilt and shame that was immediately palpable. And like most growth modalities that might help a person struggling with addiction issues, they can always be applied to someone without addiction struggles. I think this is because addiction problems are the result of the type of underlying issues that we all have, but don’t all cope with through substance-abuse. There is no such thing as a “normie” (12-step lingo). We are all working on the same inner issues and feelings of disconnection, even if we go about dealing with the consequences of this disconnection differently. So glad that you have found a meaningful way to go deeper using the steps, and for sharing a resource that others may want to look into.

  9. Peter Sheath September 14, 2017 at 1:48 pm #

    Hi Eric/Marc
    Really enjoyed this post it’s almost identical to my journey. I like the idea of “recovery from recovery” because I’m seeing lots of people who are so deeply attached to recovery programmes that life just looks like its passing them by. I’ve adopted a much more harm reductive approach to my work over the past couple of years and I’m finding it’s benefiting the people I work with enormously. I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but these days I try to meet people exactly where they are emotionally, physically, spiritually, behaviourally and chemically. I love how Andrew Tatarsky words this as, “maybe I don’t want you to be injecting drugs, maybe I don’t want you to be putting your life at risk. But that doesn’t mean I can’t accept that that’s what you’re doing, with compassion, and then see how I can possibly be helpful to you.”
    Using this approach, over the past 12 months, I have been able to sit with over seventy people and help them find what they feel is going to work for them. Some have opted for 12 step support and total abstinence, some have achieved abstinence in a very natural spontaneous way. Others have opted for medical assisted recovery, others have learned moderation and controlled use. Some have opted to keep using but do it a bit more safely.
    As you know I’ve worked in substance misuse for many years and, in that time, had more than my fair share of people not attending appointments, discharging themselves, dying, and avoiding seeing me, I thought it was an acceptable part of the job. Since I’ve changed the way I work I’ve not had one person not show up, they nearly always complete any homework exercises and almost everyone has made some remarkable changes. I’ve let go of the 12 steps, recovery ideology and treatment dogma and I think I’ve become a better person in the process.

    • Lisa K September 14, 2017 at 7:49 pm #

      Hi Peter, I remember our conversations with such fondness. I am allergic to recovery ideology too, just haven’t had to let go of 12 steps in order to avoid athsmatic attacks! FYI I am taking courses to be a certified alcohol & substance abuse counselor here in NYC and just had to watch a Frontline documentary that in part profiles a program in Seattle called LEAP that is a partnership between social services and police that tries to do just what you’re doing. The thought is that even ‘drug court’ makes recovery a matter of coercive obedience and usually winds up with addicts back on the street and/or prison, and why not try to meet the person where they are, help them move toward their own goals, and not withhold the services they need like housing & educational opportunity etc. The stats on effectiveness are good (though they didn’t detail those). While they chose to profile a couple people who were pretty intractable, and seemed a little too cheerleading on the subject of methadone for my taste, it was convincing on the Here’s the link, if you haven’t seen it:
      hope you are well!

    • Eric Nada September 14, 2017 at 8:21 pm #


      Thank you for your reply. Cliches area cliche for a reason. I, too, work with addicts and insist on meeting them–as I do all my clients–where they are. I consider all forms of addiction work to be forms of harm reduction as no one is ever either truly addiction-free or truly abstinent (except through subjective definitions of these concepts). It is good to have contact with others who embrace a spectrum of abstinence goals, approaches, and a variety of recovery experiences. I look forward to further exchanges.

  10. matt September 14, 2017 at 3:17 pm #

    Hi Peter

    And yes!! This is the way people get sober and stay sober– with sobriety meaning “re-engagement in life.” From what I know of your work and our conversations together you are not just a “recovery whisperer”, but a “life whisperer”. Recovery is not a phenomenon of dismantling a “maladaptive behavior” but of reassembling our interconnectedness with each other…and life.

    • Marc September 15, 2017 at 1:47 am #

      Well said, Matt!

  11. Warren September 14, 2017 at 4:22 pm #

    Thank you for that story. It was very insightful. I went to AA for a short time and also felt it was too rigid and not for me.

    Personally, I find the study of mindfulness and Buddhist teachings much more worthwhile. There is even a much less rigid addiction recovery group now call “Refuge Recovery” based on Buddhist teachings which I find very helpful.

    After heavy daily drinking for many years, I became terrified of alcohol. At first total abstinence was necessary, but after years of recovery, it felt like this was actually making things worse. To me it felt like “avoidance” aka avoiding a problem instead of dealing with it. Eventually I was able to have an occasional drink and I am becoming less scared of alcohol. It does still scare me, but less than in the past.

    -Warren – wishing everyone well in their journey forward from addiction.

    • Eric Nada September 14, 2017 at 8:46 pm #


      Thank you for the reply, I relate completely. I have found that a personal meditation practice has been life-changing. It is one of those things for which there is life before, and life after. In my case I don’t think I could have started my recovery with a meditation practice as I was too emotional immature and had not developed self-discipline enough to be consistent with anything, let alone with something that requires stillness. I found the studies of both marital arts and yoga to be a great beginning as moving mindfulness practices, but nothing substitutes for my experience with seated daily meditation. And I, too, found a release from an overdeveloped fear of alcohol when I implemented moderate use again after 20 years of abstinence. I write a little more about this in the guest memoir that is connected to this post.

      • Eric Nada September 14, 2017 at 10:03 pm #

        (By the way, I am familiar with Noah Levine and Refuge Recovery. His meditation center, Against the Stream, is in Los Angeles, an hour south of me. I also really liked his book, Dharma Punx, and often recommend this group to friends or clients who would prefer a buddhist based lay led recovery group. So glad that you brought this up)

  12. Annette September 15, 2017 at 5:29 am #

    Thank you for your post, Eric. My younger brother had the same name: he never made it through his drug addiction, sadly, and took his life in ’09. He was a funny and deeply compassionate man, but many never saw past his appearance.

    I, too, had big problems with alcohol, although I functioned – and held senior positions. Husband was the same – leading to family dysfunction and tough teenage years for our son. Fights between the two of them too – so very sad.

    I went to Al-Anon for five short weeks. It was like stepping back to the 1950s: it felt disapproving and most of all, bleak and hopeless. The Serenity Prayer has wise words, but when you’re hurting like hell, they don’t penetrate. Then, I had two lots of therapy before realising that my drinking was contributing to the dysfunction, in a major way.

    So, I chose to quit. I didn’t go to AA, as Al-Anon had scared me off (I’m a social justice Christian, btw, and the Divine I worship is centred on unconditional love for all of us: no dogma and only one rule: love your neighbour as yourself!)

    Instead, I found a great online community via, and after a week, felt I’d come home and found my tribe. Read and posted a lot, supported others, laughed and cried. Wasn’t able to be abstinent, (too many cravings). Instead I reduced consumption by 90%. After 8 months, I was able to quit drinking. I also began arranging MeetUps in London – very well attended. No shame, just hugs, good food and laughter.

    Then, I researched really good mental health therapy, as I had a lot of anger. HUGE amounts, in fact. I found “Open Dialogue” pioneered in Finland and now being rolled out across the globe, a practice where teams (can be 3-4 people) visit psychotic patients in their home, involve the whole family and friends, and where sessions can last 2-3 hours. Very little use of medication, as a safe space is created for the patient to share their feelings.

    The numinous is allowed to enter, where everyone recognises that we collectively hold the answers – people can say whatever they want to. In that space (sacred space, imho) extraordinary shifts are allowed to take place. All practitioners MUST practise mindfulness, daily. They also reflect on what the patient has to say, in front of us. It was life-changing for me, as with my sister, we delved back into my early childhood where the anger lay. it would meet with Krishnamurti’s approval, as well as Daniel Bohm’s and Einstein’s 🙂 And, via the NHS, it was free – amazing!

    22 months on, my life has changed dramatically. I now have an occasional cider, live mindfully (the most important thing) and support my son wholeheartedly. Laugh every day, and have just set up a social club in my local town, for people to have fun. (My husband is still drinks and is unhappy, but my new life encouraged him to quit smoking after 45 years, so a big achievement.)

    Fyi, earlier this week, I popped up to my local big city (60 miles north of London), where they had a lot of stalls aimed at baby boomers leading a healthier life. AA had a stand: I chatted to the people there, asking if they had any new developments. “Online chat”, I was informed. I told them about hellosundaymorning, and Club Soda and that I was now really well and happy. I didn’t use the word ‘recovery.’ I’m just ME again, and that’s all I ever wanted to be.

    Thank you for all your raw honesty. It reminds me that we’re all here to walk each other home. “Home” is where I now live, and it is utter bliss. Blessings to you in your sacred work with addicts yearning to become themselves too…

    • Marc September 15, 2017 at 9:11 am #

      Lovely comment, Annette. Your own story, your emphasis on emotion and sharing, your reminder about “Open Dialogue” — which sounds so enlightened. And your news about AA’s online chats. I can’t quite put “mindfulness” and “Divine” in the same sentence, but that you do it so lightly, as an antidote to dogma, may be a valuable bridge to others. And your ending, about just being you, definitely hits the spot.

      • Annette September 15, 2017 at 2:27 pm #

        Marc, thanks good man! (I still plan to go to one of your talks one day!) I’ve found most addicts incredibly gentle people. Acknowledging our problems enables real humility and honesty.

    • Eric Nada September 15, 2017 at 12:00 pm #


      Thank you for your reply. I’m very sorry to hear about your brother, his is a far too common result of addiction struggles. I am often amazed at just how close I often was to not making it out alive, myself. But I am so glad to hear about your personal story with alcohol and how you changed your relationship to it over time. I don’t know if it is this forum, in particular, that attracts such folks, but I am amazed at how many people mention mindfulness as an indispensable tool in their recovery. This is certainly my experience, too. Beneath the drug-use lies the truth beneath it. The long felt pain that requires proper attention if we are to live un-medicatied. Again, thank you for your kind words and best wishes back to you.

      • Annette September 15, 2017 at 2:39 pm #

        Thanks Eric, many of us have Adverse Childhood Experiences, and then become addicted. Mindfulness is ultimately about real Choice and giving ourselves the space between events and our reactions. I’m off to the launch of Russell Brand’s Recovery book launch next week. I suspect he’ll have a lot to say on mindfulness. Yoga is another amazing tool.

  13. Denis September 15, 2017 at 6:03 am #

    Well said Eric.I was in a 30 day rehab based on the 12 steps.Coming to the realisation I had developed a HABIT to the buzz from alcohol, was the key for me to decide that alcohol wasn’t for me any more.Thats after 50 years of enjoying alcohol from age 15 to 65. After 2 years of AA I decided to move on because a lot of seasoned AA members treat AA as a religion and become doctors nurses and councillors,forgetting the main idea of AA is to introduce newcomers to the 12 Steps only. Not to convert. As it says in the AA Big Book ‘you are not compelled to believe or do anything. Because many believe it to be a disease they have never learned to move on. Many are dry drunks and continue to suffer in other ways unfortunately. They forget they are experts on there own situation only, no-one else.The Big Book has some useful information and the 12 steps is a tool box of suggestions and some of them as in my case helped me become comfortable with my change. I was an Alcoholic in the true sense and now Happily enjoying my time here on Earth.I sometimes go to AA meetings to share my story just to show how simple it can be to make a CHANGE to a better life. The RIGHT information is the KEY to each individual succeeding.

    • Eric Nada September 17, 2017 at 10:50 am #


      I love to hear the variation in addiction stories. It always reminds me of the importance for their to be as much individual variation in approach to treatment, as well. As my story highlights, I, too, saw a rigidity within the 12-step approach that may have helped for as long as I needed it, but eventually felt stifling. The further I am away from it, the more that I look back on it as almost religious, too. Not in so far as its defining spirituality for people, which would have kept me out from the start. I experience its dogma in its definition of treatment. And I must add that the literature (AA’s anyway) is much more open-minded toward other approaches for other people than the modern “12-step” culture that I was exposed to was. And this reminds me of the variation in 12-step culture from place-to-place and from time-to-time. 12-step recovery evolves just like everything else. I know that it changed a lot while I was a part of it, as did I. I’m fairly certain that it became more culturally rigid where I live over the years. Of course I can’t speak for all meetings everywhere because of the geographical variation. But I agree wholeheartedly that it is an individual things, for sure. Thank you for the comment.

  14. Lovinglife52 September 15, 2017 at 11:54 am #

    This is a great, balanced piece. I also used 12 step for a while and then moved on, which I think is a healthy thing to do. I was also not religious and had no faith in a higher power. I did feel making comitments to the group such as service, helped me stay sober in my early days. It was good to be part of a sober community and meet people with long term sobriety.

    • Eric Nada September 15, 2017 at 12:09 pm #


      It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I am no stranger to your presence and publicly want to give you credit for introducing me to the specific wording of “recovering from recovery.” Yes. we seem to have much in common in both story and philosophy. I have always appreciated your measured and direct contributions to the 12-step conversation, I appreciate your style. I look forward to more contact.

      • Lovinglife52 September 15, 2017 at 12:22 pm #

        Thanks so much for that Eric. I am always looking for people to do podcasts or put things on the site, so if you are interested please get in touch or even if you just fancy a chat. I have been quiet recently as have been busy work wise but am looking to do some more. I have read Marc’s books and have found they give a great explanation as to what was really happening with addiction. I think I did go through a stage of “recovering from recovery” as the 12 step method does tend to take over your life in some ways. I did sometimes think “what if they are right” and I do relapse! Anyway I have not been to a meeting for 8 years and all is going well. I keep in touch with a few people in recovery, face to face, and know many more online, which suits me.
        Best wishes Mike

  15. Doug Anderson September 15, 2017 at 12:15 pm #

    I believe after reading Dr. Mark’s book and real life experience that addiction is a symptom of an underlying mental disorder;depression, bipolar , borderline personality and so on. I would like Dr. Mark and the great folks on this blog to read the recent article in National Geographic on addiction. They make a good case that it is in fact a disease. I don’t agree but it is always good to study other viewpoints.
    I sent this awhile ago but I guess it went somewhere else, so pardon me if it did go and I am technically challenge.
    Doug Anderson

  16. Ira Brent Gnesin September 18, 2017 at 5:37 am #

    Loved this article, mirrors my sentiments exactly. Hope this doesn’t offend some die hard 12 steppers out there, but at some stage its time to grow up and go out into the world and spread those wings. At the same time i do really see the value in the 12 steps fellowships for those in early recovery. The need to distance one’s self from the culture of addiction and move into a culture of recovery was so important to me. I had nothing but the addiction by the end of my using. I didnt know anyone in recovery and if i did, they didnt want to know me. I knew that if i walked back into my old life the hope i had was surely going to dwindle to nothing. So NA proved to be successful, it pulled me in really hard. I was a walking Blue book, oozing NA jargon everywhere i went(makes me nauseous thinking about it) i worked through the steps, trying my best to live by the principals they taught, but something was missing. I was still surrounded by addicts and dysfunction. I started to notice that i was getting less and less comfortable in the rooms and more and more comfortable in the “real world”. Dysfunction was really effecting me and i was getting abit sick and tired of telling people the same things over and over about the program.
    I wanted to walk away from the rooms, but was programmed to believe that i would relapse if i left, after all it was NA or die to so many others. Every old timer preached that even after 18 years of being clean the only reason they were still clean was because they kept coming back.
    Was it worth the risk to walk away from the rooms even it meant i might relapse for the 100th time, probably die along the way back. I was terrified but i made the choice to walk away regardless. I believed tentatively that i knew enough about myself and recovery to be able to run back screaming if it turned out the old timers were right.
    But i wanted more life and recovery than those rooms listening to people complain how hard life was and how much they wanted to use. I couldn’t relate to it anymore. Life was tough at times but i didnt buy into it that much and i didnt want to use anymore so i didnt crave or get worked up by it.
    It really felt like time to go out on my own and make some mistakes and learn some lessons. i had always been dependant on something, i wanted to break that last tie to dependence.

    It was to be a shaky start, the trapped thoughts of im going to relapse soon kept flowing through my mind, blocking me from actually giving it a full go. Weeks past and then months. The ever looming fear of relapse started to dissipate, i started doing more activities like surfing and hiking. I had a strong faith which i started to understand alot more now that i had left. I still to this day draw on that power to help me move forward. My wings are spread, i didnt relapse and i live a happy and successful life. I do occasionally walk back into the rooms for a meeting here and there, i realised through that whole process that the connection with addicts is important but i do get that need filled elsewhere as i work in the rehab industry.
    NA was the bridge to a normal life that i needed. Not the be all and end all that some old timers claim it be.

    Spread those wings if you feel the need, NA is not going anywhere.

  17. Eric Nada September 18, 2017 at 10:09 am #


    Great response. I, too, was all about my recovery in the very beginning. And I don’t think this is a negative, even if it’s embarrassing to think about in retrospect (it is for me, too). I couldn’t have a conversation with any person for more than two minutes, in my first year of recovering, without telling them that I used to be a homeless heroin addict and was currently in recovery. But this is natural, I had to bounce back hard, I had to let the pendulous nature of change swing me into an unbalanced relationship to recovery and the method of its acquisition. There is no way I could have gone from one myopic obsessional stance to emotional balance without first getting off of all drugs. To break the initial spell that addiction had on me, I needed an equally myopic obsessional stance upon which to stand to counteract that powerful hold that drugs had on me. And, again, I was only motivated by a sincere desire never to be deep in addiction ever again. And then there is the desire to find balance again, and this didn’t seem to be offered me at the level I sought while still ensconced within the womb of 12-step involvement. But leaving is a process and it takes some deprogramming. This isn’t because there is malicious mind-control happening in 12-step rooms, only that there is a natural programming that occurs, motivated by a positive desire to be guaranteed recovery. I think that this is why returning to destructive patterns is common, because it’s hard to break free from these programmed expectations. So glad that, like me, you made it safely across the bridge.

  18. J September 18, 2017 at 11:50 am #

    Hi Eric,

    Thank you so much for putting words to something that I have been thinking about since I began my recovery journey – a more nuanced view of 12 steps is much needed. I am particularly interested in the work you did around your relationship attachments. This sentence really spoke to me:

    “My romantic attachments formed very quickly and intensely and were eventually laced with feelings of desperation and neediness.”

    Do you have resources (books, podcasts, articles, etc.) you could point to for that specific matter?

    Thank you,


    • Eric Nada September 20, 2017 at 3:22 pm #


      I would be happy to give you the three book titles that helped me during that process. But first, a caveat. What was equally important to my making those changes was some internal readiness. It acted as the fulcrum against which the information I received from the books was able to wrench an emotional change of course. If I had read these books years earlier, I may have liked them, but it wouldn’t have resulted in personal change. That said, the most important book I read, and it remains one of my favorites, is A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon (all MDs). This is an amazing book about the attachment process, both describing the physics of the brain and the process, itself. The next two books are more of the self-help type, the first being No More Mr. Nice Guy by Robert Glover, the second, The way of the superior Man by David Deida. The last book is quite esoteric but was life-changing at the time I read it. I could see many not resonating with it, and I’m not sure how I feel about the author, but it greatly impacted me. I also like it because it discusses relationship using the concept of masculine vs. feminine energy, with can be applied to both hetero and homosexual unions. Again, these are the books that, added to an internal readiness, really did help me to chart a different course. Feel free to email me if you wold like to discuss this process further.

  19. Jon S September 18, 2017 at 3:38 pm #

    What a great post. Concise and well written.
    I don’t have much to add apart from agreeing what others have said above.
    Thank you for sharing it.
    Jon S
    “Leaving AA Staying Sober”

    • Eric Nada September 18, 2017 at 11:08 pm #


      I am familiar with your online presence and your story. When, a couple of years ago, I was scouring the web looking for validating stories and philosophies congruent to mine about leaving 12-step involvement, I often came across your contributions to the discussion. I deeply needed to hear from others who had similar personal disenchanments with the 12-step paradigm and successfully left it. Your non-inflammatory approach to the discussion has always been helpful to me. It isn’t that I don’t understand the more angry voices, I do, and sometimes have one, but it is important to temper the conversation so that discussions can be created. Thank you for unknowingly providing me with validation.

  20. carl September 19, 2017 at 1:51 pm #

    what a damn mess having an addiction can be for folks both in and getting out of it can be-Good God! I dont know what to make of all it sometimes when i read all these posts-and i love reading them all.

    I started with an issue with alcohol starting in my mid 20’s and struggled with it far into my 40’s. I never went to rehab or AA meetings. I stubbornly prided myself on being able to function. the options never seemed to good-I leaned on Stanton Peale as much as I could. He was helpful. I rationalized that having a dysfunctional childhood and being were reasons enough to keep drinking. I ve had a long and very dysfunctional love affair with alcohol thats for sure.

    I still do drink on occasion and i feel like I have to apologize for it because im an addiction specialist. there are so many people in recovery in the field and i feel like quite the anomaly because I am what I am. AA certainly sounds like its a mixed bag for folks. I was never a fan of it-but it might have been helpful.

    • Marc September 19, 2017 at 6:50 pm #

      Hi Carl. You’re not an anomaly….at least not in that sense. A majority of those classed with an alcohol use “disorder” — or just plain old “alcoholic” — not only quit but go back to occasional/controlled use….or what most of us call “social drinking.” Just letting people know that much, without being apologetic, is a real contribution. Can’t say the same thing about heroin, but alcohol is part of the culture and there are plenty of appropriate and non-harmful ways to use it. And that would be one of Stanton Peele’s primary arguments as well.

      Anyway, addiction and its treatment sure are a mess….on that we agree… See next post for an update.

      I also have a couple of drinks most nights…usually wine…and I sometimes get shit for it from orthodox anti-addiction folks…like the stricter adherents of AA. There are many who simply don’t know or refuse to acknowledge that controlled drinking is a cultural norm in the Western world.

      Funny expression, anti-addiction: it’s like anti-racism. How can you be “anti” something that just is? Rather, you can try your best to understand the phenomenon, like we do in the natural sciences, and to find ways to avoid the danger that reality often imposes. We don’t deny lightning or denigrate it. We put up lightning rods…or whatever the modern equivalent is.

    • Eric Nada September 20, 2017 at 11:51 am #


      Indeed, AA, is a mixed bag, I would have chosen differently in the beginning if I had access to other modalities. I love the comment about alcohol being a long dysfunctional love affair. That is what underlay my addiction problems, they were both literally and metaphorically a love affair. Literally because I loved them. Metaphorically because they acted as liquid or powder “love” used to temper feelings of disconnectedness created by my own childhood attachment deficits. It doesn’t work, of course, any more than any other form of external means of validation. It can only continue to improperly mimic connectedness. But at least you are conscious of it, which I never was. Keep up the fight, even if you are not on the “traditional” path, it sounds like you are on a path of your own. Abstinence is not always necessary as long as the work is done. Sometimes it can be helpful for a time if it is too distracting whilst doing the work. And as Marc points out, you really are not an anomaly.

      • Carl September 21, 2017 at 10:43 am #

        I have felt like an anomaly because I’ve been in the field for the pas t15 years and there have been so many counselors in recovery. And not that there’s anything wrong with that -but geez-one does feel like a freak after awhile when youve come off a weekend of having drank at a weddings or whatever and you have to run a group full of AA members. sometimes they were awful-the group would start off-and the groups would always have different folks in them-“Are you in recovery?” OMG and off on a tangent the group would go because i refused to say whether i was or not. And Nobody in the field knows or followed Peele. thats what I meant by anomaly. And god forgive me for bringing up statistics about natural recovery at training’s-people in the room would go crazy.

        • Eric Nada September 21, 2017 at 1:04 pm #


          I really can relate. I am a psychotherapist. I work in private practice and part of my practice is seeing individual clients from a nearby 12-step based out-patient treatment facility. I am not sure whether I would still be used as one of their clinicians if they knew that I was not traditionally abstinent. My “having 20 years sober” really looked good on a traditional addiction specialist resume. (I could be totally wrong about this, by the way). And personally, I often have to contend with awkward encounters with AA members. I was well known within that community and being socially gregarious and vocal, I know many people. Admittedly, the awkwardness is really my own stuff and as I become more used to the changes I have made, the less awkward these encounters are. But there is always that moment when I am addressed as part of the clan, I then inform them that I consciously left AA a couple of years ago, and the conversation halts. Not for any malicious or judgmental reasons, necessarily, but because I have tread into forbidden territory. Luckily, I learned a long time ago to be willing to live my life even if the way I do so is not part of the mainstream (I have always had alternative views and practices). Stay true to you and search for like minded folks, even if it’s only online.

          • Carl September 21, 2017 at 1:47 pm #


            I hope you don’t mind me saying that I got a chuckle out of your story? Hearing your story really was therapeutic for me-Thank you for sharing that. In addition, thank you for your words of encouragement. Ha. It’s been a really good couple weeks of recent posts- The discussions on here continue to so impact me in so many positive ways.

  21. Carl September 20, 2017 at 8:04 am #

    Thank you so much for starting this blog- it’s a brilliant creation. I really appreciate your feedback.

  22. Mark October 4, 2017 at 8:06 am #

    Here’s a description of how psychedelics may work and why they might be helpful in addressing addiction …

  23. Martha Anderson October 10, 2017 at 3:34 pm #

    This is so important. I have a loved one going through long-term recovery and there is always a point where you have to make your journey your own.

    • Eric Nada October 11, 2017 at 11:44 am #


      Thank you for the response. It can be difficult for a person who has found a routine that is working for them to make changes, even if they expect they may have outgrown aspects of it. Looking back, I stayed involved in 12-step recovery far longer than it was necessary for me, but did so out of a deep and sincere desire never to return to my old addictive routines. But it certainly wasn’t my intention to suggest that everyone should leave a particular approach after a while, or that choosing to remain involved with a certain philosophy is evidence that they aren’t continuing to grow and evolve, personally. Certainly it is possible to remain involved in a 12-step fellowship, longterm, for instance, while still maintaining one’s own individual integrity. But there does often come a point in a recovering person’s life where they may want to take honest stock of whether what they have always done is still truly a benefit or whether it is simply familiar and safe. It is a deeply personal and important decision to make. Again, thanks for the comment and the support.

  24. HouTex December 30, 2017 at 5:37 pm #

    Eric, I just read you post and found myself saying ‘yes!” out loud. I was having a conversation with my wife earlier today and said, in essence, the same thing – the 12 Steps provided me with stability, even rigidity at a time when I truly needed it … a time when my life really was unmanageable. It gave my brain goals to focus on while my brain started to rewire itself. The values it encompasses – honesty, self reflection, accountability and growth are values that I try to live my life by.

    Almost four years in recovery and the Steps leave me wanting more … the message I get is “Keep growing … but only in the context of the Steps” The veneer of subjective conservative morality sticks in my throat harder than the first day I went in. I attend a 12 Step group for recovering sex and porn addicts (so add another serving of judgement and morality on there) and I see the 12 Steps fail people all the time … but wait its not the Steps … that person had not hit bottom/was not working their program/ did an incomplete fifth step/was not turning their will over to God … supposedly the success rate for 12 Step groups is 5 to 10 per cent (if you trust Google) … in what other field would a program with such a low success rate be held up as the gold standard?

    Having said that I have made some lifelong friends and will probably always go to group – it has given me what I so desperately sought from my addiction that it could never deliver … human connection.

    I hope to see more discussion about the ‘process’ addictions – sex, shopping gambling. Does ‘natural’ recovery occur for those? Can a recovered gambler go back to an occasional bet here and there and not go off the deep end like a recovered alcoholic who now drinks socially.

    Finally I must admit – reading the posts and The Biology of Desire have given me more hope for my own recovery than 3.5 years of therapy and 12 Step group but I have to admit a sense of guilt – I can only imagine my therapist’s reaction if I told her the stuff I posted here. Maybe I should do a fourth step on it?

  25. Jeremy February 3, 2018 at 1:32 am #

    Thank you for writing such a thoughtful piece. I, too, have, for lack of a better term, “mixed” feelings regarding my experience with 12-step culture and am just now coming to terms with the good that that experience did me. My foray into the 12-step world was admittedly more brief than yours, but I feel similarly. I was first introduced to AA after a 2.5-year heroin habit (and several years of sporadic opiate use prior). The wheels fell off and I checked myself into a residential 28-day rehab facility in May 2017. Immediately I hit the ground running, and found a tremendous sense of excitement at a future where drugs didn’t control my life. I was all-in, and immediately upon leaving the facility, I moved into a “three-quarter” house for about four months, got an AA sponsor, worked the steps like a bat out of hell, and hit as many meetings as I could. I listened to the platitudes and the warnings of my sponsor, and believed that I had a “spiritual malady.” I bought it all wholesale.

    After that four months of abstinence, I relapsed and was thrown out of the sober house. I stayed with a girlfriend for a couple weeks and lamented my relapse to my sponsor on many a difficult night. I doubled down on my step work, assured by my sponsor that this is what would keep me sober, attended more meetings, and moved into another sober house. After a month of this, I relapsed yet again and was kicked out. I was beyond discouraged and feeling emotionally catatonic. This external force was supposed to keep me sober, keep my mind clear, and give me more motivation to continue the path of abstinent recovery, but it wasn’t working. I was assured by the sober house owner that if I went back to a treatment facility for another 28-day stay, he would save a bed for me. I was resistant to this, as I didn’t feel I needed inpatient care (I wasn’t in need of detox either,) and was scolded by the incredulous house manager that I would turn down this alleged much-needed help.

    Reluctantly, I went back to treatment. I rarely spoke to anyone for about a week, which was in stark contrast to my first visit, in which I had been enthusiastic, outgoing, and full of life. This time around, I felt used-up, let down by my earnest attempts in the 12-step world, and dead to the world. While in there, though, I gradually opened up a little more and vocalized my misgivings about the 12-step approach. I was more and more interested in SMART Recovery and didn’t hesitate to share my evolving views with others. Due to this, another client recommended I check out Marc’s book, “Biology of Desire”. I was very interested in this, but was still in a very foggy state of mind when I left, so I didn’t examine it as I had wanted to.

    I left treatment on schedule and overdosed within a week – I had been unconscious for 7+ hours and had to be revived with narcan. I spent the next four days in the hospital with pneumonia, reduced kidney function and nerve damage to my hand and right side. With nowhere to live and a sense of fear over what I might do next because of my “disease,” I went to another treatment facility. This facility was INTENSELY 12-step-facilitated, and by this point I had a laundry list of resentments toward AA/NA. My counselor was very patient in working with me on these resentments, and eventually understood that I simply did not feel that the program was a good fit anymore for me. Fortunately for the both of us, she let go of her part of the job where she had to be a 12-step cheerleader, and we reached mutual ground. I was able to admit to myself and to others that my recovery path was to be my own path, and that I did not have to let someone else dictate my life (such as a sponsor, counselor, etc.) She helped me begin to find peace in taking ownership of my life, despite our fundamental disagreements on AA/NA.

    After that treatment experience, I had no choice but to reside in yet another 12-based sober house. It was a nice enough place, and I knew several people in the house from my recovery journey. However, I was only attending meetings to fulfill my four-meetings-per-week minimum. I took my time in finding a new sponsor, and only chose him because I was being eyed by the house managers. They knew I wasn’t buying into the 12-step philosophy anymore, and I made no secret of it. I was openly working on SMART Recovery worksheets (MI, CBA, and REBT tools) and shared my interest in SMART with others in the house, much to the annoyance of the house managers, who urine-screened me twice because they thought something was “off.” I completed an outpatient program from the previous treatment facility and trailed off a little further from the 24/7 recovery community lifestyle. Eventually I didn’t hit my required meetings for a couple weeks and they kicked me out in the middle of the night.

    I’ve been staying with my girlfriend for the past month and I have been to exactly one meeting since. If anything, I feel better than I had been feeling when I had been attending meetings religiously. I’m taking steps to rebuild my professional career, picking up income again, and I’m regaining a sense of control over my life. I don’t feel nearly the urges to use as I did when I lived in recovery houses. I’m not surrounding myself with people who are actively engaging in ego fatigue by suppressing the wants to use, which, in turn, made me obsess even more about using. It’s just not a component of my life right now. Of course, the thoughts appear from time to time, but I have other things to focus my attention and habits on now. I don’t want the constant “drug talk” in my life. When I am feeling “off”, I talk to someone. My girlfriend, a couple close-ish friends I made in the fellowships, and then go about my day. The threat just doesn’t seem to be looming over my head like I had let the program convince me in the past.

    Sorry for the lengthy word vomit, but I am finishing up. I promise! Another crucial part I can relate with you is that my decision to disengage from that world was the right thing for me to do at the time I did it. I still deal with some of the rigid, black and white thinking that AA and NA conditioned me to believe, but that’s to be expected for a while. Deprogramming is a process, much like addiction itself, and it will continue to take time and effort. Just wanted to share my experience. Perhaps I’ll submit a memoir to Marc at some point.

    Thanks again for that post. It really resonated with me.

    • Carlton February 4, 2018 at 12:08 pm #

      Not too lengthy, quite clear and informative.

      And if this offers something to look forward to;

      A life-changing realization that allowed me to trust myself occurred during the later part of my own recovery process.

      It was the sudden realization that I could be anywhere, at any time, and not relapse unless
      I…me… and only me, …actively initiated… and continued something.

      This realization upended the decades-long thought, belief, and feeling of being a vulnerable ”victim” of something. It changed the very notion of “falling”, “slipping”, etc.

      There can be a giddy sense of freedom when this realization occurs , and it can be seen as people recover in recovery programs. It seems to be the turning point, and a large percentage of people that eventually leave recovery environments may agree with this.


  26. Tom February 17, 2020 at 11:27 pm #

    AA feels it needs to remain sick. Healing is not on the menu.

    Healing is the experience of infinity.

    Their belief system of a disease is but a threshold experience, an initiation, but taken as literal, and for a lifetime. This is the ignorance of closed systems, a refusal of the living poetry of life. See also Evangelicals.

    A rigid fundamentalism has never healed a broken imagination.

    • Marc February 19, 2020 at 4:51 am #

      Your description is beautifully evocative. But keep in mind that it refers only to a certain subset of groups or mindsets within AA. I’ve become aware of such huge diversity, I wouldn’t want to claim that “AA is” any one thing.

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