In Defense of 12-Step Programs

By Helaina Hovitz for TheFix

Relying less on others, dramatically cutting back on meetings and calls to my sponsor, and actually trusting my own thinking and decisions is a sign that the program really does work.

A group of people in a circle holding hands

It feels like our world is increasingly being pushed to take a position on one side or another, pigeon-holing us into a realm of black and white thinking that, in recovery, only causes us even more pain.

“The gray” is actually a great place to live, and it’s quite relaxing if you can manage to make yourself at home; but it’s a bitch to try and settle into.

While taking on the important work of researching new approaches to treatment for alcohol and drug addiction, some reporters and scientists have, in the process, attempted to strengthen their own argument by tossing 12-step programs like AA under the bus, referring to them as dated and irrational.

I got sober in AA when I was 22 and haven’t had a drink or puffed a joint since (or lit up a cigarette, if you can believe it). That’s five and a half years so far. I was a social binge drinker, a frequent “toker,” and a high functioning reporter/college student/publishing intern. I had never been to rehab, but I did try to stop on my own until I realized that wasn’t my only option. To this day I think the only reason I ultimately even thought of AA was because I read it in Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story six months before I hit my “high bottom” and remembered underlining it in my copy.

Some people might disagree with me when I say that relying less on others, dramatically cutting back on meetings and calls to my sponsor, and actually trusting my own thinking and decisions is a sign that the program really does work. Whether or not you agree with me is none of my business.

What I can tell you is that I think one of the reasons I was so prepared to tackle the steps was because I had a few years of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (for a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder diagnosis) under my belt, and the steps felt like the next grade level up. More learning, practicing, and finally, consistently doing things differently after a real effort to learn new ways of thinking, doing, behaving, and perceiving, literally changing the way our minds work.

Also, times are changing. We can speak to other sober people through Skype or Facebook or texts whenever we need to. We can dial into phone meetings or attend virtual ones. We live in a world where social support is available in many different forms, not just meeting rooms. What we need changes as we grow, which is why nobody stays in Kindergarten forever.

As a journalist, I have stayed on top of and researched new forms of methodology and alternative forms of treatment. Maybe I’m biased, but I think the 12-step model still holds up, despite articles featuring interviews with people who will say that the “program doesn’t work.” Newsflash: a program isn’t a thing that works or doesn’t. It’s there for you to work. There is psychology in those 12 steps, and the model has been replicated in tons of recovery programs that we call “alternative.” Where people start to get persnickety is around God, the concept of powerlessness, and having faith.

First of all, “faith” simply means you’re willing to trust something greater than yourself, willing to consider other points of view and willing to come to terms with the fact that the world doesn’t revolve around you. Anyone who pushes a specific idea of God on you is marching to their own tune, and one that is a real ear-sore to listen to at that.

Second of all, regarding the notion of God, one of the first things they tell you, especially when you’re a newcomer and believe God has left the building, is that you can be an atheist for all they care—you just have to believe in something that’s not you. You, who kind of made a mess of things. When I came in, I said, “My higher power is just the concept that everything happens for a reason.”

I also don’t believe that something is “dated” just because it’s been around for 80 years. I remember reading Living Sober and thinking, “Holy crap, how do they know? They’re in my head!” If anything, I was amazed that it was so spot-on. So make fun of all of the Big Book references to John Barleycorn and get pissed at the references to gender roles of women at the time, but outside of that, if you want data to prove efficacy: there are over two million active members in 181 countries, and nearly 118,000 groups that meet regularly.

Take that and leave the rest, if you need to.

My experience has not been sunshine and butterflies all the way through, by the way.

In my first six months, I was dumped by two sponsors who had an issue with my taking medications, and I was left doing steps 1-4 twice, holding onto my 4th step in desperation, trying to find some random woman to go over it with me.

I’ve heard horrendous stories of sponsors who talk down to grown women who have years under their belt and who try to act as their doctors or their keepers.

I’ve been in meetings that end with “Our Father” and got really pissed, and I strongly disagree with those who say we are permanently sick and can never trust our thinking.

As my current sponsor says—and she’s one of these women in the New York Circuit that everyone knows and respects—as women in recovery, we learn to rely on ourselves and become people who are capable of trusting their own thinking again because we’ve grown and changed, and learned to do that.

Just like any other community on earth—your local government, your workplace, your book club, your yoga class, your MeetUp Group—you’re going to encounter personalities you don’t like and people who are overbearing and difficult to deal with.

But when we’re talking about changing and saving lives, it’s important not to toss any one approach under the bus. Explore alternatives, do what works for you, and keep in mind that just like one medication may help someone’s depression and do nothing for the other’s, different people respond to different treatment. Ultimately, there is enough room for all of us to exist here without putting one another down.

So please play nice.

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