When 12-Step Doesn’t Work…from The Fix…
By Emily J. Sullivan
In the 12-step program, if you’re not getting better it’s because you can’t or won’t adhere to the simple program, and it is definitely your fault.
Side view of woman sitting with folded hands against face.
I was convinced I was incurable because of my abject failings with AA and NA.
“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves.” -The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous
I could write rehab reviews like a New York City socialite could write restaurant reviews, detailed with an extensive variety of experience and a favorite for every season. I was close with all of the staff at one, asked to leave for causing trouble at another, and I visited my preferred choice on two separate occasions, making myself at home and staying a while each time. Although many of the rehabs I took residency with differed greatly, they all seemed to share a fundamental staple regarding treatment: 12-step meetings were the way, and anything else was the highway.
Early in recovery, the meetings were my favorite part of the day. Once discharged from inpatient treatment, I’d hop in my dented up silver Honda and travel 50 plus miles to attend meetings with my former rehab mates. It gave me something to look forward to and was a great way to maintain the mere semblance of a social life, my previous social life having been obliterated. I loved hearing the speakers tell their heart-wrenching and inspirational stories of overcoming immense adversity and eventually finding their way. I loved thinking to myself, “Wow, you’d never guess they were once an addict,” and hoping one day someone would look at me and think the same. I loved the strong coffee, stale cookies, and smoke breaks; it was like a cozy blanket and comfort food to me. I loved 12-step meetings, but the longer I stayed, the more the love began to feel unrequited.
As time passed, I enviously witnessed my peers collecting their milestone chips. I stoically sang happy birthday to people celebrating one, two, five, sometimes 20 years of sobriety. “Keep coming back, it works if you work it!” I’d smile and clap and secretly resign myself to what appeared to be my only two options: keep relapsing and likely die or go to meetings for the next 20 years. Either way, I’d never be escaping my identity as an addict. It never sat well with me that after 20 years of abstinence from mind-altering substances, people in the program would still be in meetings identifying as addicts.
Time and time again, I’d hear a person share with the group how one desperate, dreary day, they’d dropped to their knees and begged God to remove from them the burden of addiction, and the next day they’d woken up and poof! It worked. After a person hears that so many times, they’re bound to try it themselves. I must have tried it as many times as I heard that same testimony. “Stay until the miracle happens,” they’d say. I stayed. I waited for the miracle. I’d wake up desperate for deliverance, only to find defeat. Why was God removing their burden but leaving me with mine? I was deeply genuine, crying, begging even—so naturally, I grew cynical. The more I thought about it, the more I started to realize that everything I was seeing work so well for my peers, was not at all working for me.
Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, while technically two distinct programs, share the same philosophy and principles. There is no strict delineation between the groups and you’ll often meet people with a breadth of narcotic experience in AA and people who struggle with alcohol use in NA. The steps are the same for both and somewhere within those steps is where all the magic happens. Before you can attempt the steps, you have to find a sponsor who will show you the way. A sponsor is another person in recovery, typically with an arbitrary minimum number of sober months or years that seems to vary depending on who you ask (but with more time than you). Ideally, they are a mentor, a trusted confidante who will talk you off the wagon’s edge. They’re someone you tell your deepest darkest secrets to. Literally, your fourth step requires you to write a list of your life’s mistakes, from minor faux pas to your most egregious offenses, and then spill all the dirt to your sponsor. This was the first of many roadblocks I ran into within the program.
I seemed to burn through sponsors like an Uber driver does a tank of gas. My first sponsor and I were unknowingly involved in a 12-step love triangle. Program romances were rampant and newcomers were fresh meat. This is not uncommon and is jokingly referred to as the 13th step. I had a few short-lived sponsors before I found “the one.” She was my perfect match, and then . . . I moved 700 miles away. Although I pleaded with her to continue sponsoring me via Skype, she said it would be best for me to have a sponsor close by. My next sponsor was someone I felt instantly drawn to and grew very close to. After working through the first three steps, I recorded all of my transgressions, ready for the big reveal. Then casually during an AA group dinner, a mutual friend referenced some seriously confidential information I had shared with only my sponsor, making it apparent our confidentiality agreement had been breached. Although we remained close friends, the trust was damaged beyond repair and my fourth step progress came to a halt.
The good thing about the 12-step program is that other addicts guide you through your recovery. The bad thing about the 12-step program is that other addicts guide you through your recovery. The first time someone struggling with addiction or alcoholism reads The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, the similarities are so striking, it’s as though you’re reading your own diary at times. People who have experienced addiction share the same symptoms, underlying causes, triggers, and lifestyle and The Big Book articulates that in a way that transcends time, age, and gender. There is, however, a glaring difference between someone early in recovery and a seasoned 12-stepper with several years under their belt. This difference was problematic for me.
Newcomers, or people early in recovery, are generally vulnerable and shaky. It is not uncommon for a newcomer to relapse once or even multiple times. One of the main draws of AA and NA is that the program offers a “sober network,” a community of like-minded individuals who have gone through the same thing and can, therefore, teach the newcomers how to treat their disease. The sober network that the 12-step program provides, however, is not purely sober. One of the first things you’ll hear going into recovery is that you have to cut ties with your using buddies. I agree with that 100 percent; But in AA and NA, you are actively hanging around people who are barely clean, habitually relapsing, or even just there for the court-mandated requirements and not clean at all. For some people in the program, that’s not an issue. For me, however, it was like these people were a walking billboard: “Potential Using Buddy,” with loud sirens and flashing lights, a temptation I could not seem to ignore despite two years of actively trying. My addict brain was drawn toward other vulnerable people in the meeting. One of the most important developments in my recovery was acknowledging and owning up to my tendency to take advantage of those situations. When I finally put my foot down and said I cannot recover in the company of fellow addicts, I closed one door and opened a new door to a realistic opportunity for recovery.
During my two-year and some change trial of the 12-step program, I earned hundreds of chips. You’d think that’s a good thing, but it’s not. In your first 30 days, you get a chip each day and then a 30, 60, 90-day, 6-month, and 9-month chip after that, and from then on, they’re earned yearly. In AA and NA, if you’ve acquired a set number of sobriety days and then you relapse, you are required to stand up, announce that you are newly sober again, and take a newcomer chip every day for your first 30 days back—recounting your sober days from scratch. If you keep relapsing before you hit 30 days, that’s an unending requirement of standing up and identifying as a newcomer. I remember a specific exchange with a program friend that in recollection feels poignant. I was sharing that I hated counting days and my friend said, “Why? It’s an accomplishment.” I replied, “Maybe for you. For me, it’s repeated humiliation and shame.” And it was. I was in the program as a newcomer for so long, I’d still take a newcomer chip the same day that a peer I came into the program with would receive their one-year chip.
After two years of stumbling through the program, I started seeing an addiction therapist. I disclosed my ill-will toward counting days and she responded by simply suggesting that I stop. That’s not allowed, I told her, the rules are strict. She said if I hated counting days, just stop. I was filled with a huge sense of relief.
Convinced I was incurable because of my abject failings with AA and NA, I began seeing my addiction therapist twice weekly. It was there in therapy that I was able to free myself of some of the constraints the program had placed on my treatment path and explore more fitting options. My therapist told me I didn’t need a sponsor, I didn’t have to count days, I didn’t have to recover in the company of other addicts, and it was okay for me to try medication-assisted treatment. In the 12-step program, if you’re not getting better it’s because you can’t or won’t adhere to the simple program, and it is definitely your fault, so this therapist was either a hippie or an angel. Whatever she was, I had hope for the first time.
During my time in the program, I met hundreds of people who have successfully recovered. The program can work and I would never suggest otherwise. While it has given life back to tens of thousands of people all over the world for almost a century, it has also left others baffled, frustrated, and defeated. There is no one-size-fits-all treatment for addiction and I think suggesting there is is the number one defect of the 12-step program. The program didn’t work for me and that does not make me flawed or a failure. It doesn’t work for many people, and that doesn’t make them incapable of being honest or unwilling to invest in their own recovery. And for those of us who don’t find our solution in the 12 steps, there is a multitude of other options.
Marriage and Family Therapist Rebecca Deighan stresses the importance of building a network of support, and while that network may be AA or NA, it doesn’t have to be. It’s more about having a network of people who are supportive and caring, a sense of community. When asked about the 12-step program not working for everyone, Deighan said, “Everybody has a right to self-determination.”
Learning to trust your own instincts and know what is or isn’t working for you is no easy feat for people battling addiction. Having a therapist who encouraged me to trust my own opinions regarding my treatment was incredibly valuable. I can thank almost two years of therapy and medication-assisted treatment for my success in recovery. There are many options when it comes to recovery: church, yoga and meditation, therapy, exercise, medication-assisted treatment, using self-help books and apps, support groups (12-step, SMART, Women for Sobriety, LifeRing, and others) and more. I recommend trying one or a combination of any of the above.
“Hello, I’m Emily and I’m an addict,” are words that will likely never leave my lips again. I don’t identify as an addict now and I won’t in 20 years. I chose a recovery path that has left my life as an addict completely in the rear-view mirror, and for me, that’s right where it belongs.