It’s Too Bad 12-Step Isn’t for Everyone

This story originally ran on

I recently read a piece by Tracy Chabala, probably my favorite writer (besides myself, of course) on AfterParty Magazine, about staying sober without AA and I feel compelled to retort. Not because I disagree, per se, but because I feel it’s important to hear a voice from the other side — from an alcoholic who left 12-step for several years and then came back.

First, I need to point out that in 12-step programs, the 11th tradition states that “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and film.” As far as I am concerned, talking openly about being sober doesn’t break that tradition but talking openly about being a member of a specific 12-step group does. Although I feel strongly about not being personally anonymous, I have immense respect for 12-step programs and fully understand why keeping with the traditions is vital. I have broken this tradition before and I am not proud of it but it was a choice I made. That being said, I am going to do my best to tread lightly here. Nothing I say is a reflection of any 12-step group. These thoughts, ideas and opinions are all my own.

I have been sober since November 15, 2003 and have gone through many ups and downs in my nearly 12 years. As anyone who is sober in 12-step will tell you, there are countless brands of people within the rooms. There are Big Book thumpers who believe that anything that isn’t written in the book simply isn’t true. There are people who worship the steps and do them exactly how they are in the Big Book or a workbook or their sponsor took them through them. There are people who are super active in meetings and do other service work but never work the steps or worked them once, 25 years ago. There are people who don’t have sponsors but go to a lot of meetings and fellowship. Hell, there are people who aren’t even sober who are at meetings, sometimes holding commitments and working with newcomers. How can this be? Because the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop doing whatever destructive behavior you are there for. You don’t even have to have stopped doing it.

Because of all these personalities, behavioral patterns and levels of recovery in the rooms, the traditions remind us to “place principles before personalities.” What does that mean? That you hear a lot of “mumbo jumbo” in 12-step rooms that is mostly personal opinion (much like this essay) and that if you don’t like the cut of someone’s jib, move the f*ck on. The principles of 12-step are honesty with yourself; hope for the future; faith in something bigger than you; courage to take action; having integrity, willingness and humility; showing love, discipline and perseverance; becoming aware and giving back. Forget the person who shamed you for drinking Kombucha, all you need to worry about is getting yourself in line with these principles and you will be fine.

Can you stay sober without them? I’m sure you can. I was sober for three years without any meetings or step work or keeping in line with principles. And I was fine for a while — until I wasn’t. And I don’t think it was because I wasn’t going to meetings or working a program; I think it was because I am an alcoholic who is riddled with fear, insecurity, hostility, resentments and more fear and if I don’t seek help or a solution for those issues, I am going to get so uncomfortable that I’m going to want to drink again. Because drinking takes that stuff away, even for just a few hours. And if it doesn’t, I will keep trying until…who knows.

Let’s not forget that 12-steppers are just a group of once (if not presently) horrifically damaged people who are trying to stay alive. Most of us are just spouting what we have learned and what has worked for us, hoping to pass on our epiphanies about sobriety that we wish someone could have told us earlier (usually a futile effort). When people get all bossy with me, I try and forgive them and take their antics with a grain of salt. Most of them don’t have degrees in communication; they are just recovering alcoholics and addicts riddled with character defects that want to spare me some pain. It doesn’t mean I have to listen to them, in fact, I usually don’t.

If there is one thing that 11 years and 10 months has taught me, it’s that people who tell me that if I don’t get to a meeting on time I am going to relapse or that if I don’t do the steps I will die are not my people. I am fortunate enough to live in a city with thousands of 12-step meeting a week, so if I don’t like what I am hearing or how I am being treated in one meeting, I go to a different one. I know not all of us have that option.

But it’s important to note that from what I have seen in myself and others with this disease, self-will and indignation aren’t good qualities. They are excellent for some — usually those who are not driven by a self-destructive disease. If you are the kind of person who is repulsed by blind obedience, 12-step is probably not for you. Since the recovery in 12-step is not scientific, trusting that what your sponsor is telling you to do will ultimately help you not only stay sober but become more recovered is required. People who were taught to question everything will have a hard time in 12-step. It doesn’t mean it can’t work for them, it just means that it will be a little more challenging — the same way having faith in something bigger than you can be hard for atheists or people who grew up under the rule of what they felt was a hateful God.

So it’s true, 12-step programs are not for everybody. And as far as I am concerned, that is a shame. Only because I reaped so many countless benefits from working the 12 steps and I am so eternally grateful for that. It wasn’t easy and it’s taken a long time but it’s continued to work. I guess I am luckier than I thought to have found a path that works. I don’t like going to meetings, I don’t like the people in 12-step meetings, I don’t like calling my sponsor and I hate doing step work — I just do it anyway because I have been fortunate enough to see the results. It’s not blind trust for me anymore; it’s full-on belief due only to the results I have seen for myself.

I would never tell a sponsee that she has to call me a certain number of times, attend a specific number of meetings or has to work the steps. I would just say that I have gone to regular meetings and I have not gone to regular meetings (or any at all); I have been in regular contact with my sponsor and I have not called her for nine months; I have done step work and I have not. And my experience is that my life is exponentially happier and easier when I am in action in my program than when I am not. But that is just me.

Photo courtesy of AndyMarx