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12 Things You Didn't Know About 12-Step Groups

by Byron Hamel about a year ago in recovery
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Pros & Cons

12 Things You Didn't Know About 12-Step Groups
Photo by Jason Hogan on Unsplash

Twelve-step recovery groups such as AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and NA (Narcotics Anonymous) are programs which attempt to help people who have problems controlling and balancing certain activities in their lives.

There are a whole bunch of twelve-step groups. Groups for eating too much, for having too much sex, for gambling too much, working too much (or too little), for anger management and emotional stability after childhood trauma. The two I'm most familiar with are AA for drinking too much alcohol, and NA for using too many drugs.

I'm going to voice some rather negative opinions about these groups, so first I want to point out how good they can potentially be, and how they can still be useful for people who need help balancing their lives.


1. Admitting you have a problem is a huge step in solving the problem, and these groups regularly encourage you to admit you have a problem. You probably won't be surprised, but a lot of people would rather die than admit they have a problem. And they do die. Just this alone can mean the difference between life and death for you or a loved one.

2. Despite being imperfect, they can work for you. And if you work daily toward the goal of ridding yourself of substance abuse, you absolutely can do it.

3. Some specific groups have a positive and friendly atmosphere, which is conducive to finding a new community apart from the community of people who keep you abusing substances. If you're at all social, you'll need to find friends who don't abuse substances in order to thrive as a person who does not abuse substances yourself. And it is highly likely that you will lose many people you call friends when you quit using substances at all. They will make a lot of assumptions about your decision, and you will feel extremely lonely and empty without community. This loneliness and emptiness often being the root of substance abuse, not having a new community can make it fairly impossible for some to move forward in a new direction.

4. Sponsors. People work individually with others in these groups to sort of mentor them in new ways of living. These people can be called upon in times of extreme danger to help ground a person going through severe withdrawal or emotional distress.

5. You tell your story. If you don't have anybody to talk to who would understand what got your imbalance going in the first place, there is a room full of people in these groups who are mandated to shut up and listen while you are talking. Sometimes you need that kind of sounding board in order to work out what went wrong in your life and how to fix it. Sometimes you might even get useful advice or wise counsel from a veteran sober person.

6. It really can help you kick the habit initially. In fact, despite the negativity you'll find in the CONS section, I do still recommend these groups to people who are trying to kick bad habits. But I recommend it under the condition that it too will need to be kicked eventually.


1. One of the steps is admitting that you require a higher power in order to control your own life. You are encouraged by many to awaken to religion. This religion will generally lean toward Christianity, but this will differ depending on where you are. I did once attend a "retreat" where the guest of note was a Catholic priest, who was literally doing confessionals at the event. I did not participate. Not only because that is not my faith, but also because I am adamantly opposed to letting God do my living for me.

Were I to believe in an interventionist God, I suppose I would just attempt to pray my problems away. But it is precisely because I do not believe, that I am able to constantly keep sight of the fact that I need to manage my own life, actively and consistently, without expecting outside help. I believe this is the main and primary reason why I am still clean and sober after 27 years. Comparatively, people in those groups keep relapsing again and again and again.

The group is not open and honest about its position on religious leanings, and I think this can turn away a lot of people like me, who have a more complicated relationship with religion, or for whom religious abuses are the foundational reason they are escaping from life through substance abuse.

On top of this, there is a shared prayer enforced at the beginning of every meeting. If one believes in prayer, this can be comforting. But if it is insincere, which prayer always has been for me as a person who believes instead in personal responsibility, it just feels like engaging in deception. We're all there to avoid things like deception, you know?

2. Continuous dependence. They have a saying in twelve-step groups which is "keep coming back", meaning keep coming back, always and forever, to these meetings. While in the beginning of one's journey toward sobriety, this is essential and undeniably good advice, if you've been at it for a few years, there comes a time when you need to free yourself from your dependence on that group.

One of the reasons these groups initially work is that they transfer a lot of your dependence on substance to dependence on the group itself. But that's a bandage solution. It doesn't solve the actual problem, which is essentially the trait of dependence on something which is not your own positive and consistent endeavor.

Yes, dependence on these groups is far far better than dependence on the negative life behavior you are used to. And yes that is a great thing at first. But as you grow, you will eventually need to be able to remove yourself from dependence and function on your own. You will need to think for yourself, speak for yourself, act for yourself, and abstain for yourself. This is the key to personal freedom from substance abuse. That's not to say you won't always need others. It's to say that when you're cured, you're cured.

3. These groups teach that there is no cure for your addiction. They tell you that you can never leave the group, even for a break, because if you do you will, definitely and without exception, relapse into the negative patterns of your former life. I say give it three years. If it isn't taking, you may need better treatment, or it may just be the group itself that is making you relapse.

Your relapse could be brought on by the over-sharing in the groups, which can itself be traumatizing and triggering for people who have been through extreme abuse, grief, and loss. Not everybody is built to listen to people's shit all the time. Yes it is helpful to be heard. No it is not always helpful to hear. Take it from a guy with C-PTSD. If you need a break from the group, take a break from the group.

4. Some particular groups can be extremely negative, and expose you to abuse, whether it's from a violent or predatory member with a lot of years in, bigoted racists, sexists, or a sexual predator who is just touring, or the drug dealers who hang around these meetings just to get new clients. Yes, that's a thing. The point is, it's not screened. You could be anyone, and be exposed to anyone. Using a fake name is normal and expected. Being cagey and creepy is normal and expected. That's part of why it works, but also part of why it can be dangerous. Some groups will naturally be safer than others.

5. Unchecked emotions. People in these groups, whether for a long time or brand new, can be emotionally volatile and abusive with language toward other members. Sometimes this gets physical too. I once witnessed a member physically attack the chairperson of the meeting simply because he didn't get a turn to speak, and felt the chair was ignoring him on purpose (one presumes).

We all just kinda waited for them to stop fighting. I would have felt kinda bad for the chairperson, only that he was the type of person who invited that type of interaction as well. Neither of these people were interested in actually growing as people. It seemed they were there to start shit with the first person who looked at them funny. That was pretty much the night I realized these groups are not for me as a person desiring balance and peace and kindness, and a break from my previously violent life and upbringing. I didn't want to be around people who are unwilling to work on themselves and like to engage in open hostility and fist fights in public spaces. It was supposed to be recovery, not Bum Fights.

6. Sponsors aren't vetted well, and can absolutely lead you into other dangerous and ugly life patterns. Trust is encouraged, and shouldn't be.


I could go on and on, but I won't.

Look, being addicted to something is a tough gig. And it may not even be your fault that you're in this mess, but here you are. It's your responsibility. And if you find yourself in any position to be the champion of your own life, try SOMETHING. Try everything. Don't just give in.

Whether your experiences with these groups are positive or negative, just remember that not everything is for everybody, and also that these groups, as harmful to your growth as they can be, can still be the answer for you, at least initially.

My intent here is not to drive you away from them, but to help you understand the challenges you may face on your journey toward healing.

If this one doesn't work for you, don't keep coming back. Keep searching. The right thing may be just around the corner.


About the author

Byron Hamel

Academy Nicholl Fellow. Screenwriter. Weirdo.

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