My Statement On the 12 Step Issue


As a “recovering person” (and other things), I found the 12-Step program a boon to my early recovery, and I’ve certainly met and heard of many others who feel similarly. But I’ve also read and heard of others who feel strongly that it’s a bust and doesn’t really help anyone. I don’t butt heads with anyone on a rant (pick your battles), but I also don’t want anyone who’s trying to escape their addiction to be turned away from a resource of possible aid to them.

Sometimes, the criticism of 12 Step comes from someone (I just saw such a post, for instance) who complained that it was a religious (Christian) program and they didn’t want to be proselytized when they weren’t feeling it. I certainly agree that no one should be dragooned into a religious movement when that wasn’t their goal or interest. Not all 12 Step meetings are identical, and sometimes they do get all Christian about things when the socio-cultural milieu where the meeting is being held is in a devoutly Christian area. But in the NA meetings I went to, one of the readings at the beginning of every meeting said, “This is a spiritual, not religious, program,” both in deference to historical roots and to make it as open as possible to every addict, whatever their cultural and religious background. Once, when I was doing service at the Area level, I was dispatched to sit in on an NA meeting that had been alleged to be “going Christian” and report my findings back to Area. This meeting had certainly “gone Christian”: they had a Bible on the table in front of the chairperson and some of the sharing had the flavor of a Revival meeting. When I reported this to Area, there was unanimous agreement that this was unacceptable to NA standards for the reasons I mentioned. Area didn’t have any right to tell these people they couldn’t hold their meeting as they wanted to; but if they didn’t return to a non-denominational meeting, they wouldn’t be advertised as an NA meeting in our area and Area would issue a brief statement in the monthly newsletter announcing the issue, so everyone would know the meeting’s overtly Christian character – not denouncing Christianity, you understand, but pointing out that this was against nationwide NA policy.

However, a more common complaint I’ve heard about the 12 Step program relates to its oft-stated position regarding “powerlessness.” This is an important topic and, as someone with positive regard for 12 Step, I want to share my thoughts on the subject which are distilled from 20 years of clean time, during which I’ve “worked my program” of self-examination, study, contemplation, and review – in Jungian terms, individuation coupled with spiritual quest – pretty consistently (though I’m not claiming perfection, nor saying that “because I have this clean time, I must be right”).

NA meetings were a great boon to my early recovery. I did the routine by the book, so to speak (heh heh): a meeting a day, meeting after the meeting, hanging with recovering folks, and lots of service. But after a couple of years, when I’d finally gotten my feet under me, I began to realize the difference between the Steps – which are archetypal and perfect, capable of being interpreted as necessary according to one’s current stage of healing and development – and the Fellowship. It is also a great thing, since it gives isolated, alienated addicts that don’t trust anyone a place to feel like they’re part of a social group which, because it’s composed of others like them, encourages them to begin opening up and sharing themselves with others. These are crucial steps for recovering people, because otherwise we remain in the hiding, covering up, lying, and manipulative frame of mind that characterized our using period. However, this society is made up of screwed-up addicts, for God’s sake, so we need to dig that the “people” part of the 12 Step community is a human venture and thus, by definition, less than perfect.

For instance, after a while I began to feel that continuing to announce myself as an addict every day for years might increase my chance of relapse. So, as a mark of how much better I felt about myself, I began to introduce myself as “Adrian, human being in process,” regardless of any flack I got from others. In fact, I didn’t get too much, because I’d made myself an integral part of my home group, so I suppose my odd introduction was accepted as just another addict oddity. But the act of declaring myself as I felt myself to be, instead of following convention without thinking for – or being responsible for – myself, was one of my first acts of self-respect – and thus, a huge step forward. A dreadful self-image is one of the core elements of junk addiction, and a major feature that keeps us beating ourselves up and trying to run away from ourselves by getting comfortably numb.

The whole “powerless” thing perplexed me for years. I sensed that it was true in some ways; yet it also seemed to condemn me to being an addict for the rest of my life, which is the traditionalist position of AA when it was formed in the 1930s.  Finally, I resolved the issue (for myself) by realizing the we are both powerless and powerful: powerless to control people and situations around us, as we tried to do while using in order to survive and get what we needed; but powerful, too, in that, so long as breath remains in the body, we have the power to change: to heal, grow, and evolve into a better person than we were before we began to use, what to speak of better than our addicted self.

There is a revolution in paradigm going on, brothers and sisters: the old algorithm is “either/or”, but the new one is “both/and”: inclusive, not exclusive; cooperative, not competitive.  Fundamentalism sucks wherever it rears its ugly head, which includes in 12 Step meetings.

Still, the newcomer is so fragile and afraid that at first they may need to feel securely a part of an in-group by clinging to “the old tried-and-true ways are the right and only way” because they’re not ready to develop their own program.  We want them to keep coming back long enough to heal and get to the point where they can take responsibility for, and charge of, their own life as independent human beings.  That doesn’t happen automatically; and yes, there are many who never get there and stay in the traditionalist fold; but it can and does happen.  The Fellowship is a safe haven and an incubator of possibility.  If some fall short or misuse it, we shouldn’t condemn the entire process.  That, too, would be fundamentalism, an “all-or-nothing” position that doesn’t jive with the ebb and flow of life on Earth.  We should try to avoid being judgmental, which after all implies that “we know what’s right” in some ultimate sense.

And yes, I know I’ve used the word “should.”  Let’s say “I implore you to consider,” instead.

Thanks for letting me share.


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