“Meeting makers make it”. That is what I was told when I attended my first meeting of alcoholics anonymous after I got out of rehab for my drinking. I was told the success stats from the big book quoting 50% of the people that really tried stayed sober and another 25% after some relapses. 75% is a great success rate, so I was excited to jump right in.
But it didn’t take long for me to see through observation those numbers did not match the numbers of the people I saw coming in and out of the doors. I noticed at birthday meetings that most people that got 30-day chips didn’t get a 60-day chip. The same went for 90 days, six months, and the annual chips.
I was told this was because they weren’t committed to the program. But I saw people that work the steps relapse, people that held service commitments relapse, people that actively sponsor people relapse, and I saw meeting makers not make it.
I managed to rack up some years of sobriety, but I was getting sicker. I won’t go into my whole story as you can read it here if you like. But from my time in AA and my many years studying addiction after, I have found a few core reasons why I believe 12 step programs do not work for most people:
- The primary focus is still on the substance. I heard Tony Robbins tell a story about some of the first white-water rafting guides. There was a particular spot on the river they guided where there was a large, downed tree that if they hit, the group of people was going to be in danger. The guides would explain to the group “We need to avoid that tree up there. To do that, I need you guys to paddle like hell to reach that point over there between those two rocks”. Despite the good instructions, a clear path to safety, and great effort by the entire group of people on the boat, they found that they still hit the tree a large percentage of the time. After a while, one of the guides decided to try a different tactic of not even mentioning the obstacle and just telling the group to focus on the point between the two rocks. As soon as he did that, the groups he guided stopped hitting the rock. What they found is that although the people were paddling as hard as they could, they were focusing on the tree they were supposed to avoid, rather than the rocks they needed to go between. Because of that, subconsciously they were paddling towards the rock. “Where you focus goes, your energy flows”.
It’s the same in meetings you go to. Although the steps will help you with many aspects of building a new life, the primary focus of meetings is the dangers of alcohol rather than focusing solely on achieving the life you want. And just like the tree in the river, you see many people that no matter how hard they paddle seem to always hit their obstacle.
- AA is full of negative self-fulfilling prophecies. Studies in psychology find that the impact of our beliefs and expected outcomes have a strong impact on whether they will come true. How strongly you believe it often does not matter on the outcome. If you repeat something to yourself long enough, the more likely it will come true. The first thing you are told in 12-step programs is that you are powerless. Then you might be told other things like people that leave AA relapse. If you don’t work the steps, you will relapse. If you slip up, you will relapse. It is not safe to be around alcohol. If you go to an event that serves alcohol without a foolproof plan and a support group, you are at risk to drink.
Essentially, you are told that the world is full of danger and if you don’t constantly focus on avoiding that danger and commit to a life dedicated to the constant focus on that danger, that relapse is certain. No wonder so many people attending meetings are full of anxiety and eventually relapse. They were told they would, eventually believed it, and fulfilled the prophecy that was set for them.
- You must have a higher power to stay sober. One of the biggest struggles I saw with people in AA is the “God Thing”. There is a chapter in the big book that addresses this, but AA is a program based on religion and God and the primary focus of recovery is to find a higher power and rely on it to stay sober.This sets the belief that you yourself are never going to be strong enough to resist the temptation to go back to your substance of choice. I talked about the dangers of self-fulfilling prophesies in the first bullet point. People that don’t have a previous belief in a God tend to struggle with what we are told is essential for long-term recovery.
I personally struggled with this and was told I could choose something like nature to be my higher power. I tried nature but all my adult life, I drank in nature. I drank when I camped, I drank when I hiked, I drank when I fished, I drank when I drove through the desert. And worse of all, alone with my thoughts in nature when I was struggling was never a good place to be in early sobriety. Next, I was told to use the group as my higher power. The problem with this is we are human and will disappoint each other. Even a group as a whole did many things that I struggled with and using a group of well-meaning drunks (no matter how good their intentions) as my inspiration to stay sober was challenging to say the least. Finally, after speaking of my struggles with finding a higher power, I was told “make the doorknob your higher power, because it would do a better job at running your life than you have”.
After many years I realized that despite not having a higher power, I have managed to not only stay sober but had begun building a life that I was proud of. Once I decided that I did in fact have the power to get and stay sober within me, I abandoned the search for a higher power and that is when my growth accelerated.
- Most sponsors are not qualified to deal with the psychological aspects of addiction. First, I would like to say that I had amazing sponsors in my time in AA. These men supported and loved me through the biggest challenge of my life. However, they were not qualified to help me through many of the things I needed to face if I was going to stay sober. I received a lot of good-hearted well-meaning advice that simply was not good from very good people whose intentions were very good.According to studies done by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 75% of people who have substance abuse issues also report histories of abuse and trauma. There is no section of the 12-step work that specifically addresses this. There are instructions for dealing with resentments, but that section specifically instructs you to “find your part in it”. I was specifically instructed by my sponsor that I would not get over my resentments around some of the childhood trauma I experienced unless I was to find my part in it. This type of well-meaning very damaging advice is rampant throughout the program.
The big book does mention seeking outside help for “problems other than alcohol” but my experience is counseling is often talked down on in meetings. I lost count of how many times I have heard some version of “I tried therapy before I quit drinking. If it worked, I wouldn’t be here”. Extensive work with a therapist has been critical for my continued recovery. I drank the way I did because it was the only way I knew to deal with thoughts and emotions I was not capable of processing at the time. Only through learning healthy ways of addressing those issues, do I have a chance of a sober and happy life.
- People in AA tell you it is the only solution. “If you want what we have, you must do what we do”. By that, they mean you must work the steps exactly how they were written many years ago in a program catered to mostly religious, white, businessmen. People are unique with their own unique challenges that they must conquer to find the fulfillment in life that will remove the desire to stay in a life of addiction. Much of the 12-step program is great general advice, but healing can not be accomplished within a box. People need to be encouraged to seek the type of help they need to seek out for their specific problems. This is rarely the solution you will find in a meeting.
I am not discounting the help I got during my time at Alcoholics Anonymous. Much of the program was useful for me. I am also not trying to talk anyone who has found the type of recovery that they need in a 12-step program into leaving. If AA works for you, please keep going.
However, spend any time in the rooms and you will see that a large majority of people struggle to stay clean and sober including people that really work the program. The above five reasons are my personal observation from my time in AA and my experience after leaving. If you have tried a 12-step program and have struggled, or the idea of going to a meeting does not appeal to you, I just want you to know that there are other options.
Don’t give up on recovery, keep seeking until you find what works for you.