In Defense of the 12 Steps

It seems the 12 step community is under attack. Articles running in major media outlets and websites question the effectiveness of the 12 step model. Experts in the medical community claim better methods exist. Maybe they do.

But I can’t imagine why organizations devoted to helping those with substance abuse and other mental health issues have endured an all-out media blitzkrieg. Sober fellowships require no compensation other than a desire to get clean. Their rooms are open to anyone in need of help. They don’t attack other methods used to help those with alcoholism and drug addiction. They exist to foster support, not criticism, for those seeking lasting recovery.Last year, I attended a seminar given by Dr. Burns Brady on the biochemistry of addiction. In his lecture, he stated that, “the greatest threat to 12 step recovery is a mixed message.”

What is this mixed message? 12 step communities have been inundated with individuals who are required to attend by court-mandate or family dictate. When someone, particularly with the personal defiance that accompanies addiction, is forced to attend 12 step meetings, they aren’t happy. They get angry. They form misguided opinions. And they share those opinions with friends.

12 step groups weren’t designed to accommodate people who don’t desire to genuinely participate. A close relative of mine was court-ordered to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings after receiving a minor alcohol-related offense. When I asked him what he thought, he said, “It’s a cult.”

This is precisely what the good doctor feared. It seems the theme of addiction treatment and recovery today is that the 12 steps are antiquated. Writers, researchers and medical professionals espouse cutting-edge methods. Studies are cited. “Evidence-based methods” is the new catchphrase of treatment in the 21st century.

Of course the irony is that most of these articles lack one thing – someone who has experienced the claws of addiction, the triumph of recovery and the beauty of the 12 steps. It would have been easy for recovery communities to turn away those court-ordered or forced to attend meetings. But they didn’t. In keeping with their altruistic spirit, they’ve put up with a fair amount of negativity, mostly undeserved.If you went to a baseball game, sat in the stands, watched players emerge from the dugout and beheld the breathtaking theater of professional competition, you wouldn’t consider yourself an expert. The only experts are on the field, playing the game, improving through rigorous practice, training and experience.

Who speaks from an authoritative stance? The players or the fans?

Who knows the intricacies of the game better than anyone else? The players or the fans?

The same principle can be applied to recovery. No one is better-equipped to comment with credibility than someone who has been through the struggle and escaped triumphantly. When sports networks look for expert analysts, who do they hire? Former players.

Those with long-term sobriety from a particular addiction(s) are experts in the purest sense of the word. I certainly don’t discount the knowledge contributed to the recovery effort from addiction researchers, therapists and other professionals. Yet when it comes to staying sober, no one knows better than the players on the field.Anyone with doubts about the effectiveness of 12 step recovery can walk into an open meeting and see 10, 20 or over 100 people living life successfully one day at a time. Still have doubts? Go to a national 12 step convention, where thousands of people celebrate freedom from addiction and addictive behaviors.

Now I’m not questioning the credibility of addiction treatment experts. I do feel, from both my experience and the testimony of others, that professionals provide an excellent supplement to a 12 step program of recovery. The problem is that many medical professionals, in and out of alcohol and drug rehabs, attempt to treat while the substance abuser is either actively abusing or recently abstinent. Top addiction treatment providers I know prefer or require a moderate period of sobriety prior to treatment with psychopharmacology.Most substance abusers in active addiction are loopy from booze and drugs. Their mental health deteriorates as a result of substance abuse. A psychiatrist can easily misinterpret these symptoms for a mental illness. Prescribed medications interact in highly negative ways with illegal narcotics and the bottle. At that point, the problem compounds like a high-earning hedge fund.The same rule is relevant for those recently detoxed from alcohol or other drugs. There is usually a mental adjustment period that lasts for 5-7 days. But that doesn’t stop some addiction treatment centers from prescribing psychopharmaceuticals on day 1.

Even after the mind clears from detox, most substance abusers need more time for brain and body to heal. The restorative process can take years for some, months for others.

But the days of some sober oldtimers deriding the merits of psychotherapy and its relatives in addiction recovery is coming to an end. More young people are getting sober and staying sober. They bring an open tolerance for a variety of weapons to battle addiction.There remains a strong need for more training and education for medical providers likely to treat addiction disorders. The Fix, one of the most popular websites for the recovery community, recently featured an article by Yvona Pabian, a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology at Cleveland State University. In The Mental Health Field Fails at Addiction Treatment, she expresses the dismal curriculum for mental health providers when it comes to addiction-related illnesses.

I must confess that I tried therapy and psychopharmacology long before I transitioned into long-term recovery. It didn’t work. Why? Because these professionals, though highly capable and compassionate, couldn’t offer what a 12 step community contains. In that community, I found peers who understood, not people who were educated. You can read about the Eiffel Tower until your blind. But you only have theories until you experience it for yourself.That’s what sobriety is like. I never trusted doctors or therapists because they hadn’t been in a basement, alone, shooting heroin in hardened veins and hoping to die that very instant. They couldn’t offer me an extensive network of people who knew where I’d been. They couldn’t offer daily support at no charge. They couldn’t offer sober events to build a healthy social life. And they couldn’t offer opportunities to help those newly sober, desperate for the comfort peer-to-peer identification brings.

The 12 steps taught me to get honest with myself and my peers. It taught me the value of helping others. It taught me how to look more objectively at my assets and liabilities. I lacked these qualities before I went through the 12 steps. That was another reason why therapeutic and psychiatric methods failed. I didn’t have the tools to communicate honestly with these professionals, so how could I expect them to accurately assess and treat me? 

Now that I’ve developed personal introspection and honesty through 12 step recovery, I’m finally seeing the fruits of working with a therapist. But it couldn’t have come without the 12 steps. I try to show respect for any type of addiction therapy that helps a fellow sufferer. I wish others would extend the same courtesy to 12 step recovery communities.

It’s easy to point the finger at a few fringe opinions. It’s harder to acknowledge the miracle of recovery, taking place in rooms across America, one day at a time. 


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