It is dangerous to insist that the only way to recover from addiction is the 12-step program developed by Alcoholics Anonymous.
When I entered rehab in 1993 for my lengthy methamphetamine use disorder, I was informed, repeatedly and vehemently, that I had to comply with this approach. When I explained that I believed in neither God nor a higher power, staff pressured me to turn my will and my life over to something, even a doorknob. When I responded: “ridiculous,” I was told: “higher power or relapse.”
The idea that some people would be better served by other ideas did not exist at that facility. Staff expressed antipathy whenever I challenged the 12-step orthodoxy. When I asked why the cure would be spiritual if addiction is a disease, the response was: they “would not debate ‘the book.’” When I balked against the premises that I was powerless and needed to focus on my defects, the counselors swore I was fighting the only system that could save my life. It also concerned me that attributing victory to faith would interfere with experiencing deserved pride. If success resulted from turning over my will and my life, how could I feel the concomitant sense of accomplishment that would increase my confidence to handle future challenges?
I don’t imagine the counselors badgered me to relinquish my power to God or another higher power out of a lack of concern. They’d recovered under the 12-step model and had been told this was the only way. These women had rehabilitation counselor certificates, but that education apparently did not include training about secular techniques. Instead, I think in an honest effort to address the problem, staff pointed me to the Agnostic chapter of the “AA Big Book” as the way an atheist could recover through the 12-steps. Excited by this solution, I raced to my room and read that section, to no avail since the authors just provided weak arguments against agnosticism and mandated belief in a higher power.
Luckily, my brain functioned well enough to convince me they must be wrong. I accepted that faith helped some people and saw this occur at my treatment facility. But I felt incredulous at the implicit assertion that no atheist, in the history of humankind, had ever gotten sober. Still, since they’d convinced me that no secular programs existed, I decided to look for the parts of the 12-step philosophy and rehab classes that might help me succeed and ignore the rest.
I attended courses about addiction, recovery, family issues, anger management, abuse, and interpersonal skills. Student interns led group, individual, and family therapy sessions. The counselors emphasized addiction as the source of the ongoing chaos and my mental and physical deterioration. Staff taught that I could not consume any drug, including alcohol, and provided guidance about how to maneuver through triggers. 12-steps’ “one day at a time” mantra helped, because I could achieve that while I still lacked confidence in attaining long-term sobriety.
Yet, I continued to distrust the one-size-fits-all assumption. It seemed to me each person needed treatment tailored to her personal circumstances. For example, I agreed that a 30-day stay would not be sufficient for me, considering my 20 years using drugs, the severity of my meth addiction, and the need to address my abuse and trauma history. The women at my rehab struggled with unique blends of a variety of issues: mental health, physical health, family, employment, housing, and financial. Plus, they had different personalities, learning styles, and religious beliefs. I found it difficult to presume that the same solution applied to us all.
For all these reasons, I pushed back on staff efforts to force me to adhere to the powerless and faith aspects of 12-steps. I chose to assume that atheists could obtain long-term sobriety, despite the resistance I faced every time I suggested this. I did worry, though, that perhaps I was arrogant, to conclude I knew better than my teachers about what would work for me. This was a particular concern as I knew my brain hadn’t operated properly for years and I’d made many poor decisions during that time. This created a gnawing unease and sometimes panic when the “maybe they’re right and it’s impossible for me” message pushed to the forefront of my brain.
I now know that all this angst and fear could’ve been avoided. Because there are numerous problems with assuming that the 12-steps program is the one and only path to sobriety.
Foremost, this isn’t true. It wasn’t when I entered recovery in 1993 and it’s even less so today. When I returned home from rehab, I went to the library and located alternatives, such as Women for Sobriety. Today, numerous additional options exist, including She Recovers Foundation, LifeRing Secular Recovery, and Recovery Dharma.
And the only study to compare the success rates of various support groups, the Peer Alternatives for Addiction Study, found that they all are similarly effective. Which means the 12-step approach isn’t superior. In fact, it’s reasonable to assume that people have increased odds if they get to choose the program that fits their worldview. This is consistent with The National Institute of Health’s general guidance that patient involvement in treatment decisions is associated with improved outcomes.
Also, as this false premise thus threatens sobriety, individuals face other consequences from this misinformation. For example, some judges, even those at drug courts, require support meeting attendance, with the verification form captioned “AA/NA Signature Sheet.” Sometimes the court will accept other peer support signatures, but often will not. Failure to comply with such oversight or to stay sober can impact criminal sentencing, child custody, and keeping a job.
While I always am happy for anyone who finds recovery through the 12-steps, I believe erroneous logic results in the ongoing “12-step or fail” assertions of a notable percentage of the substance use disorder treatment and support communities. That is, the unfortunate tendency to leap from “this program works for many” to “this program will work for everyone” or “this is the only program that works.”
I suggest the more inclusive message: These are the pillars of my recovery foundation, and this is how these methods helped me. But there are other groups you should research so you find the one that fits you best.
I do appreciate the strides that have been made during my 28 years of sobriety. The number of peer support options has grown, the variety of treatment approaches has expanded, and there is more acknowledgement of individual paths to recovery, including by 12-step members. Yet, this dilemma continues, such as at treatment facilities that still ignore or are hostile to other avenues.
Although I succeeded in defiance of the mandates to accept an incompatible faith-based system, I did resent the danger created by the purported experts. If I had believed it mandatory to rely on a higher power and agree I was powerless, I would have given up. Because I was unable to do this.
Which would’ve been a real loss – to me, to my friends and family, and to society. Particularly since this wasn’t, and isn’t, true.
Biography: Mary Beth O’Connor is a retired federal judge, director for She Recovers Foundation and Life Ring Secular Recovery, and author of the book “From Junkie to Judge: One Woman’s Triumph Over Trauma and Addiction”, available to order from booksellers everywhere.