Why the 12 Steps Don’t Work
It seems there’s a lot of misconceptions on the 12 steps and how they facilitate long-term sobriety. Awhile back, I attended a lecture by a prominent addiction researcher who said the greatest threat to 12 step communities was a “mixed message.”
What he was essentially saying is that people who go to 12 step meetings for a short time develop misguided notions about the program. They, in turn, pass along these ill-conceived ideas to individuals they know. Thus, some who might need the assistance of sober fellowships never find the rooms of recovery due to rampant stereotypes.
I know this firsthand. A relative of mine was court-ordered to 12 step meetings. When I asked him what he thought about it, he replied, “It’s a cult.” If I was thinking about going to a recovery meeting, I’d think again in light of this information.
In keeping with traditional 12 step structure, here are the top 12 misconceptions I hear about the sober community:
1. 12 step meetings are religious.
This is, without question, the most common misconception I hear. While there is no denying the spiritual aspect of a 12 step program, I don’t think this argument holds up to scrutiny.
First, a 12 step program doesn’t require you to believe anything. That is stated in the literature. Second, there are atheists and agnostics I personally know who have long-term sobriety in 12 step programs. Third, people from all walks of faith participate in sober fellowships. There are Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, even Pagans. I’ve never heard of a religion where all other religions come together and coexist peacefully.
2. 12 step meetings are a cult.
This is another common stereotype. I’m really not sure how recovery meetings came to be compared with groups led by Jim Jones and the Branch Davidians. But somehow, we did.
Cults require you to believe in a particular dogma. 12 step fellowships do not.
Cults do not let you leave the group without consequences, usually severe. 12 step fellowships allow you to come and go as you please.
Cults have beliefs that are viewed as dangerous by the rest of society. 12 step fellowships have suggestions, which if practiced, do nothing but promote positivity.
I’ve never heard of a recovery community committing mass suicide. Or thinking that a comet was a sign of apocalyptic doom.
3. 12 step meetings brainwash you.
False. Recovery communities exist to support one another towards the common goal of sustained abstinence from mind-altering substances.
It is repeatedly stated in the literature that the 12 step program is a suggestion, not a requirement. Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous openly acknowledge that other methods to achieve sobriety exist.
There is an oldtimer I know who will readily admit that 12 step fellowships brainwash you. According to him, "Yeah, they brainwash you. But my brain needed to be washed." Funny guy.
4. 12 step meetings are just a bunch of old people.
There may be meetings dominated by an older demographic, but most towns offer a variety of recovery meetings. Many of these groups are populated by younger adults.
I’ve been to meetings with dozens and dozens of adults under 30 who are staying sober.
5. 12 step meetings will make you want to drink.
One of the most surprising things a newcomer notices when he or she starts attending 12 step meetings is a lack of discussion on drinking or drugs. In fact, “war stories”, tales of drinking escapades or drug-induced debauches, are frowned upon in the sober community.
Many meetings specifically request that participants refrain from telling these types of stories. For the most part, recovery groups center discussion on personal and spiritual growth. They talk about how the outside world impacts their internal landscape, and how to react in healthy fashion.
6. 12 step meetings will convince you that you are alcoholic or addicted to drugs, even if you aren’t.
False. The literature explicitly states that identifying as an alcoholic or drug addict is left to an individual’s discretion. There are, however, meetings where only people who identify as an alcoholic or drug addict are permitted to share.
This isn’t an attempt to censor those who are on the fringes about whether they are alcoholic or addicted to drugs. Rather, it’s an effort to keep harmony within the group.
7. 12 step meetings are a place for convicts and washouts.
While the rooms of recovery are open to anyone, convicts and washouts included, 12 step meetings aren’t dominated by criminals.
What you will find in recovery groups are people, some from criminal backgrounds, some not, dedicated to a healthy way of life free from drugs and alcohol.
What you won’t find in recovery groups is a meeting full of rough neck, criminally-affiliated gangsters. Most of the people with criminal backgrounds have transformed their lives anyway. Their days of crime are long gone. And the ones I have met were good people.
8. 12 step meetings are for the weak.
Laughable. You are talking about a group of people who had an intense love affair with alcohol, drugs or both. Now they live a life completely free from substance abuse. But they’re weak?
12 step programs have made me stronger. I wasn’t able to last a day without alcohol, pot, heroin or some other drug. Without these meetings and the fellowship that goes with it, I wouldn’t be a contributing member of society today.
12 step meetings exist for people who want to strengthen their life on the inside and out. Is a team stronger than an individual? Absolutely. The same principle applies to living sober – a group of people, coming together for a common goal, are stronger together than apart.
9. 12 step meetings are boring.
There’s a reason oldtimers tell newcomers to, “…pull up a chair, it’s the greatest show on Earth.” You’ll laugh like you’ve never laughed before. You’ll hear stories that tug your heart like nothing else. And you’ll develop bonds you previously thought impossible.
Sure, some meetings are boring. The old saying is, “If you haven’t been to a bad meeting, you haven’t been to enough meetings.” But I genuinely look forward to the meetings I attend. An incredible sense of camaraderie and comedy pervade the atmosphere. If you go to several sober meetings at several times and places, you’ll find the ones you love too.
10. 12 step meetings are just a place for people to complain about their lives.
You’ll definitely find situations in 12 step meetings where someone expresses dissatisfaction with life. Who can honestly claim they don’t get discouraged from time to time?
Yet complaining about life is frowned upon, and in some cases expressly prohibited, in recovery meetings. In many circumstances, people present their troubles to color the solution to problems via 12 step application.
You won’t find a lot of complaining at sober meetings. If you do, find a new meeting.
11. 12 step meetings have a low rate of success.
Most comprehensive addiction studies point towards a high level of success for members of 12 step fellowships.
Even National Geographic noted the level of success that the 12 steps have with people battling drug addiction and alcoholism.
Other studies confirm the suspicions of National Geographic. In short, the 12 steps work. See the “Related Articles” section below for more studies on the effectiveness of 12 step programs.
12. 12 step meetings will introduce me to people who sell hard drugs.
I’ve been around 12 step recovery for almost 3 years, continuously sober now for almost 2 years. In that time, I have never been approached by anyone trying to push hard drugs.
Maybe it does happen. But I’ve never seen it personally or heard anyone who has.
Find out for yourself whether a 12 step program can help you or a loved one. Attend at least 6 or 7 open meetings at various locations. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous states that, “There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep man in everlasting ignorance – that principle is contempt prior to investigation. -Herbert Spencer
See whether the rooms of recovery will help you. Participate and genuinely exert yourself, then decide if the misnomers are true.