For those that ask When 12-Step Doesn’t Work

We Do Recover

I just read an article entitled When 12-Step Doesn’t Work… by Emily J. Sullivan dated 5/14/2018. Sullivan is a good writer but has many of her facts wrong. For one thing, the two fellowships, AA and NA are not the same. Sure NA sprang out of AA and both share the 12 steps and 12 traditions but that is where the similarities end. With all due respect to AA, the fact is that it is limited. Alcoholics Anonymous focus’s on the substance of Alcohol while Narcotics Anonymous focus’s on the disease of addiction.

Her opening argument is a quote from AA which states as follows:

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“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves.”
-The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous

Narcotics Anonymous does not make any such statement. NA does not make any moral judgement and does not state that people are constitutionally incapable of recovery. In fact NA states the opposite, chapter seven of the basic text, Recovery and Relapse, states that “Many people think that recovery is simply a matter of not using drugs. They consider a relapse a sign of failure, and long periods of abstinence a sign of complete success. We in the recovery program of Narcotics Anonymous have found that this perception is too simplistic. After a member has had some involvement in our Fellowship, a relapse may be the jarring experience that brings about a more rigorous application of the program. By the same token we have observed some members who remain abstinent for long periods of time whose dishonesty and self-deceit still prevent them from enjoying complete recovery and acceptance within society. Complete and continuous abstinence, however, in close association and identification with others in NA groups, is still the best ground for growth.

Chapter Two states “We have learned from our group experience that those who keep coming to our meetings regularly stay clean.

From her article, it is apparent that she did not give herself a break and follow the concepts of the program. Instead she sat there comparing herself with others. There are many types of addicts, from the sweet little old lady addicted to prescription medication, the rough and tough junkie out on the street, to the exhausted executive stopping at the local pub everyday after work for a drink. NA stresses the need to identify with the pain and suffering and not to compare stories. Every addict is different as are their stories. But they all ended up in NA.

Anyone reading Sullivan’s article will get the impression that the 12 steps do not work, although in her defense she does say at the very end of her catharsis, that recovery is possible and that the 12 steps have worked for thousands. But the simple truthful fact is that they did not work for her. You see, recovery is an inside job, a very personal but a very deeply rooted inside job. In the basic text of NA (AA has the Big Book) the first chapter’s title is “Who is an Addict”. The last sentence of the opening paragraph, states “we are people in the grip of a continuing and progressive illness whose ends are always the same jails, institutions and death.” Chapter One goes on to say “We did not choose to become addicts. We suffer from a disease that expresses itself in ways that are anti-social and makes detection, diagnosis and treatment difficult.”

It is very easy to poke holes in the 12 steps of AA or NA, especially after being clean, or in her case sober, for two years thanks to those 12 steps. The problem with some, especially those with “intelligence”, is in that of comparing. By the time one ends up in NA it is usually after hitting rock bottom. You start to get clean or sober and them you realize that you are sitting in the basement of some church or community center surrounded by all types of addicts. Initially you do not see it that way because your pain is overwhelming and you want it to stop, to go away. Then after a while your mind clears and your eyes open up. It is at this juncture that you must make a decision – you either recover with those addicts that helped you get to this juncture, or you begin to compare and feel that you can do it (recover) else where, away from these “junkies”. Opposed to years gone by, today there are many modes of “treatment” available with many options for addicts to choose from, or if you prefer alcoholics, to seek recovery. If you have a substance problem and can find recovery, by any means, that is a good thing. But for millions of addicts around the world the 12 steps were the only way that worked for them. AA and NA are both free and open to anyone seeking help.

But you’re no Einstein

There are many “intellects” participating in the recovery process of NA. There are doctors, famous actors and athletes, college professors and lawyers, and other professionals. Just as there are many recovered street level thugs and homeless. You see it is not how one gets to NA it is about the fact that you got there in the first place.

In NA there is no judgement and the basic text explains this rather eloquently. “We are not interested in what or how much you used or who your connections were, what you have done in the past, how much or how little you have, but only in what you want to do about your problem and how we can help.” Sullivan knocks the fact that in NA it is stressed that the newcomer is the most important person. With all her intellect she failed to grasp how powerful that concept is. You see, as one begins to recover and accumulates time away from the substance the mind begins to play tricks because the nature of addiction is to tell you that you have no problem. By focusing on helping the newcomer one is constantly reminding themselves about how they were when they first got to NA. I know people that have been drug free for over 31 years. Thats right they have not used any drugs, alcohol or tobacco in over 31 years. Many do not attend meetings every day (something Sullivan seemed to take issue with) but they do attend meetings on a somewhat regular basis. In NA they say “we can’t keep it unless we give it away” that simply means that by helping a newcomer, by doing service they stay clean. Notice that I use the term clean and not the term sober. Sober has to do with alcohol, staying clean entails being abstinent from ALL drugs and yes, as NA sees it alcohol as a drug.

I don’t know about AA, but in NA they do not give away chips just to give them away. There is a white chip which is given to those that wish to surrender to the disease of addiction. Then there are other chips that must be earned. The first is for anyone achieving 30 days clean, then one for 60 days, 90 days, six months, nine months then for one year. To Sullivan that process may seem cheeky but for those that had tried and never been able to stay clean until they got to NA it is an accomplishment. After hearing so many negative things about being an addict “you’re a failure”, ‘you lack will power”, “you are a criminal”, etc. a little positive reinforcement goes a long way toward rebuilding self esteem. And sure there may be some that grab those chips without actually earning them, but had she stayed in the process Sullivan would have soon learned that those that perpetrated that fraud eventually admit it and the process of recovery then begins.

Sullivan thinks that doing therapy is a solution to recovery from addiction. As a social worker and a person that knows and has worked with many recovering addicts I can tell you that this is not the case. NA actually encourages it’s members to seek psychological help for their psychological problems, help from a lawyer for their legal concerns, and a religious counselor for there religious issues, but to leave recovery to the professionals – the recovering addict. While addiction may have some roots in a troubled mental state, it is more than just that. Addiction has to do with more than mind, body and spirit. It has to do with all of those and more, it has to do with feelings and with perceptions. It has to do with thinking and how one processes thoughts. While Sullivan took issue with making 90 meetings in 90 days she failed to realize the import of that notion. When I became a social worker I had to learn the jargon, I had to be around other social workers so that I could become acclimated to the social work culture. The same holds true for any profession. Well those 90 days sort of serve the same purpose. As new members of NA one needs to learn the NA jargon, needs to acclimate into the NA culture. New members need to learn a new way of living because by the time they got to NA they had learned behaviors that needed to be changed. They had formed a way of thinking that needed to be changed. Think of that initial 90 day period as a period of total immersion or a washing of the brain, yes a brain washing.

The 12 steps work for everyone, that is why they have been adopted by so many groups. From it’s original founding within Alcoholics Anonymous to the many other 12 step programs it has brought forth; programs like Narcotics Anonymous, Over Eaters Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Sex Anonymous and who knows how many others. So to say the 12 steps do not work is a very inaccurate statement. The more accurate one would be to say that the 12 steps did not work for you, then having said that asking yourself why they did not work for you.

Rather than focusing on the person sitting next to, or across from, you in an NA or AA meeting one should focus inward. Going through the 12 steps, not just reading them but actually working the precepts will make any human being, not just the addict, a better person. And NA is not a religious program, it is a spiritual program. But if one works the steps vigorously one will inevitably come to a realization that GOD (a higher power) is the driving force behind recovery.

The concept of NA is really rather elementary. It is a simple program for complected people. Personally I am very happy that Emily J. Sullivan has been able to recover via a therapist. I am even happy that she has found a way to monetize her angst about the 12 steps. Hopefully now that she is cured and is no longer an addict she does not drink to that. Those in NA know that the disease of addiction is always lurking within. While one can recover, one is never cured. One slip (as they say in AA) and you are off to the races.

“We are people in the grips of a continuous illness”. The disease of addiction is cunning, baffling and insidious. It never rests and if one lets their guards down you release your addiction all over again. This disease does not care how many years of sobriety or clean time you’ve accumulated, one drink, one pill, one puff or one snort and your addiction takes control of your life again. “One is to many and a thousand never enough”. Why risk the life one has achieved, the recovery one has worked so hard to acquire?

The newcomer is the most important person at any NA meeting because we can only keep what we have by giving it away. The twelfth step states “Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” One does this because in NA one is taught that the therapeutic value of one addict helping another is without parallel.

If you are an addict (or an alcoholic) or think you may be one…

Some people feel more comfortable identifying themselves as alcoholic rather than as an addict. I guess they still see there issue through the prism of society and society accepts alcoholism more readily then it does addiction. After all, they legalized alcohol to justify it’s consumption. However, whatever you identify yourself as, either alcoholic and are more comfortable attending AA, or addict and feel more welcomed in NA do yourself a favor just go. Attend whichever fellowship you feel will most help you. Please just get some help. And if you need to enter a rehab first just to slow down and get your bearings, do so. Addiction is no joke and it is killing people on a daily basis. There will always be new drugs for people to engage in. It is not the substance that is at issue here it is the disease of addiction. Some are born diabetic, others are born with asthma. Yet some of us are unfortunate and are born with the disease of addiction. There is no known cure for addiction, no Emily there is no medical assistance to cure addiction. It has been repeatedly tried in the past. First with heroin to cure morphine addicts, then with methadone to cure heroin addicts, and now with some new drugs that I can’t even pronounce or spell. They do not work. Addiction, however, can be arrested one day at a time and recovery is then possible. Those in the process of recovery must always guard themselves one day at a time because the disease of addiction is always with them, it will never go away. There is no shame in being a recovered person. As the basic text, Narcotics Anonymous, states “Now we know that the time has come when that tired old lie, ‘Once an addict always an addict,’ will no longer be tolerated by either society or the addict himself. We do recover.”

There are plenty of resources available for those seeking help from addiction. Here are a few

  1. Narcotics Anonymous
  2. Alcoholics Anonymous
  3. SAMHSA’s National Helpline – 1-800-662-HELP (4357) SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.