Why I Fell Out of Love with the 12 Steps
I recently turned five years sober and feel like I have hit a wall in my recovery – or perhaps a newfound freedom. While, the 12 Steps formed the basis of my initial recovery, I have always had reservations about the language used in AA’s literature and slogans; feeling it lacked relatability to my life.
This has led to some uncomfortable feelings: concerns that I ‘don’t get it’, and fears of relapse – all because I am going against the grain of what we are told in meetings. I have explored my concerns and found that my recovery needs must reflect my own growth and changes; and those needs do not fit into one modality of recovery. I am not alone – many others have shared with me their concerns and overwhelming testament that there are many modalities to lasting, healthy, recovery.
When I first got sober, I needed purpose and a program to recover, which The Steps provided. Working through them, I uncovered addictive behaviors that led to using, cleaned up my mess, and started to live by my values and principles.
However, I felt still felt those uncomfortable feelings about the language, and they gained such momentum that I could no longer ignore them. I started to open my eyes, challenging if The Steps were right for me and my recovery.
Dissecting Literature of the Big Book
Perhaps my lack of relatability was because I find the language of AA literature antiquated; I struggle with its religious leanings. AA was formed back in 1934 and The Steps were written as a program of recovery in 1939! It was later reported that “early AA got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgment of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Groups.” This group was an evangelical Christian organization.
While AA and The Steps are not purported – by its members – to be religious, half of The Steps refer to God, and there are 50 references to God in AA literature. The Big Book. Even the US high courts concluded that “a fair reading of the fundamental AA doctrinal writings discloses that their dominant theme is unequivocally religious.” (New York Court of Appeals, 1996).
The Big Book is a piece of beautifully written literature. However, I find it dated and lacking relatability to life as a woman in 2017. I do not find it helpful to read it over and over in meetings, in any way. I am not religious and I struggle with the need to use a God – whatever its conception – in my program of recovery.
Further, The Steps only look after your mental and spiritual self. My addiction affected my whole self. It seems at odds to me to omit looking after your physical self in a program of recovery. In the rooms, I was even encouraged to eat in a harmful way. This didn’t sit right with me; I had to take account of all aspects of my well-being and form a holistic recovery.
My reservations sparked a dialogue with others in recovery about their whole recovery. I found, despite the messaging in the rooms, there were others recovering in many ways – and they were well.
Unhelpful AA Slogans
The feelings I have about the literature are further exacerbated by AA slogans. They were positively unhelpful. For example:
‘Where do I find sobriety? 12 Steps past any lengths’.
Implying that The Steps are the only way to get sober and that we must go to any lengths to get it. Laura Silverman, approaching ten years sober, says:
“When you’ve been in long-term recovery for nearly a decade, you’re bound to experiment with several programs and modalities. I credit AA/12-step for being a pivotal part of my early recovery because it gave me the tools I needed to have a life, not *be* my life. Something never truly clicked “in the rooms” for me. I felt like a fraud but thought I had to be the only one feeling the same way. Turns out I couldn’t have been further from the truth: I was in very good company along with MILLIONS of other people living their recovery/sobriety holistically: yoga, meditation, reading, having a great support network, therapy, digital recovery (blogs, social media, etc.), fitness, nutrition, nature, and beyond. Connection is key and instead of all of us having the same exact program, why not learn from each other’s diverse recovery menus?”
Don’t trust your thinking.
I can trust myself enough to make decisions that are right for me and my recovery – that honor my values and morals. I have worked hard to change addictive thoughts and behavior. What kind of a life is it to live where you constantly question yourself?
Meeting makers make it.
Meetings are not the only way to recover. Beth Leipholtz, approaching four years sober, said:
“…over time I found that I wasn’t necessarily comfortable at AA meetings. Part of it was the God talk, since I’m not necessarily religious, but it was more than that, too. The way sobriety was discussed just didn’t always click for me, and I found myself leaving meetings with a frustrated feeling hanging over me. Though I occasionally still go to meetings, I’ve stayed sober for three of my four years largely without AA involvement.”
I’m just another drunk.
No, I am not. I am so much more. I find labelling myself based on behavior five years ago no longer serves me. I am fully accepting that I have a disease, but I am Liv, a writer, a sister, a daughter, a girlfriend and I am talented and creative and live a full life. I am not a drunk; I don’t fit in that box anymore.
It works if you work it.
I’ve been told by many that if you’re not ‘working your program’, you’re regressing and heading for a relapse. Kelly Fitzgerald, approaching 4 years sober, said:
“I dislike the dogma of 12 step – in particular “it works if you work it (the steps),” as it somehow communicates that if it ISN’T working for you, you aren’t working it or aren’t working it hard enough. Not working the program doesn’t = death for the majority of people and to say otherwise is dangerously limiting.”
I realized that there are many modalities of recovery e.g. SMART, Refuge Recovery, LifeRing, and therapy. It is a personal choice of what works for you, and that may change as you do. Irina Gonzalez, over a year sober, said:
“After feeling like the use of “powerless” in 12-step meetings didn’t work for me, I began to attend SMART Recovery meetings – which are based in cognitive behavioral therapy and teach attendees to fill our lives with other happy things so that we can eventually stop going to meetings and just live. I found they worked better for me because the focus was largely on keeping sober through self-management and learning the tools and techniques to succeed in your recovery as an empowered individual.”
The Power of Personal Choice
I am eternally grateful to AA for supporting me throughout my recovery; they gave me so much, and I gained the confidence to grow and find my own way. I am not parting ways, rather trying to meet my changing needs and look after myself holistically. Today, I have the power of personal choice.
Above all though, my experience has taught me to be open-minded and embrace all people, whichever way they choose to recover. There is no one way, let’s embrace them all.
About the Author: Olivia Pennelle
Writer, blogger, nutrition and recovery advocate, Olivia Pennelle (Liv), is in long-term recovery from addiction. Liv passionately believes in a fluid and holistic approach to sobriety. Her popular site, Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, is a resource for the journey toward health and wellness in recovery. For Liv, the kitchen represents the heart of the home: to eat, share, and love.