Let’s Stop Overselling 12-Step Recovery

photo of people sitting and talking at AA-meeting group meeting

Let’s Stop Overselling 12-Step Recovery

A person recently asked me to what I attribute long term recovery to. I immediately said. “Alcoholics Anonymous.” We, as professionals, or those of us who have earned admission to 12-step recovery, tend to spread the message that Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is wonderful. We love it. You need to love it too. Are we setting people up by overselling 12-step recovery? I’ve heard patients say that we push it down people’s throats. Do we? Maybe we do. Is it really that wonderful? When a person goes to their first meeting and it doesn’t meet expectations, the experience is shallow. Maybe there’s something wrong with me? I can’t tell this to my therapist! Keep it a secret.

Some people return from their first meeting saying something like, “It’s too religious,” or “It’ a cult.”

A person recently asked me to what I attribute long term recovery to. I immediately said. “Alcoholics Anonymous.” We, as professionals, or those of us who have earned admission to 12-step recovery, tend to spread the message that Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is wonderful. We love it. You need to love it too. Are we setting people up by overselling 12-step recovery? I’ve heard patients say that we push it down people’s throats. Do we? Maybe we do. Is it really that wonderful? When a person goes to their first meeting and it doesn’t meet expectations, the experience is shallow. Maybe there’s something wrong with me? I can’t tell this to my therapist! Keep it a secret.

Some people return from their first meeting saying something like, “It’s too religious,” or “It’ a cult.”

Many of us tend to brush off those remarks and try to convince the newcomer that AA is not religious. We tell people things like GOD stands for Good Orderly Direction or that anything can be a Higher Power. “A tree can be your Higher Power.” That really doesn’t make sense but it doesn’t stop some people from saying it.

An organization that spends a lot of time explaining that it’s not a religious organization is probably a religious organization. Once everyone stops greeting friends and sharing laughs, the meeting comes to order it starts. “God grant me the serenity…” The first spoken word is “God.” The closing prayer starts with “Our Father.” Once the word “God” is invoked, it becomes religious.

Better to say, “Yes we are a religious organization.” It’s better than insulting someone’s intelligence.

AA is not a cult. AA asks relatively little from members, not much more than a contribution for unlimited refills of coffee.

A lot of people object to the word “alcoholic.” More specifically, “My name is _____., and I’m an Alcoholic.” I, too, find it objectionable and somewhat shaming.

It would be easy to go on about what’s wrong with Alcoholics Anonymous.

What’s Right about Alcoholics Anonymous?
Maybe the better question is why do people with a chronic, addictive disease seem to benefit from lifelong attendance at a support group like AA?

Maybe it’s because of a characteristic unique to addictive diseases: They’re easy to forget.

Most diseases are not easy to forget. I was reminded of that recently. I’m recovering from surgery done on my back about seven months ago. Granted that I’m not talking about a chronic disease, but at some point I realized that I don’t need anyone else to remind me on a daily basis that I had surgery. I can feel it every time I move. It’s getting better, and at some point I will not need a reminder. That’s the difference between an acute occurrence and a chronic disease.

I don’t have a regular reminder of my chronic, addictive disease. It would be easy to think that I feel so good today I could surely, safely have a few belts. Most normal people don’t think about “a few belts.” I need a reminder.

And that reminder needs to be readily available.

Nothing is as readily available worldwide as Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s hard to deny AA’s proliferation around the world. There are meetings everywhere. I recently helped a person find English speaking meetings in Bulgaria. How does a group that began in Ohio vowing to ‘never be organized,’ wind up with eight English speaking meetings in Sophia, the capitol of Bulgaria? That’s not counting the ones where they speak Bulgarian. I don’t think that anyone really knows how that happens. It just does.

Being “readily available” can also pertain to finances. I have known some people in recovery from an addictive disease who have paid for intensive group and individual and group therapy for a long time and have remained abstinent. Not everyone can afford it, but it works for some.

There needs to be a spiritual connection

There are many different types of spiritual connections. The one that most people readily think of is a connection to God. There are also connections to people who are like us. Have you ever been traveling and run into someone from the same city you live in? There’s almost an instant connection. How do you think the traveler to Sophia, Bulgaria felt when he met English speaking people who were also alcoholics?

Maybe the most basic spirituality is contained in the first word of Alcoholic Anonymous’ first step, “We.” The very word implies reaching out. Sometimes it’s God whom people reach out to, but it’s hard to have “WE” without Fellowship. After all, spirituality, combined with purpose in and meaning, is about RELATIONSHIPS. Connections to others = A relationship; go figure.

So, is there anything else readily available out there that can help people recovering from a chronic, addictive disease to:

  • Never forget where they come from
  • Develop a spiritual connection
  • Provide purpose and meaning
  • Foster fellowships that strengthen relationships

The fact is that there is. One has already been mentioned: paying for intensive individual and/or group therapy. However, it’s not available to all.
One might argue that it’s hard to travel with a therapist along. Actually, I know of one person who did it.

SMART (Self-Management and Recovery Training) Recovery has been growing and provides a haven for people who are turned off by the religiosity found at AA meetings. There is absolutely no point arguing with this population of people, there is nothing that can be said to convince them that AA is not religious (and rightfully so). By pushing this population into the rooms of AA they will just as quickly walk out the back door.

Not only is SMART is a viable alternative. I contend that people attending SMART:

  • Never forget where they come from
  • Develop a spiritual connection
  • Find purpose and meaning
  • And foster fellowships that strengthen relationships

 

NOTE: SMART would deny that it relies on spiritual principles. It is my contention that “spirituality” and “fellowship” are inseparable.

SMART is not as “readily available.” That could change, as SMART Recovery grows, and it is growing rapidly. SMART meetings can be found in most major cities and in several countries.

Finances will not be an issue for people who choose to attend SMART meetings. Contributions and the manner of contributions are optional.

I do know people who combine meetings of SMART with AA meetings to build a strong recovery.

One may also mention Rational Recovery as an alternate path. At one time there were Rational Recovery meetings. For one reason or another, Rational Recovery is a book by the same name and a website.

man searching computer for AA and SMART RecoveryAA and SMART recovery can also be accessed online.

Fellowship cannot be built online.

Times change. It is important that those of us who dedicate ourselves to helping people with substance use disorders begin recovery recognize that Alcoholics Anonymous is no longer the only path.

It’s helpful to remember that Alcoholics Anonymous has grown around the globe by attraction not promotion. AA is also not affiliated with any treatment centers. AA has maintained those traditions. It’s hard to say that treatment centers have.
Maybe it’s not a good idea to have the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions posted in lobbies and group rooms. Have lots of different types of literature around or none at all.

Separation of treatment and recovery: What a concept!

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