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As an alcohol and drug abuse counselor, I work with many people who are struggling with addiction or substance abuse. Whether you are the one struggling or you have a loved one who is battling the disease, I always recommend a Twelve Step Program. Unfortunately, I am almost always met with resistance. Much of that resistance comes from misconceptions about what Twelve Step Programs are all about, so I will address some of the biggest myths here. These are the eight most common arguments I hear for not attending Twelve Step meetings. (For brevity and clarity, I am using the terms alcoholic and addict interchangeably. When I use the terms “alcohol” or “drugs”, you can substitute any addiction- including gambling. pornography, prescription or illicit drugs.)

1. Twelve Steps Programs are a cult or religion. I know this because they all meet in churches and are very secretive. 

False. Twelve step programs meet in other places besides churches. They look for inexpensive or free space to hold their meetings. They have no religious affiliation. There is no “secrecy” but rather anonymity. Many feel embarrassed or shameful because of the behavior regarding addiction. Anonymity offers privacy and an opportunity for confidentiality.

2. If these meetings aren’t religious why all the talk about God? I have a problem with that.

The “God of your understanding” or your Higher Power is a concept used as an acknowledgment that there is something bigger and more powerful than you. Accepting you are not the most powerful thing in the universe is an acknowledgement that one needs help getting through addiction. Your “Higher Power” can be a spiritual belief in God but it can also be anything that helps you stay clean and sober.

3. Do I need these meetings if I quit drinking on my own?

You sure do. You used drugs or alcohol to deal with all kinds of feelings- maybe you used them when you were happy, sad, angry, scared, anxious, depressed or to celebrate, to mourn, to be social, to relax, to fit in or simply because it was a sunny (or rainy) day. When you stop the addictive substance (or behavior) feelings will flood you like the Mississippi River overflowing its banks. It will overwhelm and make sobriety horrifically challenging. You need support and insight to learn new ways of dealing with the onslaught of feelings. Furthermore, if your life has become unmanageable because of your drinking, your behavior probably has not been stellar. Perhaps, you lied, treated people unkindly or were even abusive. You may have gotten in trouble with the law. You may have jeopardized or even lost your job. Your family life may be in shambles. Your health may be compromised. Now, feelings of remorse, guilt and shame may grab on as you struggle to turn your life around. Without new tools to deal with accepting accountability and responsibility, you can easily relapse.

4. I do not have a problem with alcohol/drugs, etc. My partner/child/parent has a problem. Why do I have to go to meetings?

If you live with or love an addict, you have to admit your behavior hasn’t been beyond reproach. You probably have screamed, argued, pleaded, nagged and begged relentlessly. You are most likely frustrated, scared, exhausted and pissed off. In short, your life has become as unmanageable as the addict’s. His/ her addiction may be alcohol or drugs or gambling or porn, but your obsession with “changing /fixing” the addict has become YOUR addiction. Twelve step programs will give you tools and support for dealing with your own behavior and feelings. Everyone can benefit from following the twelve steps. They make sense.

5. Ok, if I really need some help, why isn’t individual therapy enough? I am not a “group person” I don’t like “airing my dirty laundry” in public. What if I see someone there that I know?

Right there, in the question, is the answer. “Dirty laundry” refers to something shameful that should be kept hidden. There is an expression in AA, “We are only as sick as our secrets.” Ain’t that the truth! Confession really is good for the soul. Shame and isolation lead to relapse. In group there is camaraderie, compassion and support. Think of how much lighter and freer you feel after you share something you have kept bottled up inside forever with a trusted friend. AA provides a room full of compassionate and trustworthy souls all focused on the same goal. They GET it.

Psychotherapy/ counseling can be an important part of recovery but not a substitute for Twelve Step Meetings. In fact, some alcohol and drug abuse professionals will not work with someone unless they are actively involved in a Twelve Step Program. By the way, Twelve Step meetings are free. Oh, and if you see someone you know, so what? Remember they are there for the same reason.

6. Why do I have to follow the rules exactly? I am not like everyone else.

Recently, I heard Rob Lowe speak about his own 20+ years of sobriety and his participation in Twelve Step Programs. He said, “Addicts suffer from terminal uniqueness”. What that means is your sense of being special can be lethal. Relapse often occurs when someone feels they can bend the rules- even “just this one time.” Here’s an example- when you are sick and the Doctor prescribes you take medication on a certain schedule, you do it. You don’t take half the antibiotics and expect to get better. Your “uniqueness” doesn’t mean you get to mess with those instructions-not if you want to get healthy.

7. If I decide to go to these meetings, I don’t want to go forever. When I am better, can’t I quit attending meetings?

Going to meeting is a lot like working out. Even after you have reached your goals and gotten in shape, you continue to work out. If you stop working out you will revert to your old self in pretty short period of time. Maintenance is what it is all about. Maintenance is relapse prevention. And like working out, once you get into it, you may find you really like it. You will definitely like the results!

8. I am too busy to spend my time going to meetings.

Really? Consider how much time and effort went into maintaining your addiction (or your obsession with someone else’s addiction). You found the time to stay sick, now use that time to get well. I cannot guarantee that recovery will give you everything you want in your life, but without recovery, your life will be a mess, your addiction will get worse and may even kill you. Recovery makes all things possible. How can you be too busy for that?

For more information: Alcoholics Anonymous meetings : http://www.aa.org/lang/en/meeting_finder.cfm?origpage=29

Narcotics Anonymous meetings: http://portaltools.na.org/portaltools/MeetingLoc/

 Gamblers Anonymous meetings: http://www.gamblersanonymous.org/

 Al-Anon meetings: http://www.al-anon.alateen.org/meetings/meeting.html

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9 Comments

  1. Christina on the 22. May, 2011 remarked #

    Dear Donna,

    You have done a fabulous job of dispelling myths many people have about 12 step programs. As a 3 year member of a 12 step program I can tell you that life doesn’t get magically better – it takes work and involves a lot more than sobriety. Life still goes one, bad things still happen, but today with people like you and our fellowship we can handle them without having to drink or drug. Today I can honestly say that I have found a peace in my life I have never known. I never thought i could honestly say that I am happy. I’m grateful for therapists like you who have the courage to support our program.

    If anyone wants someone to take that first step into a meeting I would be happy to make it a lot easier. That first step may be the most important one you will ever take.

    • admin on the 22. May, 2011 remarked #

      Thanks for the offer to help others. If you want to contact Christina, you can leave a message here or if you prefer, you can contact me privately and I will pass it on.

  2. CJ Golden on the 22. May, 2011 remarked #

    These are surely, as you said, Donna, the objections most likely raised. Your responses are honest, to the point and should dispel any objections one might have when a 12 step program is suggested for her.
    That being said, however, if someone wants to find a reason to not allow themselves to be helped – she will find any excuse out there.

  3. Jen on the 25. May, 2011 remarked #

    I no longer call these myths. I call them desperate excuses to hold onto my old ideas and continue to live in the insanity and denial. I was terrified to make the first step. Go to a 12 step meeting and then admit complete defeat. That step may have saved my life. Today I look forward to going to meeting, sharing and the amazing love and support I have received freely from other people like me. Of course there is the work…and more work…and more work… It is nice to put myself and my sobriety first in my life. Today I am worth it.

    Bill W was an amazing man who set down a guide to live a happier, healthier life. I am grateful for that. I am not alone anymore.

  4. Ellen on the 25. May, 2011 remarked #

    Today, I’m almost 16 months sober.
    It’s taken me 9 years to finally walk into the doors of AA, ready to get sober and live a better life. During those years, I tried EVERYTHING else to get sober. Self help books, numerous therapists, medications, rehabs, meditations…almost everything. I tried AA, but there was always some excuse why I didn’t like it. During those 9 years, I relapsed probably twenty times. I don’t even remember how many detoxes I went to. I even went to jail for four months. I still drank after that!! Maybe like CJ said, I found all the excuses not to be helped. I wanted to want to be helped, though.

    Finally, I surrendered and gave AA an HONEST chance. Nothing else worked for me. I was desperate. AA works for so many people. Much to my delight, it’s working for me. My life has totally changed. My kids are talking to me again, my self-esteem is coming back and I’m generally happy. I’m employable again. I have hope again. Now, I have new friends that are AA members…yes, they are all normal people. Just like me. I’ve come to live my life according to those twelve steps, and I like it! I suggest it to everyone, including non-alcoholics. It’s not only keeping me from drinking, it’s teaching me how to live a fulfilling life in general.
    I would love to help someone who feels like they are at their bottom, and just don’t know what to do with their drinking. I’ve been there. And I’ve come out of it.

    • admin on the 26. May, 2011 remarked #

      Thank you all for your heartfelt words, advice and outreach. Feel free to forward this blog to someone you think may be helped in reading these words!

  5. Wendy on the 04. Jun, 2011 remarked #

    My big excuse was #4. Thank goodness Donna was on to me and was able to talk some sense into me. Going to Al-anon meetings restored my sanity and my life.

  6. bela on the 19. Jan, 2012 remarked #

    I like this blog very much. so much good information.

  7. Warren on the 22. May, 2012 remarked #

    I have a question about the ‘what if you see someone else you know’ query.

    The answer given seems fine, ok you’re both there to sort something out, fair enough.

    My question relates to the breaking of anonymity. When dealing with addictions, people are often told not to spend time with people who they used to ‘take’ with in case of relapse, etc.

    However, if you meet someone you know (especially in the early stages), you now have someone who you also know has the same addiction as you, you may know where they live and go out, and you now have a potential ‘relapse partner’ in the outside world. For addicts with serious problems, how can they avoid using these ‘known others’ as triggers for relapsing in the outside world?

    Thanks!

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