Many people who struggle with addiction avoid the 12 step addiction recovery program due to misconceptions. The following information is intended to dispel some of the commonly held myths about 12-step recovery groups.
1 – Perhaps the most widely held myth is that AA and other 12 Step addiction recovery program groups are Christian based and therefore require adherence to that belief system.
While it is true that you are likely to hear a lot of “God” talk in meetings, it is also likely that staunch atheists are in the room as well. One of the most basic tenets of 12-steps is “take what you like and leave the rest…” With the help of a sponsor, participants define for themselves what their program of recovery will look like. So, if you (or your loved one) doesn’t like or believe what someone says in a meeting, that’s not a reason to give up the program and recovery process. A sponsor would likely tell the addict to instead listen to someone who does resonate with you or your loved one’s beliefs and to adhere to one’s own truth or “higher power”. The steps do include a belief in a “higher power,” but for many, that power is the power of the group itself. Giving and getting support from others is, for many, higher power in 12-Steps. And others define it in other ways. Buddhist principles, for example, are very easily compatible with the 12 Step program. I also suggest that people consider what, in DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) is called “Wise Mind” or, in one sense of that concept, listening to one’s own inner wisdom accessed through mindfulness and perhaps formal meditation. In short, participants defines for themselves what is meant by ‘higher power.”
2 – Another myth is that 12 Step addiction recovery program meetings are like group therapy, but without the therapist.
Not only are 12 Step groups not group therapy in any way, there is no requirement whatsoever to “share.” You can sit in a meeting and just listen for as long as you like. After a while, and with the help of a sponsor who’s been through the process themselves, participants are eventually encouraged to begin talking in meetings, but people only share if and when it feels right, especially in the beginning. In fact, one thing emphasized is to stop talking at first and to instead just listen, particularly to those who have been sober for a long time. This helps people to give up their defensive excuses and to tone down the self-defeating tapes that often run in our heads. Perhaps the most important difference between 12 Steps and group therapy is the “no cross talk” rule. In order to keep the space safe for everyone to have their own particular experience and beliefs, participants do not respond to one another during the meetings. The focus is supposed to be on oneself. Sometimes further exchange happens after meetings during individual conversations, but the emphasis is still encouraged to be about one’s own experiences, not about providing advice or reactions to others.
3 – There are also many easily misinterpreted sayings in the 12 Step addiction recovery program.
It would be impossible to list them all here and it really requires time and participation in the program to hear and understand the context of these sayings but I’ll mention one big program misunderstanding here – the concept of “powerlessness.” The very first step includes the phrase, “We admitted we were powerless over [whatever the addiction is] and that our lives had become unmanageable.” Who wants to be powerless, right? But it’s not about giving up or being weak. It’s really about surrendering to the reality of the addiction instead of continuing to be stuck in a hopeless, self-defeating and unending addictive cycle of trying and failing. (“I’ll stop tomorrow, I’m just not trying hard enough, I’m a worthless human being, etc etc.) The popular definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, is often quoted. (The quote is often attributed to Einstein and others, but according to the Huffington post it actually originated in Narcotics Anonymous in 1981 – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/20/insanity-definition_n_1159927.html). When addicts give up trying to go it alone, accept that they need help, and be willing to get it, the addiction paradoxically can become manageable.
Important final Note – There is no ONE right way to approach recovery – 12-Steps works for many people but it may still not be for you or those you care about. There are many different paths to recovery. Rehab is often an important first step as well, but it is also not always needed. It’s important to consult with doctors and therapists to find the right course of recovery and get the help needed for yourself, your loved one or friend.
Janet Mittman, Ed.D, LPC, Pyschotherapist
Dr. Janet Mittman provides psychotherapy to adults and older teens in the downtown Durham and Southpoint Mall in Durham, NC areas. Her approach is eclectic and draws on both cognitive and psychodynamic approaches as well as mindfulness, DBT, yoga, and other body-oriented practices. Dr. Mittman works with a wide range of issues including depression, relationship problems, life-change and self-defeating behaviors. Treating anxiety and various addictions, including substance abuse, are particular specializations.