Saturday, November 23, 2013

Why 12 Step Programs Failed Me

The following can be seen as a condemnation of the 12 step method, but it is not intended to be so. I am not condemning the underlying philosophy of the 12 steps. I am rather condemning the amateurish implementations of this philosophy that I have been exposed to. I continue to believe that the basic philosophy of the 12 steps is sound, but I would be remiss if I did not warn you of the false prophets you will encounter along that path.

“Not in order to justify, but simply in order to explain my lack of consistency, I say: Look at my present life and then at my former life, and you will see that I do attempt to carry them out. It is true that I have not fulfilled one thousandth part of them [Christian precepts], and I am ashamed of this, but I have failed to fulfill them not because I did not wish to, but because I was unable to. Teach me how to escape from the net of temptations that surrounds me, help me and I will fulfill them; even without help I wish and hope to fulfill them.

Attack me, I do this myself, but attack me rather than the path I follow and which I point out to anyone who asks me where I think it lies. If I know the way home and am walking along it drunkenly, is it any less the right way because I am staggering from side to side! If it is not the right way, then show me another way; but if I stagger and lose the way, you must help me, you must keep me on the true path, just as I am ready to support you. Do not mislead me, do not be glad that I have got lost, do not shout out joyfully: “Look at him! He said he was going home, but there he is crawling into a bog!” No, do not gloat, but give me your help and support.”
Leo Tolstoy

I first got clean in October of 2012. I had attempted suicide after three or four years of progressively worse addiction and having prostituted myself to feed my addiction when I could hold no other job. The attempt on my own life, the third or perhaps fourth (some things are fuzzy during that time period) failed, and I ended up in a lock down psych ward. While I was there two men came in and held an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting. I talked to them afterwards and they told me about Narcotics Anonymous (NA)

I felt pretty good by the time my last day in the psych ward rolled around. I thought I was going to be able to stay clean. The day after I got out I was taking a bus to the pharmacy to get my prescriptions filled and I realized that I wasn't going to make the first day without going and finding and using drugs. I found the NA number for the area where I lived and called. I got a time and location and made my first meeting that evening at what ended up being a womens meeting.

I got there a bit late, so I didn't hear the introductory readings, and I just sat down near the door and listened to the other women share. At the end the moderator asked if anyone had a burning desire and turned and looked at me expectantly. I think that it was obvious both that I was new and that I was desperate. Not knowing exactly what to do, I spilled my story, which you can read in my other posts.

Towards the end I was cut off abruptly by one of the other women (not the moderator) as she stated that she was sorry but they always finished on time. Not a single person said a word. It had been made clear to me how important I was, and that I was less important that the schedule. A woman who had just dragged herself in off the streets, never having been to any NA meeting before and desperate for help, was cut off abruptly so the other women could finish the meeting on time. No one came up to me after the meeting to apologize or ask me if I needed to talk. Someone did get me a phone list and tell me to call someone if I needed to. That's it.

I headed for the door and, as I was stepping into the parking lot to head for the bus stop, a man came up to me and tried to hug me. I stepped back protectively and he began delivering his "message" to me. Later, as I came to the group more frequently, he would stare at my feet and told me on several occasions he wanted to "suck my toes". He did go get two other women to talk to me, both obviously reluctant to do so, and they spent some time letting me know that I wasn't the only woman there that had performed sex for money.

That was my home group for twelve months. I went through five sponsors, each as bad as the rest. I was told that I was absolutely required to attend at least one meeting every day for ninety days, the infamous "90 in 90". As my only transportation was the city mass transit system, it was taking me an hour and a half to two hours each way to get to a meeting. With work around the house and in the yard to pay my rent where I was staying it was very tiring. Additionally, I was still very much in my addiction. I was not an emotionally healthy woman.

I would go to a meeting where often there would be angry men yelling and cursing and I would leave the meeting even more disturbed than when I'd entered it. I would then have a long bus drive home where I would be alone, and not a soul at the meeting spoke a kind word to me except on rare occasions. When I asked my sponsor if I could take a day off from meetings because I was exhausted she responded emphatically and before I'd even finished my sentence with a "No!" She didn't even care about how I felt, she was only interested in maintaining her authority.

Loud, angry, and profane men are a trigger for me. Loud, angry, and profane women are also, but to a lesser extent. Insisting that I absolutely must go to these meetings where I was exposed to a primary trigger was no less insensitive than it would be to tell an alcoholic in recovery that she absolutely must meet with friends every day in a local bar during happy hour. Idiotic is the word that comes to mind. In no case was my well being considered. The overriding factor was that I follow my sponsors will blindly and obediently. This is often referred to as a "power trip".

I often heard statements such as "newcomers should just sit down and shut the *%$# up" and "newcomers shouldn't hang out with each other because newcomers don't know how to live" and "take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth". It became very obvious in all the groups that I attended (perhaps five or six in my area) had taken the phrase in How It Works of "We have hurt so long that we are willing to go to any length to stay clean" as a license to become power obsessed autocrats. The common wisdom had become that the sponsee simply must blindly follow the sponsors advice regardless of how relevant it is to the individual. I was told by one sponsor that she had thirty years clean and had sponsored a number of women and she had a system that worked. The message to me was simple; it was "her way or the highway".

I sat beside one woman in a late night meeting who had been very quiet. There were only five people in the meeting, so we all got to share twice, but this woman never said a word. Finally, the moderator asked her and, after a brief pause, the woman broke down almost hysterically and told how she had less than a week clean and her sponsor had told her that she was not allowed to speak in meetings! I don't think I've ever wanted to strangle someone as much as I wanted to find and strangle that womans sponsor. This poor woman was dying to share and both NA and AA literature talks about the therapeutic value of sharing, but her egomaniac of a sponsor had denied her this basic and fundamental tool of recovery!

I would hear sponsors routinely talk about how they used the same tools that their sponsor worked with them, but they didn't mention all the women that I had seen that could not stay clean under that type of system. Either I fit into the cookie cutter mold of the "perfect sponsee" or she would effectively label me as "constitutionally incapable of being honest". It was my fault that the program didn't work for me. I needed to try harder. Despite the fact that the first step requires us to accept that we were "powerless over our addiction", the opinion of these women was that those of us who failed simply weren't trying hard enough. If I'm powerless over my addiction, how will trying harder make any difference.

You should note that I am being critical of these sponsors and not of the 12 steps in and of themselves. These sponsors had become so convinced that they were perfect that they could not envision a case where a sponsee would not want to follow them slavishly except where the sponsee simply "didn't want it bad enough". In every case these sponsors were simply neither following the letter of nor the spirit of the program. They were instead following a cult of power that had grown up around the program. I have found that decades of doing something wrong do not enable a person to effectively do something right. I have found that, the more experience a person has doing something, the more likely they are to be bad at doing it! It is simply too easy to allow bad habits to creep in. 

Many of these sponsors don't even try to follow the program. One of my sponsors and grand-sponsors refused to go over step work in person, instead setting aside two evenings a week for two to three hours each evening where the sponsee could call them to go over the work. I was told that I could have a personal meeting every two weeks for up to two hours. I assure you that I did not feel special, and I realized that "the therapeutic value of one addict helping another" was not a concept that would be used in my recovery with that sponsor.

Most of these sponsors are "one taggers", having gotten clean and never relapsed. I relapsed so many times I stopped picking up white tags. How can a woman who was able to stop cold turkey and never relapse relate to a woman who relapses multiple times? These sponsors would tell me things such as "you never have to use again if you really don't want to!" The message being that, if I relapsed, it was my fault, not hers or the programs. I simply didn't want it bad enough. This is a wonderful philosophy if you wish to divorce yourself as a sponsor from all responsibility for your actions as a sponsor to a sponsee. It effectively absolves the sponsor from any responsibility and allows her to be completely inept while still putting responsibility solely on the sponsee. 

What kind of addict is it that can put the drugs down and never relapse? Was she ever actually addicted to the drugs at all or was she just a sad and lonely person who needed the validation of the group? I am happy for those people that can do this, but only an idiot would believe that such a person could relate to me or give me meaningful advise. For such a person to give an addict such as myself trite advice such as that mentioned above reflects poorly only on the sponsor, not on the sponsee. Sponsors such as these believe that "white knuckling it", wanting to use so bad that you have to grip the sides of your chair till your knuckles turn white in order to keep yourself from getting up and going to get drugs, is OK! Their remedy is simply to go to more meetings. Live in the meeting room! It is not uncommon for these sponsors to tell the sponsee to go to three to five meetings per day!

After getting out of rehab I went to a meeting at a new group as I had moved in with my mother away from my home area. In my first meeting two men were cursing out the entire group, including me specifically, and not a soul did a thing about it. I stayed after, waiting for the eight o'clock meeting and these men with a few others continued to use language such as I hadn't heard since I was in the USMC. I kept my cool through all of it, but about fifteen or twenty minutes until eight I thought to myself "why would I want to be a member of a group that would allow men to swear at women and children?" I picked up my stuff, walked across the room by the men and told them as I was walking by "gentlemen, your language is offensive", and I walked out. 

An older man who apparently had forties years clean and who had been the primary offender had a gleam in his eye and a grin on his face as I walked out. He had achieved his objective. He had intentionally cursed at me during the meeting because he did not want a woman of faith to stay in that group. He wanted to offend me. No less than I was trying to follow the path of Jesus and to be a good person, he was following the path of Satan and doing his best to do evil. 

"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.Martin Luther King Jr.

I went to several AA meetings but their literature and opening statements clearly say "alcohol related issues only", and, while I was told to lie (seriously!) I can't see how lying to get into a 12 step group is a sound basis for recovery. Even in these groups I experienced profanity unchecked; they state that "no profanity will offend no one" but then allow it to go unchecked. I was told in one AA meeting, by a potential sponsor, that I was not allowed to quote the bible in open meetings! The 12 steps never helped me; God healed my addiction. To be told that I couldn't quote the word of God was simply offensive. And I do mean "quote"; I wasn't trying to read from my bible, just quote passages from memory! As I don't consider Bill W to be a prophet and the programs he founded never helped me, I couldn't see quoting his words and giving him credit for my recovery when it was God that healed me, not Bill. Bill W even states in their literature that the non-alcoholic addict cannot be helped by being a member of AA! I am effectively banned from participation!

I finally decided to try Celebrate Recovery, even though I'm gay and they have programs to "heal" homosexuality, I felt I was at the end of the road with both NA and AA and have attended two separate meetings. In both I have met with acceptance and have found an environment where I do not believe I will have to put up with profanity and outbursts. It is made clear that offensive language and graphic descriptions are not allowed, quoting of scripture is allowed, and that anyone can hold up a hand to signal that the speaker is causing her to "trigger" and appropriate steps will be taken.

I haven't given up on the 12 steps; I have given up on both AA and NA as organizations. Neither have programs that actually follow the principles of the 12 steps or that are concerned with helping the addict (addicted to any substance) recover. Their approach is analogous to a ships captain having only one size life preserver on board, small, and stating that anyone who drowns because the life preserver wasn't the size for them simply didn't paddle hard enough! They have set up elitist clubs where sadists are allowed free reign based on length of membership and have lost sight of their primary purpose; to help the addict who still suffers. They read the words before each meeting that "the newcomer is the most important person at any meeting", but then treat newcomers with disrespect if they don't disregard them entirely. Judging the 12 steps harshly based on these egomaniacal organizations would be silly. The 12 steps make sense. The egomaniacs who use them as a facade for their sadistic and self serving behavior are no more a representation of the message and intent of the steps than are modern day evangelical Christians representative of the message of Jesus.

I do want to be part of a recovery group, both to keep my recovery sound and to be able to help others eventually. God healed me of my addiction and I am effectively recovered. I no longer identify myself as an addict; nor do I identify myself as a prostitute. To maintain and continue growth as a former addict who has been healed and who has recovered I know that I need to maintain my relationship with God. I also want to develop and build friendships among others who are in recovery or who have recovered. I think I have found that in Celebrate Recovery. 

If you can find an AA or NA meeting that follows the message of the 12 steps, and a sponsor that is more concerned about your recovery than she is about her ego, that is wonderful! But do not believe anyone that tells you that you are the problem! Read the AA big book and/or NA blue book for yourself! If someone tells you something that seems out of place, ask for clarification and do not settle for justification! This is the sample principle I apply to the bible. I do not listen to those who espouse principles that do not pass the test of the words of Jesus. You should not listen to those who tell you things that do not pass the principles of the 12 steps! Your recovery is your own. You are responsible for your recovery! You have a right to demand an explanation that meets the 12 step principles, and you have a right to be treated with courtesy and respect.

As a newcomer to any meeting, you are the most important person in the room! If you are not made to feel that way, go somewhere else!

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Please remember that I am posting my story solely for the purpose of helping others clarify their own. I will appreciate your supportive, kind, or constructive comments.