Dealing With Your Addiction: Why A 12 Step Program May Not Be Enough

Telling people who have been in recovery that the 12 Steps many not work is akin to making a racial slur. People who have been helped by the 12 Steps are very militant, they have the Big Book virtually memorized, and are dedicated to going to several meetings per week for the rest of their life.

I have no problem with that, if it works. But more times than we are willing to admit it’s just not enough.

According to AA, 33 percent of the 8,000 North American members it surveyed had remained sober for over 10 years. Twelve percent were sober for 5 to 10 years; 24 percent were sober 1 to 5 years; and 31 percent were sober for less than a year.

The study didn’t disclose how long each person interviewed had been working the rooms to achieve sobriety. It also revealed little about the percentage of people who attended AA, relapsed, and left the program. A 1990 summary of five different membership surveys (from 1977 through 1989) reported that 81 percent of alcoholics who engaged in the program stopped attending within a year. And only 5% of the AA attendees surveyed had been attending meetings for more than a year.

As a counselor who works part-time at an addictions centre I can testify that for many people just getting to a meeting, admitting you’re powerless, and becoming accountable, is a very good though not necessarily efficacious solution to your addiction issues.

What 12 Step groups do not do is as important to understand as what they do. 12 Step programs do not allege that they are good at counseling. They are, in point of fact, very up front about their “one alcoholic (addict) helping another alcohol (addict)” stance.

What is often missing for those who struggle is the ‘why’ question. Many substance abusers are self medicating their hurts, fears, boredom, mental issue, or past abuse. They felt they were unable to cope with the pain and drinking or drugging provided a way for things to feel better. Consequently some people also do that with online chatting, or pornography, or masturbation, or even World Of Warcraft. 12 Step Groups cannot help you come to understand your historic and ongoing love affair with serotonin, dopamine, or GABA.

In counseling many people come to realize that stopping substance abuse is only the first part of the solution. Once they remove the medicating effects of that crutch the lingering effects of trauma, hurt, or mental illness begins to thrust its way back to the surface. They may have dealt with the symptom of their problem (substance abuse) without realizing that the actual reason for self medicating has not been addressed. They don’t really have a drinking problem as much as they have a trauma issue, for example.

It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to realize that if I quit drinking but do not address the important questions behind the substance abuse I may be a ticking time bomb of pain, seeking other and potentially more destructive coping mechanisms.

If you have been dealing with an addiction issue perhaps it is time to ask yourself the ‘why’ question. You might find that underneath that need to use is an issue that you have been trying to ignore or medicate for years, that will not simply go away with time. If you know you need help, or are unsure but wonder if the problem is deeper than you thought, talk to someone who can help.

Talk to a counselor that doesn’t suck.

2 thoughts on “Dealing With Your Addiction: Why A 12 Step Program May Not Be Enough

  1. “It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to realize that if I quit drinking but do not address the important questions behind the substance abuse I may be a ticking time bomb of pain, seeking other and potentially more destructive coping mechanisms.”

    Too many alcoholics in recovery take this approach and move on to other addictions, especially sex. If they don’t address the iceberg 80% below the water line, then they will continue to act-out their pain and emotions in other unhealthy manners.

    1. That’s an excellent point and one which does not get enough attention. I remember a 12 Step group I attended where a guy was not drinking but was eating 3-4 large bags of sunflower seeds a day and his lips were massively swollen from the salt. One could ask if he had actually addressed his addiction or not.

      There is some good literature out there suggesting that it’s easier to get clients to switch addictions than it is to get them to stop. I have issue with this on a long term basis although can see the veracity of going from using heroin to working out 7 days a week. Nonetheless the issues still remain and need to be addressed and dealt with.

      Most of my addiction clients have several addictions they are working through at one time and have had addictive behaviour since they were young. With these clients I often ask, “Do you have a drug addiction or a serotonin/dopamine/gaba etc. addiction?

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