This article is not meant to diagnose or provide medical advice—that responsibility lies with physicians. The author is not a licensed medical professional.
Addiction is an issue that impacts almost everyone in some way. I’ve been in recovery from alcoholism/addiction since January 2008. During that time, I’ve gone through ups and downs but have fortunately managed to stay sober. I’ll be answering a reader-submitted question about recovery every other week (information on how to submit below). I’m not an expert or mental health professional, just a sober person offering advice based on my experience and the research that’s available. This week, I’m talking about loud, authoritative people in 12-step meetings.
I read your column about potentially falling into other addictions after leaving alcohol itself behind. The word “addiction” itself is often thrown around in a cavalier way, both by everyday folk and people in or seeking recovery, but it seems clear to me as someone who’s been around 12-step programs for many years that it is extremely common for people to go right from casually laying off the booze to attending multiple meetings a day, not just in the short term but indefinitely, seemingly to the detriment of career, family time and so on.
In other words, people really do get hooked on meetings. Since these are the most visible people at any meeting and often the most vociferous, this sets up a situation in which the people nominally at the forefront of healing from addiction in these settings are actually still wallowing in a form of their disease. This makes them perhaps the worst possible envoys for recovery at such meetings, especially when they repeatedly say that multiple meetings a day are the cornerstone of their and others’ sobriety.
What are your thoughts on—to summarize—12-step addicts leading 12-step meetings?
From, Sober guy
Dear Sober guy,
This is an interesting and complicated question. I should get this disclaimer out right at the top: I’m not speaking on behalf of any 12-step organization (or any other organization for that matter). My opinion about this is just my opinion.
There is certainly a common criticism of 12-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous that they become a so-called “replacement addiction” for whatever the previous addiction was. Usually, I hear it from people who have a loved one who has been attending 12-step meetings. Let’s use fictional Sally and her partner Sam as an example. Sally is happy that Sam is getting sober (or trying to) but finds the number of meeting he attends, the sudden new vocabulary and behavior off-putting. Most devastatingly for Sally is the appearance of a group of people who seem to understand or be able to help with Sam’s addiction better than she could (when, in all likelihood, she’s been trying to help him with it for years to no avail). It’s one of those situations that’s painfully understandable on both sides: of course the addicted person should do whatever it takes to get and stay sober and of course the partner is going to feel hurt that they couldn’t help.
So while the Sally and Sam situation isn’t what you asked me about, the majority of the time I get questions about 12-step groups as a “replacement addiction,” it’s in the context of that scenario. Usually that’s just a period of adjustment (or, I guess, prolonged resentment). Either way, it usually doesn’t meet the criteria for addiction. (There are many definitions of addiction, which vary slightly from each other but a good short one is, “a brain disorder characterized by compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli despite adverse consequences.” A longer definition and explanations can be found here).
As for your actual question: ahhhh, yes. The dogmatic, vocal minority of any 12-step group (and possibly just any group). For those who haven’t spent as much time in group meetings as it sounds like you (and certainly, I) have, this analogy might help illustrate what Sober Guy is talking about: when I was a freshman in college, a student working with an environmental organization on campus gave a presentation in one of my classes (let’s call her Jane). I thought it sounded cool and went to sign up. At the first meeting, I realized that I might be in a bit over my head. While there were no “official” requirements for joining, Jane had plenty of ideas about what members were supposed to do. There was a right way and a wrong way to do everything; meetings were mandatory, a person had to do X amount of hours of outreach and education, etc. To be clear, there was nothing in the organization’s actual rules that dictated any of those rules. Jane had taken it upon herself, as the student head of the organization, to impose them. It was easy to tell that the other students in the organization didn’t love way the she ran things but fighting her was a battle no one wanted to wage. I didn’t return for a second meeting.
This is kind of what happens when someone who is at best overzealous and at worst self-righteous about his or her program of recovery dominates a 12-step meeting. I have yet to come across someone who truly seems addicted to meetings, though it can certainly become a central focus of one’s life.
For the uninitiated, a 12-step program has two major parts: the program itself (the 12-steps) and meetings. Both parts will vary slightly depending on any number of things: location, demographics, etc.—but the latter will vary much more so. Meetings in more conservative areas tend to have a more conservative feel, meetings in more progressive areas tend to have a more progressive feel. In every case, however (at least every case I’m aware of), the most vocal, enthusiastic—and yes—dogmatic members of the group are the most visible.
It’s a little bit like transferring to a different high school or starting college orientation. The person who volunteers to show the new students around is likely going to love the school and be super excited to show you around. They’ll describe all the pep rallies, football games, clubs and activities you can (and should!) be involved in. They don’t necessarily represent how the average student approaches or feels about the school but the peppiest kids are still the ones you meet right off the bat.
Of course, the stakes in a 12-step meeting are much higher. You’re not a college freshman exploring a campus for the first time, you’re a person struggling with a dependence or addiction and in a vulnerable state. This is when the dogma is dangerous. In a meeting that’s not supposed to have any hierarchy, there are people who appoint themselves leaders and misrepresent what the program actually entails.
Unfortunately, there’s not really a blanket fix for this issue. Like extreme religious fundamentalists, the actions of the extreme few tend to drown out the moderate majority. So what does this mean for a new person at a 12-step meeting? It may not be fair or right, but it’s up to the rest of the members to set the record straight.
In the specific case of Alcoholics Anonymous, I really like the guidelines listed on the Alcoholics Anonymous Australia website. I would encourage anyone thinking about attending an A.A. meeting to take a look at them and familiarize themselves with what A.A. does and does not do (and what is and isn’t its purpose). It is a support group with guidelines for recovery from addiction through a 12-step program. There are no requirements for membership other than “a desire to stop drinking” ... any other advice should be taken as such: suggestions, not demands. If one meeting doesn’t suit your needs, try other meetings. It’s really important that newcomers understand this because most are in a very vulnerable state when they first come into the room of a 12-step meeting.
The beauty of A.A. and other 12-step programs is that they’re founded on the notion that one person struggling with an addiction is often the best person to help another person struggling with that same issue. I absolutely believe in the effectiveness of this process. At the same time, people leading meetings (or just being very vocal or authoritative) can give the mistaken impression that they are somehow the authority on how best to approach a 12-step program. This is simply untrue. There is no single best way to approach a 12-step program. There are only approaches that work differently for different people. If you’re attending a 12-step meeting for the first time, I encourage you to talk to many members. Don’t just listen to one voice. Find people who are willing to listen to where you’re at and are open to meeting you there. With 12-step meetings and life in general, the loudest voice isn’t always the best one to listen to … I’ll let you go with that where you’d like …
Paste contributor Katie MacBride is a freelance writer and the associate editor of Anxy Magazine. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York Magazine and The Establishment. Every other week she will answer one recovery/addiction related question posed by our readers, based on her experience. Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org with Ask Katie in the subject. By emailing, you are agreeing to let Paste publish your email. Emails may be edited for length.