Stop Believing in Arbitrary Steps and Magical Forces in Traditional Recovery

Stop Believing in Arbitrary Steps and Magical Forces in Traditional Recovery

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Disclaimer: My intention is not to steer anyone away from something that may be working. However, I know some struggling addicts and alcoholics who continue to relapse while working a 12 step program, and yet they come back after a relapse and defend the program and scold themselves for having relapsed. The program doesn’t fail anyone; they fail the program. And they believe that they are entirely at fault (which they are) but then they put the 12 step program up on this pedestal, which is to say that it is the perfect (and only) true path to recovery. This is wrong. I want to challenge people to think about what is truly important in recovery. If you are in AA, NA, a religious based program, or any other program that is actually working for you, then by all means, keep working it! But if you are a victim of chronic relapse then you may benefit from the ideas in this article (which hold true even if you are working a successful program of recovery, regardless of which program it is).


Recovery is all about change. You’ve likely heard it before: “If nothing changes, nothing changes.” The entire premise of recovery is to change, to do something different.

Recovery programs attempt to get you to change. This is the entire secret of recovery: you have to stop abusing your body, stop self destructing, and start living in a healthier way. The problem is getting people to the point where they can make the changes and then stick with it.

Sometimes people in recovery find something that “works” for them, only to later relapse. When they relapse, they blame themselves, but they never seem to blame the program that they were attempting to use in order to find recovery. Later on they may try to sober up again, and when they do they insist that they just need to “follow their program” that did not work for them in the past.

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The main idea here is that such people are assigning special meaning to a program that is not really magical at all. There are two paths that such an individual might take at this point:

1) They can try to get clean and sober again, using the same program that failed them in the past, and continue to believe in the magical power of that program (i.e., the 12 steps are the only true path to sobriety, or that no one can get sober without finding God, etc.). Such a person might be able to commit more fully to the program next time and make it work.

2) They can realize that there is no magical path to recovery, and only a true commitment to sobriety will ultimately keep them sober (i.e., the 12 steps of AA are helpful but ultimately somewhat arbitrary).

Many will argue that the 12 steps have special powers and will lead anyone to recovery, but they fail to miss the bigger implication here: That the steps themselves are arbitrary. The implication in AA and NA is that you maintain abstinence and not use any drugs or alcohol. This is actually never stated explicitly in AA but is instead just implied. But the implied commitment to total abstinence is the entire point. You could rewrite the 12 steps to make other helpful suggestions (about holistic health for example) and so long as the implication exists about total abstinence then such a program would work just fine.

The myth of a secret formula for recovery

The idea that here is a secret formula for addiction recovery is a myth. There is no magical path to recovery.

The problem is that certain people have found a successful path to recovery so they believe that the path that finally worked for them is the only path that could ever work for anyone. It is actually pretty understandable that people think this way due to the nature of addiction and our struggle to get clean and sober.

The struggling addict or alcoholic has to battle for years or even decades before they finally get clean and sober. Long before they finally sober up for good, they try all sorts of different things in order to control or curtail their using. And most addicts and alcoholics try very hard to quit on their own, over and over again. Repeated failure is commonplace. What they are doing is learning what does not work, and what the depth of their commitment must truly be. Surface level attempts to get clean and sober are not good enough to make a sustainable recovery. This becomes a learning process that unfolds over a long period of time.

So the struggling addict feels like they have tried everything when they finally surrender. It is a little bit like when you lose your keys….where did you find them? In the last place you looked, of course! Why would you keep looking after you had found them? That would not make sense.

In the same way, people who finally get clean and sober by going to AA (or perhaps to a religious based program) become convinced that they have stumbled on the ultimate secret of recovery. Because they struggled for so long and nothing worked for them, they are convinced that the program that finally got them sobered up is the answer for every addict and alcoholic.

This gets taken a step further when they assign magical powers to the arbitrary steps in whatever program got them sobered up. What they fail to realize is that the steps did not really do all that much to sober them up. They did that on their own. They sobered themselves up. The 12 steps (or any other program they may have followed instead, including any religious based program) may have helped them to recover, but those steps were not the magical thing that produced recovery. Their commitment to abstinence and taking positive action is all that was required. The programs and steps are incidental. That does not mean that they are not helpful, or that they do not work. It just means that they are not the magical secret that many people thought that they were.

The stand on your head recovery program

Let me try to challenge your thinking for a moment:

Let’s create a hypothetical recovery program. It has 2 steps rather than 12 steps. The 2 steps will be:

1) Don’t use addictive drugs or alcohol no matter what.
2) Every time you have a craving stand on your head until it goes away.

Would it work? Of course it would. I realize that it is also ridiculous, but it still makes an important point.

Just imagine if this were the program that society followed rather than AA, NA, or religious based programs. People would still relapse at times, and everyone would say “well, they just weren’t following the program. If they would have followed the 2 steps, they would not have relapsed.” And they would be exactly right. Of course they would not have relapsed if they had just followed those 2 critical steps.

Do you see why this illustrates how arbitrary the 12 steps really are?

We could easily design another program of recovery based on 2 simple steps.

For example, how about this hypothetical program:

1) Don’t use addictive drugs or alcohol no matter what.
2) Take positive action each and every day of your life to improve your health and your life situation.

Would this program of recovery work? Of course it would. In fact this is very much the formula that I have followed for the last ten years. After attending AA and NA meetings for about a year I eventually drifted away from them and simply started taking positive action and making healthy choices. In doing so, I realized eventually that it was the depth of my commitment to sobriety that really created my success, not an arbitrary set of steps that I followed (or did not follow).

For example, at some point in my recovery journey I started exercising on a regular basis. This was something that I had never done in the past and it was a totally new experience for me. Like recovery itself, it took some time for the true benefits of distance running to kick in for me. At first, exercise felt like a lot of work with only pain and struggle as the reward. But this was only in the short run. After sticking with it for several months, something clicked, and suddenly exercise became a powerful gift. It also became one of the pillars of my recovery effort. Not only did it vastly improve the quality of my life, but it granted me a new degree of freedom based on being in good shape. Now I was suddenly able to do things that I was not willing to do in the past, because I had a new level of energy. I also had learned a new level of discipline, and in becoming a distance runner I was able to translate this discipline into other activities.

Traditional recovery programs (to include AA and most religious based programs) do not lend themselves to this sort of discovery. No one ever said to me in an AA or NA meeting that I should consider exercise as an important part of my recovery. They never suggested that it could become so important to me that it would be a pillar of my sobriety, and one of my main techniques to continued recovery. And yet this is exactly what happened, and the gift of fitness and exercise became a huge part of my recovery.

Before I had discovered exercise in my recovery, I already suspected that the 12 steps were arbitrary. Making this discovery about exercise and how much it helped me to stay sober only further confirmed these suspicions.

One of the problems with mainstream recovery is that they are so afraid of change that they will not hear of objections like the one I am posing here. They will say something like “Well, anyone in AA is free to exercise if that helps them.” This sort of misses the point though, because these traditional recovery programs do not encourage holistic health. Instead they focus only on one tiny sliver of your overall health: your spiritual health.

The 12 steps are set up to arrange a spiritual awakening, one that can bring about a personality change that is sufficient to overcome the “selfish problem of addiction.” The problem with this approach is that it is so incredibly limiting–the only focus is on spiritual growth. This is to the exclusion of all other forms of growth. The first year of my recovery was spent sitting in AA meetings where everyone smoked cigarettes constantly. No one encouraged or even suggested that I supplement my recovery program with exercise. That would become part of the holistic approach that I would figure out years later.

My point is that traditional recovery programs, while helpful for some, are somewhat limiting for others. If the AA program can prevent me from discovering something (like distance running) that would completely transform my recovery, then something is missing from that approach. What is missing is the holistic approach to recovery, an approach to focuses on personal growth rather than just on spiritual growth.

Spiritual growth may be the answer for a very small fraction of addicts and alcoholics. But personal growth is a much more comprehensive solution for recovery, and one that can include spiritual growth as well.

Doing what works for YOU in recovery

All that matters is that an individual find sobriety and discover a new life of hope.

This may happen through a religious based program, through the 12 step program, or through your own personal path of personal growth.

I eventually discovered that the structured programs I was initially following were far too limiting and restrictive in terms of growth. They focused on spiritual growth at the expense of other types of personal growth.

Conisder for a moment that there are recovering addicts and alcoholics who stay sober based only on meditation. Then consider that there is another group of recovering addicts and alcoholics who stay sober based only on physical exercise. There are such groups that have been living in recovery for years or even decades, just doing their own thing that works for them.

Traditional recovery programs (such as AA) would try to tell such groups that they are doing it wrong, that they need to embrace the 12 steps, because that is the only way that truly works. They would warn such groups that eventually they will relapse, and come crawling back to AA at some point. But this is not what I have experienced or witnessed in my own journey. I have met many people who work a “non traditional recovery,” who find their own path in recovery based on personal growth rather than on an arbitrary set of rules.

If someone told you that you HAD to run marathons in order to stay clean and sober, would you believe them?

Probably not, and you would be wise to ignore such advice, as it is clearly wrong. But the same is true if someone told you that you HAD to embrace the 12 steps, or AA, or that you HAD to find a higher power in order to recover.

And the same idea applies to the arbitrary 12 steps. Really you only need 2 steps, and the first one must always be this:

* Don’t use drugs or alcohol no matter what.

The step following that can really be whatever works for you. It is up to the individual to experiment in their recovery journey and find the things that help them to succeed. My belief (and discovery) is that taking positive action every day is the foundation of my life in recovery. It is all about growth and being consistent. If you keep taking positive action every day then over the months and years this adds up to enormous progress. But you have to be willing to take that action and make that commitment to growth.

If traditional recovery programs such as AA help you to do this, then you have found your solution. Don’t let me steer you away from organized recovery programs. They did not really work for me but that doesn’t mean that they cannot help anyone. What I am challenging people to accept here is the idea that you may be stuck in a traditional program that is no longer serving you. You may be believing that an arbitrary set of steps is a magical process that keeps you clean and sober, when in fact it may be preventing you from seeking and finding growth that could serve you better.

Ask yourself:

“Have I accepted full responsibility for my recovery today? Do I accept the fact that the only thing keeping me clean and sober is the strength of my commitment to do so?”

You may also ask yourself:

“Am I taking positive action every day in my life? Am I working a program of recovery that is serving me well, or am I struggling to find growth?” Keep in mind that sometimes you may have to look outside of traditional recovery programs in order to find personal growth (like I did with distance running).


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