Truth and Lies in 12 Step Programs

Truth and Lies in 12 Step Programs


The alcoholism and addiction recovery industry has a lot of growing up to do.

This is not really a criticism, it is more of an observation. The industry is quite young compared to other things that we have learned about. How many years have rehab centers been around for, really? Less than a hundred? That is a drop in the bucket compared to the overall history of medicine. We still have a lot to learn, and have only scratched the surface of recovery strategies and techniques.

The modern day solution is to essentially point people towards AA and the 12 step program. This has both good and bad points. Certainly it works for some people, but it definitely has some limitations. But especially troubling is how some of the more vocal people in the program tote it as being the one true solution. If you are steering people away from potential solutions then that is when you get into problems.

Let’s take a deeper look at these ideas.

The 12 step program and the benefits of it

AA is not without value. There is a lot of benefit for the typical newcomer who is struggling to get clean and sober.

For example, the idea of daily meetings can be especially powerful and supportive. How else could people really come together and try to help each other in this capacity? It can be done without the formality of meetings, but it is fairly difficult to organize and coordinate if you don’t have set meeting times. So this structure of regular meetings is fairly powerful.

The suggested steps are another point in favor of the program. While I don’t think it is a perfect solution by any means, it is certainly better than taking no action at all. Essentially, any recovery program that is based on abstinence is like saying to the alcoholic: “Here, don’t drink alcohol and then do this, this, and that” where “this” and “that” are positive actions that help to improve their lives. What I have found in my journey though is that the “this” and “that” can be fairly arbitrary positive actions; the steps themselves do not have any special magic in them. I intuitively realized this the first time I read through all 12 of the steps and realized that they were not closely enough linked to sobriety in order to be revolutionary. In other words, I could tell that the steps would be helpful and transforming, but I also realized that there were definitely other ways to transform. Someone thought these steps up. They were somewhat arbitrary. I realized that they were designed to free you from alcoholism and diseased thinking, but they were not specifically tailored to my own diseased mind. There was an arbitrary quality to the steps.

Sponsorship is another idea that has definite value. Modeling the success of someone else in recovery makes a lot of sense. There are certainly worse ways that you can try to learn something. Modeling works well because you get a “shortcut” to wisdom. You can bypass many mistakes that others have made if you are willing to listen to someone’s advice. This is really what the program of AA is built on, one person helping another to avoid all of their previous mistakes. If you can listen and learn from someone else then you can do well in AA. The key is in simply getting out of your own way and killing your ego.

There are definitely benefits in AA if the program works for you. If it saves your life then it is pretty hard to argue with that. On the other hand it is does not save everyone’s life, and in fact the success rates are pretty questionable (though it is always a struggle to get accurate data from large groups of recovering alcoholics due to anonymity).

How to be misled in AA or NA

I was misled in AA for the first year or so of my recovery. This was not terribly bad, it is just what happened, and I got over it. Instead of getting angry I simply changed course at some point.

What was misleading to me was the people in AA and how they spoke about recovery. It is not necessarily the program’s fault. Rather, it is the people in the meetings who misled me in certain ways.

The biggest thing that misled me was the idea that AA was the only true solution for recovery, and that if I were to leave AA that I would drink and I would die. This was the biggest lie that all of the other lies were sort of based on.

For me this was a very discouraging piece of information to deal with, because I had some amount of anxiety about sitting in AA meetings. I was not comfortable in most meetings. My anxiety was not overwhelming, but it never really got any better either. I attended meetings every day for about 18 months or so and I even chaired a small meeting by myself (in a detox center). But speaking in the meetings never got any easier for me even though I forced myself to keep talking at them.

So during that 18 months I was told this lie over and over again, that if I left AA I was going to drink and relapse and die. And I did not to relapse and die, obviously. But at the same time I was discouraged by the fact that the program did not seem like a very good fit for my personality. I would sit in meetings and realize that I had heard the same things over and over again. When I asked my sponsor about this, he challenged me to “bring something positive to the meeting instead of complaining about it,” so I tried to do that. But the bigger picture was that I really had to take a step back from meetings altogether and look at my overall contribution in life. AA meetings are just one outlet, but there are other venues in life. But this is something that I could not see at the time, because I was clouded by the “conventional wisdom” that I was hearing in AA. The wisdom that says that you have to go to daily meetings or you will relapse and die.

If you talk with people further about this idea in AA then you will start to uncover the truth. The truth is that these people really believe that the AA program has a magical path through the 12 steps and that this is the only possible way that you could ever stay sober in life. I had to challenge that idea in my own mind because it felt wrong to me. It was as if they were saying that no one could ever have sobered up before AA because they did not have the directions to do so. This felt wrong to me because AA is really quite young in the great scheme of things. Many alcoholics were lost in the past (pre-AA) but a few figured out a way to live a life of sobriety. These few were never popularized or studied closely though because they no longer appeared to be alcoholic.

So after my first year in recovery and in AA I started to question conventional wisdom. I was asking myself: “What a minute…..what really keeps people sober? If it is not the magic of the 12 steps, then what is it really?” Because I knew deep down that the 12 steps were somewhat arbitrary. I knew that they were helpful but not really precise. For example, the 12 steps don’t even tell you not to drink, this is just assumed. Surely there is a more precise set of instructions that leads to sobriety?

What really keeps people clean and sober

So I started to explore what really keeps people clean and sober.

I did this by observing others and talking with others in recovery.

I was also observing myself as I slowly drifted away from the daily AA meetings.

What I found was that people who are successful in long term sobriety tend to follow certain patterns. They employ certain principles. And yet some of these ideas are not really explained or discussed in the 12 step program. Although I definitely found quite a bit of overlap as well.

For example, the principle of “surrender” is universal and fundamental to recovery. Everyone goes through this process, whether they get sober through AA or not. It has nothing to do with AA necessarily, it has to do with surrendering to your alcoholism and realizing that you need serious help. This is fundamental to recovery.

Another principle that I found was that of holistic health. Meaning that the people I found who were living a successful life in sobriety were taking care of themselves in many different ways. They were not limiting themselves to spiritual growth (as the 12 steps suggest). Instead, they were exploring spiritual growth, physical health, emotional balance, improving relationships, and so on. Now some people will argue and say that all of that stuff also happens in AA, and is a part of AA. But this is not what I was told in AA. I was told that the magic in AA was in those 12 steps, and that if you really want to stay sober then you need to focus on the steps. And the steps are all about spiritual growth. They also touch on a few things in the social realm as well, but for the most part it is just limited to spiritual growth + a little bit of focus on social health.

So I had to discover this for myself, how limiting this actually is. If you want to put a positive spin on this limitation then you might argue that it is “focus” instead. So the 12 steps are all about focusing your efforts on spiritual growth.

So then the argument becomes: Is spiritual growth the best way to recover from alcoholism, or is holistic growth?

What I discovered for myself was that spiritual growth was seriously limiting. Holistic growth was much more powerful for me.

There are people in recovery, for example, who stay clean and sober through a program of physical exercise. Really, this is their primary method of staying sober. They work out. A whole lot. And this becomes their foundation of recovery. This actually works for some people.

Now I am not suggesting that you need to pursue this particular recovery program of doing intense workouts. But what I am suggesting is that this shows how powerful the holistic approach really is. If exercise can work for some people, then do you see how it could potentially help everyone in recovery?

The same thing is true of spirituality, which is what AA is founded on. If everyone would just find God, then they could be sober! Well, this is true, but it is also just one slice of a much bigger truth.

And that bigger truth is about holistic health.

Spirituality is but one aspect of your overall health. You are a physical being. You have a mind. You have emotions. You have a spirit. And you are a social creature. You have all of these themes that make up your health, and yet AA only focuses on one of these themes–spirituality.

This is a mistake.

The stronger path in recovery (in my experience) is to work on your overall health from a holistic standpoint. Spiritual growth is great, and it was a big part of my recovery. But so was physical health. In fact, I would say that overall, my physical health has played an even bigger role than my spiritual growth has. To people in AA that probably sounds like blasphemy. But I am being realistic and seeking the truth here, and I want to help people with that truth. If you focus on spirituality at the expense of your physical health then you are making a huge mistake. I have watched too many people die in recovery because they neglected their physical health while being in AA.

The holistic path to recovery is the truth that I discovered for myself after my first year of sobriety went by. I realized that there were fundamental principles in recovery that went beyond AA.

Damaging claim: “AA is the only way”

I know that AA helps a lot of people. But many people also relapse while in AA. And supposedly the program lets around 70 percent of newcomers slip through its fingers (according to their internal census data). There are even some people who are sober in AA and become miserable so they commit or attempt suicide. It happens.

I am not here to talk you out of AA necessarily. I am just trying to get people to realize the truth: that recovery is something that is beyond AA, it exists and it is available without the “magic” of the 12 steps.

There is a story about “the finger pointing at the moon.” The essence of that story is that the finger that point at the moon is not actually the moon. The application of this to AA is that the AA program itself is not recovery. It points to recovery. And it is one path that can take you to recovery. But it is not recovery.

The problem that I had in early sobriety was that so many people told me that AA was the only true path to salvation. That if I left AA I would relapse and die. That this was the only way forward.

All of those people were wrong. And the reason this is important has to do with hope. I got more hope from the holistic approach to recovery than what I was getting from AA.

When they “sentenced” me to a lifetime of daily AA meetings, that did not give me hope. I felt depressed and discouraged, because the meetings were such a poor fit for me.

I had to find hope somewhere else. I had to build my own ladder to hope. And I did that by figuring out the real fundamentals of successful sobriety. Some of these matched up with AA, but some of them did not. The holistic approach is what keeps me sober today. And that approach is based on taking care of yourself in every aspect: Physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social.

Finding what works for you through true open mindedness

If you want to be open minded in early recovery, by all means, go to AA. Start there. It may not be the perfect recovery program but it is certainly better than nothing. And you can use it as a foundation to start building your knowledge of recovery.

To be open minded you should consider more than just what is spoken at the AA meetings. You have to look beyond that. For one thing, I never considered what someone was saying in a meeting if that person did not have the sort of life that I wanted to live. Does that sound terrible of me? I couldn’t help it. Sometimes the person who continuously relapsed seemed to talk the most. I don’t want to hear their “wisdom.” They had nothing that I wanted to learn. So I had to filter things.

If you take this even further than you should realize that there are “winners” in life who are doing things outside of AA that might interest you. This is how I eventually discovered exercise in my own life, which became a huge building block of my recovery foundation. I did not get this information from AA. That was impossible, because they were far too focused on the spiritual aspect of recovery. So I had to learn that critical piece of information outside of AA.

I am not trashing AA or saying that it is not helpful. But you need to realize that the limitation of AA is essentially saying to you: “all you need is spiritual growth.” To me this was a lie. It was not a terrible lie, because most people in AA overlooked it and sort of assumed that other things might be important for their recovery too–things such as exercise, quitting smoking, eliminating toxic relationships from their lives, and so on. But the steps don’t explicitly talk about those things. They don’t tell you to explore the holistic approach.

So that is really the key point that I want to convey to you. I don’t want you to miss out on this opportunity. It is not that you need to leave AA or anything. It is just that there is this huge potential for growth in recovery, and only a tiny sliver of that potential growth is ever addressed in AA. They focus only on the spiritual aspect. But this is only about 20 or 30 percent of what has kept me sober over the last 12 plus years. The other 80 percent I had to discover on my own, and that was all related to holistic health.

What truths have you discovered in recovery? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!


  1. Thank-you, Patrick for a refreshingly balanced take on AA. I have been sober for 32 years and attended AA for most of that time. I definitely benefitted from the wisdom of the 12 steps and I made wonderful life-long friends there. But I found the attitude that you talk about – the “AA is the only way” belief to be pervasive. Actually, if they could lose that attitude, I would have almost no complaints about AA. About 10 years ago, I found LifeRing Secular Recovery, one of 3 very viable alternatives to the 12 step programs. It is responsible for the life-long sobriety of thousands of people. LifeRing, SMART Recovery and Women for Sobriety do not claim to be better than the 12 step groups, just different, and as such, they may be right for some of the people who are not suited for the 12 step approach. The problem is that they are very little known. All of them are self-supporting non-profits with no budget for advertising, so the word has been very slow getting out. If, in future blogs, you could see your way to mentioning these alternative organizations, we would all be most grateful.

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