Only 12 Steps to My Sober Paradise?

I do not actively attend meetings of 12 Steps groups for either of my addictions at the moment. My evolution in recovery is one that they are not necessary for me anymore. But for those who ask, here’s my story/experience with them.

I believe some people are wired to take to programs like Alcoholics Anonymous or Sex Addicts Anonymous better than others. I’m not really a follower, I’m a leader, which is probably why my favorite 12-step meetings that I felt I got the most out of were the ones when I was chairing the meeting.

My first 12-step meeting took place at a church in Laguna Beach, California was in early April 2014. It was the second or third day I was at an inpatient rehabilitation facility for alcoholism, Spencer Recovery Center. About a week after being evaluated at the main facility, I was transferred to their less-intense location in Palm Springs.

While most of my fellow clients were heroin addicts who were told to identify as an alcoholic so we wouldn’t be looked at sideways, it was at that AA meeting I first felt like I could identify with other addicts. At Spencer’s Laguna Beach location, it was mostly kids under 25 who were still actively using at the facility (drugs were sent over a fence nightly). They were usually mandated by a judge or wealthy parents who threatened to cut them off from the money supply if they didn’t get help.

Seeing Familar, Yet Not Familiar, Faces

The men in that room at the church were around my age, dressed like I did when I was back home and had varying levels of professional success. It wasn’t much of a leap to assume nobody else at my rehab had served on their local City Council. I could have seen most of these intelligent, middle-aged men at the AA meeting serving alongside me.

I had no intention of saying a word that night, still of the belief I didn’t have an alcohol problem, but playing along. While I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the 12 Steps or readings from The Big Book that night, it was an eye-opener because it let me know that my peer group could be affected.

Once transferred to Palm Springs, I attended AA or NA meetings nightly as part of the overall program. One of the things that was nice about the Palm Springs rehab was that we attended a variety of meetings. I enjoyed the fellowship and camaraderie of some and stared at the clock like it was seventh period Algebra in others.

One group I discovered late in my stay was mostly older gentlemen. Only I and maybe two or three others from the rehab had the permission to leave the property to attend on our own. I felt a connection to these men that I didn’t in any other group. This was mostly two dozen guys who I could imagine myself being in 30 years.

Cocaine Anonymous

The other group I enjoyed was actually Cocaine Anonymous. I’ve only seen the drug a few times in my life and have never tried it. I simply went for the journey to a satellite Betty Ford Center campus so I could say I had the experience of going to Betty Ford and a Cocaine Anonymous meeting.

What I saw in this group was devoid of all others: Joy. The place was packed, easily the largest meeting I attended. Unlike AA, which wants attendees to take things very seriously and only talk about alcohol, this group was up for hearing about anything. Their theory was nobody was JUST a cocaine addict. You had to have other things going on. At the beginning of meetings, when traditional opening readings were done, the audience participated as if we were at a Rocky Horror Picture Show screening, with a call-and-response routine I couldn’t help but laugh at. The whole thing had an energy that I could appreciate. I went to the meeting three or four weeks in a row because it was uplifting.   

After more than two months at the facility, I came home to Maine. I visited three or four different AA groups, but I just didn’t feel the connection to any of the people I met or heard stories from. I could have continued to attend meetings, but after being sober for a longer period than I had been since I was 15 years old, I decided to try it on my own.

Thankfully, I was able to get through it. I read the Big Book a few times, but I’m not sure if that was to maintain sobriety or simply reminisce about my transformative experience in the desert.

The Porn Pull Is Still There

Once I was sober, there was still a mighty pull toward pornography. After several months of this, I finally admitted to my wife and therapist if I could find a rehab to help me with the porn issues the way the first helped with my alcoholism, there might be some light at the end of the tunnel.

About a month later, I went to a facility in Texas, the Sante Center for Healing. It had a much stronger therapy component than Spencer, but it also relied on nightly meetings of 12 Steps. The drug and alcohol addicted residents attended a meeting in one room, those with eating disorders had theirs in another and those labeled sex addicts met in yet another. Probably half of the residents were cross-addicted, like me, and were welcomed at any meeting.

I found it disappointing we never went to Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings outside of the facility since Dallas, just 45 minutes down the road, had plenty. It was just the residents/clients who ran the meetings and depending on the mix of people at a given time, it was fantastic or a waste of time.

The socioeconomic status of Sante was much higher than Spencer. These were people with backgrounds much similar to me and whether someone was 10 years younger or 10 years older, it didn’t seem to matter. There were a few who were there under duress, but they never lasted too long.

A Different 12 Steps Experience

During meetings, I found that sticking to readings in the green book was not holding the attention of the 6-8 people who went to the meetings nightly. It was only at the end of the meeting, when we were allowed to speak that things felt therapeutic for me.

One of my big gripes about 12 steps meetings is the lack of discussion. It’s a series of short speeches, and should anybody interrupt, clarify, ask a question or make a comment, there will almost always be that one person who lives their life strictly by the rule of “no cross-talk during meetings” and will not hesitate to call it out. Technically, it’s not cross-talk, but Bill W. was a stockbroker, not an English major.

When I ran the meetings, I put the book down and turn the entire meeting into a discussion group. I’d pick a topic from the text, write it at the top of a dry erase board and put discussion questions under it.  I also used the Sex & Love Addicts Anonymous program to draw inspiration for the discussions. My biggest rule change was you could ask for or say you don’t want feedback and it was to be respected. Nobody ever shut another person down from what I can remember.

Within a week, our meetings went from 6-8 people to 12-14. All I will take credit for is creating a forum for people to talk openly about their issues without therapists on hand. A woman with a ketamine problem attended one meeting, because she needed to get it off her chest that she had prostituted herself years earlier. One man told the group about wrestling with a boy 20 years early and it moving into inappropriate areas. Another woman admitted to being a Sugar Baby.

The Need to Exchange Ideas

This group was more beneficial to understanding my issues with porn than any other. I was able to honestly talk about my porn usage that spun out of control. I could speak about what may have lead me to porn in the first place. While the group addressed some heavy, heavy stuff, there was a support that I felt had been lacking at almost all of the other 12 Steps meetings I attended for alcoholism.

Finding Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings in Maine in 2015 was like finding a needle in a haystack. There is one in my town weekly, whereas there are probably a dozen AA meetings daily. I left Sante, telling my wife I needed to attend meetings to remind myself that I was an addict. It wasn’t more than two weeks later I found myself looking at the clock. I just didn’t gel with the group. It was mostly men complaining about their wives who had no desire to really examine their issues.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t simply find another meeting without driving 45 minutes in another direction, and the other groups sounded like they were run by essentially the same people. They did it their way, which worked for them.

I got a lot of out certain 12 Steps meetings, but I don’t subscribe to their healing powers as many devotees do. I’m not sure how successful they are statistically. Nobody keeps track. Is 12 Steps any more successful than going cold turkey, seeing a therapist or any other attempt at quitting? The truth is, there is no scientific basis for 12-step programs working despite the fact they do with some people.

Not the Right Personality Type

At its core, there is dogma and rhetoric to 12 Steps that I just can’t agree with. I don’t believe I need to admit I’m powerless over alcoholic or pornography. For me, that mindset would just send me deeper into the addictions. In reality, I am the only person who has any power over my actions. Maybe its semantics, but my life became unmanagable because I didn’t recognize, nor seek help, sooner.

I begrudge nothing to the people who blindly subscribe to the 12 Steps dogma if it’s working for them. I understand that their recovery must be devoid of fluidity the way that my life must have it. If they stray outside the lines, they’ll fail. If I’m forced into a little box, I’ll fail.

And isn’t that what it’s all about? Isn’t sobriety, by whatever fashion, the goal? If cold turkey works, that’s great. I’ve met plenty of people who have simply walked away from their addictions. Sure, they great cravings like anyone else, but they were successful. Who am I to begrudge them that? I’ve heard the complaints that some AA meetings are full of “dry drunks” who haven’t learned anything. Folks say they aren’t different and are just the same people they were, but now don’t drink. To that, I say “Fantastic!” Them changing their lives is a different thing than them not drinking. Even if they are still miserable, there is a physical upside to not imbibing.

Still, You Should Give It a Try

My recovery had stops at meetings, which I took something from, but they were not going to be the answer. Staying away from pornography and alcohol can only be accomplished if I’m having active, not passive, interactions with others. It helps if they understand addiction, but it’s not necessary.

I would suggest to anybody that is questioning if they have an addiction to attend a 12 Steps group meeting. The worst case scenario is you’ll walk away in legit denial and continue with behavior that is self-destructive. The best case scenario is that you walk away, knowing you genuinely don’t have a problem…but let’s be honest, you wouldn’t be debating attending a meeting if you genuinely didn’t have a problem. I walked away saying, “I’m not alone in my addictions, but right now, this isn’t the longterm path for me.”

I probably attended groups for a combined 9 months. That may not seem like a lot, but it was the first step on my recovery journey. For that, I’m grateful for 12-step programs.

Featured Photo by Luis Quintero from Pexels

14 thoughts on “Only 12 Steps to My Sober Paradise?

  1. A leader in a 12-step program for over a decade now (Celebrate Recovery), I share your sentiments. Just walking into a meeting is stepping out of denial. For some, the steps are what they need most because they require a regimen to adhere to in order to get well. But our record for healing isn’t any better than secular programs because the bottom line is the addict must truly YEARN to overcome their obsession. Too many think simply following the steps will cure them without them making a mental & physical commitment to getting and staying sober. One’s attitude is, more often than not, the difference-maker.

    1. Very well said. No modality will work unless the addict works with it. I also think it’s important that all have an open mind to another’s recovery journey, even if it looks nothing like their own.

  2. “All I will take credit for is creating a forum for people to talk openly about their issues without therapists on hand.”

    A lot of this fits with my view that a big factor in a lot of mental health problems is a lack of connectedness/community. It just keeps coming up for me— that in so many things, where we go to support groups or to see a therapist, a lot of times just having the people to talk to and interact with was what people needed. It’s rarer and rarer to find people with the time to listen outside of those things. And you know, there’s this extra ‘barrier’ for some people to get into those things, just because it’s seen as this big step. Whereas talking to your neighbours, helping people out or other nice community things, would be a great preventative measure in a lot of cases.

    And of course I’m not trying to paint everything with a big brush (or whatever the expression is!), just saying it’s a significant proportion and it’s quite sad how the insular nature of western society is having this effect! Especially as a socially-isolated extroverted person 🤦‍♂️.

    “If I’m forced into a little box, I’ll fail.”

    I’m completely the same— a lot of your description of the meeting kind of made my skin crawl 😆. I used to join in an OCD skype support group, but it was just taking turns to do a monologue and it left me feeling worse. Another issue with clubs/groups— they rarely function well because one or two people can ruin it by selfishly dominating the conversation/time, unless they are led well. So yeah, flexibility and autonomy for me are key.

    1. With the advising/coaching side gig I offer to porn addicts and/or partners, I find that just having someone who you can talk to, who won’t judge and who understands what’s going on is so often the first step for recovery success. One of the most powerful things is the sense of relief I hear in men’s voices when they finally don’t feel alone because I’m the first addict they ever talked to who used to be like they are, or when I confirm or dismiss different things partners are thinking. The relief of understanding my side of things is palpable. I look at my role as just holding their hand between doing nothing and getting professional help.

      Great response. Thanks for sharing so much.

      1. Thanks man. Wow that’s really cool! Really rewarding. I had that feeling of relief when watching initial YouTube videos about ADHD, or hearing someone describe their experience of OCD on an ADHD podcast. Riveting stuff. And actually same when learning about porn addiction.

  3. The idea of admitting powerlessness and handing over power and control to God/higher power doesn’t seem like it would be the the right fit for everyone. When it works, it works, but if it involves a fundamental philosophical shift in relating to the world, it’s probably a lot less likely to be a good fit.

  4. Funny enough, my husband is dealing with this issue right now. Twelve Step (SA) just isn’t helping him any longer. With almost three years of sobriety, he recognizes how valuable the meetings and contacts were to him in the early stages of his recovery, but over the last 4-6 months he has concluded that it’s overly negative and that the lack of “cross talk” greatly diminishes the value of the meetings. He’d rather joint a group therapy meeting facilitated by his therapist.

    As a partner, I understand where he’s coming from. Not every shoe fits every foot. Nonetheless, it’s a bit of a nail biter for him to walk away from 12-Step. Yes, he can always go back, but would he if he needed to? Would he realize he needed to? I like to think the answer is “yes, of course” but the truth is that I don’t know.

    1. Well, I think you have to trust his recovery path. It may not be your preference, or the way you’d do it, but what would do in his position if the modality wasn’t working anymore? I think if you can get him into group therapy it’s a great lateral move.

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