Evolving beyond 12 Steps

Is there anyone today who doesn’t know someone involved in a 12-Step program?

There are 12-Step programs for almost everything we can think of -- alcohol and drug dependency, gambling, eating disorders, compulsive over-spending, sex addiction, smoking, internet addiction, and codependency in relationships, to name but a few. Millions of people all over the world attend these meetings on a regular basis; in fact, it seems that anyone not involved in such a program is now in the minority.

I don’t deny that 12-Step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Codependents Anonymous, and Al-Anon have helped a significant number of people achieve and maintain sobriety from their addictive behaviours. However, after over 20 years of working in the addiction counseling field, as well as having maintained my own recovery for nearly 25 years, I am convinced that these programs are not appropriate for all people.

The 12 Steps were created by the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, for a group of upper-middle-class white Christian men in 1930's America, and the tenets of the program remain exactly as they were written back then. Is it really a surprise that some of it might not resonate for women, gays, minorities and many others in the 21st century?

I attended several different 12-Step programs during the early years of my recovery from addiction to painkillers that were prescribed for the debilitating agony of Crohn's Disease. At that time, in the late 1980’s, these groups were the only alternative for people wanting to stop indulging in addictive behaviours, and they quickly became a lifeline for me.

Eventually, however, several aspects of the 12 Steps became problematic for me, especially the use of language such as “God” and “His will for us.” As a non-Christian woman, I found myself becoming increasingly resistant to the patriarchal and religious undertones in many of the Steps I was instructed to follow in these programs.

I also did not appreciate being encouraged to explore my “shortcomings” and “defects of character.” I already felt enough shame as someone struggling with drug addiction, and I definitely needed something that would help me feel better, not worse, about myself.

I knew there were others who felt the same way I did. Most had a different concept of their spirituality than traditional Christianity, many of them were women, some were people of other ethnic groups or sexual orientations. Whenever we tried to discuss our genuine concerns in the 12-Step groups we attended, the implicit and often explicit message we received was that there was something wrong with us if we could not feel positively about the Steps and follow them as prescribed.

As a result, many of us hid our true feelings. We found ourselves becoming less authentic as we diligently attempted to work our program of recovery. This was not a healthy situation for addicts who wanted to change their behaviour patterns and get well. But, for a very long time, 12-Step programs were virtually the only “recovery” game in town, so we did what we were told.

In the early 1990’s I became aware of a different set of guidelines for recovery from addictive behaviours. This plan was developed by Charlotte Kasl, Ph.D., a woman recovering from her own addictions, who designed a set of steps that were more in alignment with the person she was becoming in her own journey of recovery. Dr. Kasl bristled against aspects of the 12 Steps which she found "anachronistic, sexist and mired in fundamentalist dogma."

She created an alternative called The 16 Steps for Discovery and Empowerment - a positive, flexible and holistic program. Rather than emphasizing our defects and what is wrong with us, this model encourages us to learn how to become our authentic selves by enjoying our strengths, celebrating our creativity, letting go of our shame and guilt, and trusting in our own inner wisdom.

For example, in Step One of the 12 Steps, we are required to admit that we are “powerless” over our addiction, and that our lives have become “unmanageable.” Unless we agree to admit this, we are told that we are “unwilling to go to any lengths” to deal with our addiction, and that we cannot go on to any of the next steps. This can feel quite shameful and alienating for people, many of whom decide to “admit” rather than to rock the boat.

In the 16-Step model, however, the first step is very different. It assures us that we can indeed take control of our lives and that we do not have to rely on anything or anyone external in order to feel better about ourselves. For many of us, especially women and other marginalized groups of people, this is a new and refreshing concept.

Instead of “codependency”, Kasl encourages people to think in terms of “internalized oppression” and how trauma leads to addiction. Are the 12 Steps healing -- or adding to -- that trauma? The 16-Step approach counsels that recovery must incorporate a criticism of the political and patriarchal system that fosters addiction, which itself can be an empowering step for those who have blamed themselves or - in other words - internalized their own oppression. 

I believe this wise and compassionate approach to healing resonates with the approach of another mentor of mine in the addictions field, Dr. Gabor Mate, whose book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, is another important work calling us to wake up from old, ineffective ways of understanding our own compulsive and addictive behaviours.

For many years, I led 16 Step groups for women in the Downtown Eastside. We met each week to read and discuss one of the Steps, sharing honestly about our lives from the perspective of how the healing wisdom of the 16 Steps was positively affecting us. As the word spread about this group, more and more women showed up. Although the majority believed in a higher power of some sort, most were non-Christian women, and many were Native or from cultures other than North American. In our diversity, we felt accepted for perhaps the first time in our lives.

In my group, we started the meeting by telling each other about something we felt proud of for that particular week and, as time went on, I watched as these lonely, unhappy, once-marginalized women formed a unique bond with each other and began to hold themselves – and each other -- in much higher esteem. This healing and inclusive environment allowed the women to feel more empowered, creative, and self-respecting than they ever had before. What an honour it was for me to be able to both facilitate those amazing shifts and feel their power in my own life!

We need to move to more intelligent, less dogmatic, nuanced, inclusive, positive, holistic models of recovery. These are 16 Steps in the right direction.

To see the full 16 Steps, click on my website link: http://www.candaceplattor.com/12_vs_16.htm

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