Here’s What I’ve Finally Concluded About 12-Step Programs

Here’s What I’ve Finally Concluded About 12-Step Programs

I came across this piece by Maia Szalavitz who writes some great pieces about addiction. It is on which is a good resource for people wanting to look at different sides of the addiction world. I think it is a really well-balanced piece about the 12 step world and is far more accurate than many accounts, where pro or anti AA people tend to get carried away and paint a false picture.

Maia Szalavitz


I will just quote a couple of sections but suggest you read the entire piece  here Here’s What I’ve Finally Concluded About 12-Step Programs

She has had a similar experience to me here in that she is grateful for the support in the rooms in early recovery.

So, what is my position on AA after more than 25 years (yikes!) of writing about drugs and addiction? I’ll note up front that I’m a former cocaine and heroin addict. I attended a 28-day rehab in 1988, when it was pretty much all 12-step, all of the time. And I did find meetings—and the warm, generous support I received from other 12-steppers—to be helpful for the first few years of my recovery. (From my own anecdotal experience, however, no firm conclusions can be drawn.)”

I agree that 12 step methods should not be considered treatment.

“To start, selling the steps—as private rehabs do—violates AA’s own tradition that it is a nonprofessional, nonprofit organization. Insurance companies and the government should not be paying counselors whose only training is in 12-step methods and their own story to provide the “experience, strength and hope” that anyone can get for free in a church basement. Addiction treatment resources are limited and there are evidence-based therapies that aren’t freely available—so let’s pay for those, not “12-step facilitation.”

Further, like most interventions powerful enough to have any effect, 12-step programs can clearly harm as well as help. To mitigate this possibility, people who are being introduced to the program in any official way—through the court system, say, or in treatment—need to be warned about these possible “side effects,” some of which may be severe enough to require alternative approaches.

In this regard, the most important 12-step slogan is “Take what you like and leave the rest.” The idea that the Steps are suggestions and that the recovery process is for “people who want it, not people who need it” is key to avoiding harm. Although the judgment of people in early recovery may be somewhat skewed, research shows that even then people can and do make informed and intelligent choices, just like patients made vulnerable by other medical conditions.”

Here is a good section on teaching people they are powerless. I did not go to a 12 step rehab and only heard this concept from people in AA which I would not always regard as giving me great advice. I found the concept helpful for my first few weeks, when I was craving alcohol, but saw people go on huge binges as a result of believing they were powerless.

“A more insidious harm can come from the idea of powerlessness when it is pushed by treatment programs rather than fellow self-help participants. This is the notion that treatment should force people to feel powerless, in order to aid their recovery. In fact, research shows over and over that empowering people, treating them with respect and giving them options, rather than infantilizing them, is both more effective and less potentially dangerous.

A treatment philosophy that contends that it is acceptable to treat “powerless” people as such—and to rub their faces in it with strict rules and restrictions—creates a program that inevitably abuses those who are in its care. While entitled people—particularly white middle- or upper-class men, for example—might occasionally benefit from realizing that they can’t control everything, using a rehab program to enforce the idea of powerlessness on already-marginalized people—often poor, minority and/or female addicts—risks additional types of harm because of their experience of being made to feel inferior by institutional and social biases.”

This section about meeting bad people in AA or other 12 step groups is also sadly true. I was under the impression that everyone was there to help, especially as meetings are generally linked to churches, which promote decent standards for people to live by, but found some of the people there were really disgusting and predatory. These type of people are often old timers who use their “time” to impress new people and take advantage of them.

“While it would be lovely if everyone who claims to want to help you at a meeting were pure of heart and the rooms were a truly safe space, the reality is quite different. Too many victims of rape, domestic violence and even murder have met their perpetrators at meetings—and too many have put their trust in him or her because of that fact.

Sadly, virtually every woman I know who has spent significant time in AA has at least one story of sexual harassment or worse. In my case, when I was in my 20s, I had to physically fight off one member who wouldn’t take no for an answer. I had trusted him enough to go on a date, in part because he said he had long-term recovery. Around the same time, a newcomer told me she was raped by a man whom she invited home for a discussion of the Steps.”

I think this piece represents the views of most people who have been through the 12 step world and who have moved on. It is sad that these rational people do not have much of a voice, because pieces like this that are balanced will help protect those who wish to join the 12 step world and also help others decide on an appropriate recovery path for themselves. Most of the comments under the piece agree with what is written but there are those with extreme views that think AA is not religious or everyone in AA is a brain washed cult member seem not to like it.  As usual what could have been a good debate about the good and bad side of the 12 step world has been brought down to level of cheap insults.




Commenting area

  1. That’s a fantastic article. Thanks so much for sharing the link. I thoroughly recommend it to all following this thread. It is so very difficult to find balanced and informed opinions online – so when such brilliant writing does appear you kind of want to cherish it ..! JS

  2. A fantastic article! Thank you for sharing. It reflects my experience of AA too.

  3. I am 10 years sober this month and have been an active member of AA for all of those years, committed to service work in the group and at the District level! I have left AA for good this month, resigned from my position and have decided not to receive my chip this month. This decision was not taken lightly, it came from a 2 year dissatisfaction, prayer and reflection regarding the matter. I have been in those rooms since my early 20’s, and I have had to let go in order to grow! Last January I left my home group, because it was unhealthy and I thought it was THAT GROUP, and I joined another one. I have served in that group for the last 17 months, and have come to a different conclusion, it is just not for me any longer. I don’t see people walking the talk they are talking, It is predatory in every group I go to, men and women, kindergarten like, fake, and I do not feel a connection to the people in the rooms any longer! I continue to work the program I have worked EVERY SINGLE DAY, for the last 10 years! My life has been so blessed! I have a carreer that astounds and amazes me, but the truth is…AA did not get me sober, God did! I never put my faith and trust in those people! I had to let go in order to grow a year ago, and God blew me away with blessings! When I depend on Him and Him alone, that’s HOW IT WORKS!

    • Hi Tracey,
      congratulations on 10 years, and good luck with the future. It looks like you have got things together and have found the type of support that suits you, so you can move on. I saw a friend of mine in the rooms get a lot of criticism from AA members for making use of the church rather than AA, but he is doing really well 8 years later, so that was the right path for him.
      Best wishes Mike

  4. I äm leaving AA and am so thankful tuhat I could find this blog. There ja nothing, absolutelt nothing like this on Finnish though, I meen jo conversation at all about leaving AA or any critisism about the 12 step programs…here in Finland there are all the same problems on the groups and as a young woman I do not want this sort of things in my life anymore now that I’m sober and moved on. The sexual harashment by older, pretty disgusting men just makes you feel sick…

  5. I am leaving AA and am so thankful I could find this blog. There is nothing, absolutely nothing like this in Finnish though, I meen jo conversation at all about leaving AA or any critisism about the 12 step programs…here in Finland there are all the same problems on the groups and as a young woman I do not want this sort of things in my life anymore now that I’m sober and moved on. The sexual harashment by older, pretty disgusting men just makes you feel sick…

  6. Thanks for your comments Jen. I hope everything goes well for you. I think it is important to share our experiences about moving on from AA and how it goes. We also have podcasts on the subject here

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