Getting the Most from 12-Step Programs

(Photo: Nic McPhee/Flickr)

I have mixed feelings about 12-Step programs like Narcotics Anonymous, which I’ve now been attending for 4 months.

There are plenty of good things about NA. But sadly, there are also several unsettling flaws which drag it down in my estimation.

There’s zero chance that I’m the first person to have recognised NA’s problems, which indicates to me that the organisation is stuck in the past. It struggles to adapt and change, limiting its ability to learn from its mistakes.

NA is stuck in ideology and dogma, seemingly unable to evolve and improve.

The real tragedy about this is that it unnecessarily limits the organisation’s ability to help people.

I wonder how many struggling addicts have been turned off by NA’s negatives, many of which I’ve wrestled with myself. How many of those desperate people relapsed and died as a result of NA’s failings?

A journalist’s conclusions

I enjoyed the following article, which contains many salient points about Narcotics Anonymous:

WHAT I’VE FINALLY CONCLUDED ABOUT 12-STEP PROGRAMS AFTER 25 YEARS WRITING ABOUT DRUGS AND ADDICTION


I don’t want to sound overly negative about NA, so here’s my attempt at a balanced representation of NA’s pros and cons:

What I like about NA

  1. It’s free (other than a small donation each meeting).
  2. I love the social support I receive from other addicts. There are some really lovely, kind, caring people at my local NA meeting. After 4 months of attending meetings, some of them are starting to feel like friends.
  3. For people who diligently follow a 12 Step program, it seems likely that their lives will improve in many different and sometimes unexpected ways.
  4. One vitally important NA catchphrase is, “Take what you like, leave the rest.” You’re not forced to think or believe in a certain way. There is some room for individual differences of opinion.
  5. There’s a lot of overlap between the 12 Steps and some ancient philosophies such as Stoicism and Buddhism. These philosophies are excellent paths to self-mastery and self-improvement. I’m a big fan of both, and for me, much of NA’s ideology fits quite neatly with my existing beliefs and understanding.

What I don’t like about NA

  1. Some members seems to insist that there is only one correct way to recover from addiction (the official NA way), leaving little room for nuance, individual differences or the complexity of life. I strongly resist such a puritanical and ideological approach. Blind faith in dogma is simply stupid – we should always be willing to question what we’re told.
  2. NA’s insistence on the existence of a “Higher Power” is redundant for the treatment of addiction. NA seems wilfully blind to the fact there are plenty of secular, effective, evidence-based drug treatment programs.
  3. NA lumps all attendees together and treats us as if we’re all the same: sick addicts who are fundamentally broken. Personally, I don’t find this approach helpful. NA literature is full of unhelpful narratives about the lives of addicts – I can’t relate to much of it and I have to force myself to ignore it. The organisation could avoid this problem if it was more inclusive and better recognised the large variations in the experiences of different people.
  4. In its very first step (Step 1), NA insists I admit I am powerless over my addiction. That’s a huge turn-off for me. I’m absolutely NOT powerless. (See the article I mentioned earlier for more on this.)
  5. NA insists that anonymity is essential and non-negotiable. But some people (like me) find it helpful to be open and honest about my drug problems. I believe that silence and stigma around mental illness and addiction just makes things worse.
    (NOTE: I don’t recklessly over-disclose, I’m careful about who I share with. And for this blog I keep my true identity hidden behind a pseudonym.)

How I reconcile all these problems

For me, it all comes back to that idea I mentioned earlier:

“Take what’s useful for you, ignore the rest”

And there are plenty of things I find beneficial about Narcotics Anonymous.

It would be churlish of me to throw the baby out with the bath water – to stop attending simply because there are certain aspects I don’t like.

Perhaps NA is simply a microcosm of society… everyone is different and if we want society to function well, we must be tolerant of each other’s differences…

… that’s unless you want to live in a totalitarian state like Communist China.

When the World Doesn’t Measure Up to Our Expectations

There’s some truly excellent personal development advice in 12 Steps programs. I feel this advice applies to everyone, not just those in recovery from addiction.

The Very Best…

Here’s a great example of the very best advice in Narcotics Anonymous. As you read this quote, I’d encourage you to see the ways in which it applies to your own life:

“There are days when some of us wallow in self-pity. It’s easy to do. We may have expectations about how our lives should be, expectations that aren’t always met. Maybe we’ve tried unsuccessfully to control someone, or we think our circumstances should be different. Perhaps we’ve compared ourselves with others and found ourselves lacking. The more we try to make our life conform to our expectations, the more uncomfortable we feel. Self-pity can arise from living in our expectations instead of in the world as it actually is.

When the world doesn’t measure up to our expectations, it’s often our expectations that need adjusting, not the world. We can start by comparing our lives today with the way they used to be, developing gratitude for our current circumstances. We can extend this exercise in gratitude by counting the good things in our lives, becoming thankful that the world does not conform to our expectations but exceeds them. And if we further cultivate gratitude and acceptance, what we can expect in the future is more growth, more happiness, and more peace of mind.

We’ve been given much in our lives; improving ourselves has paid off. Acceptance of our lives, just for today, frees us from our self-pity.

Just for today: I will accept my life, gratefully, just as it is.”

Extract from a “Just For Today” email from Narcotics Anonymous. I’ve made some minor edits so this applies to non-addicts too.

Isn’t that quote simply amazing! Such good advice!

… And The Less Good

Unfortunately, there are some NA ideas I disagree strongly with. Here’s an example…

“Our recovery must come first. Job or no job, relationship or no relationship, we have to attend meetings, work the steps, call our sponsor, and be of service to God and others. These simple actions are what make it possible for us to have vacations, families, and bosses to worry about. Recovery is the foundation of our lives, making everything else possible.

Just for today: I will keep my priorities in order. Number One on the list is my recovery.

Extract from a “Just For Today” email from Narcotics Anonymous.

The above may be true for most addicts, but I don’t believe it’s true for me.

This is one of the things I dislike the most about NA – it tries to lump together all addicts without making sufficient room for diversity.

Attending meetings, working the 12 steps, calling my sponsor, being of service to others… I can see the value in each of these activities.

However, I see them as merely useful, not essential.

There are other factors which help people stay clean. The NA way isn’t the only way for people to lead meaningful, productive lives. And yet, it claims that it is, which I find a little unsettling.