I recently went to a training where the subject of addiction recovery and 12-step programs came up. It was clear that there are two types of people—those who believe Alcoholics Anonymous-type programs are THE answer to addiction and those who believe they can be AN answer. (To be fair, there is a third group that opposes 12-step programs for their faith-based roots, but this is based less on the effectiveness of the programs and more on an aversion to anything “religious.”)
The biggest 12-step boosters are, of course, those who’ve benefited from the program. There are hundreds of thousands—likely millions of people (anonymity makes it hard to get good statistics)—who’ve successfully kicked addictions by working a 12-step program. So, on one level, you can’t argue with success.
But—and you knew that was coming—why do some, even people of faith, not embrace 12-step programs fully? These are my criticisms:
Always an "Addict"
It is powerful to admit, publicly, that you are addicted. There is nothing that humbles you and shines a light on your addiction like telling a crowd, “My name is __________, and I’m an alcoholic/addict.” Accepting this as your identity for the short-term has value, but there are many who’ve been clean and sober for years who continue to identify themselves as addicts. Why? This makes complete sense only if you believe real change is not possible. For those who’ve made a definite break with their addiction, vigilance is still required and you should still identify with your past addiction enough to walk others into the light. Continuing to make “alcoholic” or “in recovery” central parts of your identity suggests a need for not only a “higher power” but also a “higher identity.”
Either You're With Us or Against Us
The Alcoholics Anonymous model is a good one that has helped many people, but to give it the weight of Gospel is a mistake. And to look down on those who don’t “work the program” or insist that people who’ve stopped going to meetings are in “denial” doesn’t help either. There needs to be a degree of humility that recognizes that there aren't always twelve steps out of addiction. For some it may be the steps to the counselor's office. To others, it may be the worn path to and from church. Still others may find the path to freedom through a phone call or a letter to someone with whom they need to reconcile.
You Aren't Making Meetings?
The goal of any type of recovery should be the health and wholeness of the individual. If you are mired in addiction, having your whole life revolve around licking that addiction makes sense for a time. Once you’ve gotten some clean time under your belt and are more stable, however, living a more well-rounded life is healthier. When you are diagnosed with cancer, you will initially spend a lot of time in the hospital. If treatment goes well, you will still need to make regular visits to your doctor and be extra vigilant to make sure the cancer doesn’t get a foothold again. But you don’t need to visit the hospital daily. And you don’t need to spend all your time researching cancer. Yes, it’s good to be educated on the subject, but what kind of life have you been healed for if you are simply reflecting on past afflictions all the time?
12-step programs work best with faithful meeting attendance, personal study and reflection, and working with a sponsor. The first two you have control over, but a good sponsor is not guaranteed. This is where temperament and circumstances can impact recovery. For those who are gregarious and part of a healthy 12-step group, connecting with a mature, helpful sponsor won’t be a problem. Other, more introverted and shy people may face a challenge. While being forced to extend themselves and seek out a sponsor may be a growth exercise for some, for others the difficulties in connecting with a sponsor can be an obstacle. This is not a huge criticism—and many programs undoubtedly are proactive in connecting those new to recovery to those further along—but it is a real shortcoming for a significant portion of the population.
But It's Based on the Bible
Alcoholics Anonymous and its spinoffs are mostly based in the Christian faith but have attempted to remain ecumenical. This is good and bad. To believers, the watered-down nature of the program often falls short. To non-believers, it can either prevent full buy-in or lead to a distorted faith with some true elements but with no true Redeemer at the core. Many folks end up with a kind of Church of Recovery mindset where I prove that I'm a good person by staying sober. Sure, I'm a shopaholic, a vicious gossip or an out of control gambler, but I don't drink. They become competitive with their clean time and allow their egos to drive them to the point where they're lying about their time just to keep from losing face. If I look like I have it together, I do. Right?
As you can see, my criticisms are not really of the principles of 12-step programs, but more with their application and actual practice. If you or someone you know is dealing with addiction, don't allow my criticisms to keep you from getting the help you need. I am a firm believer in the ability of people to be free from addiction, and God can use many different paths and tools, imperfect though they may be, to bring that healing. Ultimately, all we need is to surrender ourselves to God and humble ourselves before one another. The rest will fall into place.