The Rise of 12-Step Meetings
Since its inception in the 1930’s, the model of 12-step meetings for recovery has left an imprint on the American culture and become the flagship for recovery group modalities of every conceivable variety around the world. Alcohol, sex, narcotics, food, codependency, and even groups that support the loved ones and family members of those struggling with addictive behaviors have sprung up creating a social zeitgeist spanning over eighty years.
12-step models have become the “go-to” solution adopted by everyone from the court system to the medical community. Churches have endorsed the programs by offering space, sponsoring groups, and even adapting 12-step footprints to fit specific faith systems where a Higher Power was replaced by a specific name or entity.
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Are 12-Step Meetings Really Magic?
With enough people engaging the programs over the years it has left most of society with the impression that such meetings and groups are somehow the miracle method of recovery. After all, it would seem that struggling people simply go to the meetings, surrender their will, get a “sponsor,” work the program and suddenly sobriety descends upon them like a dove.
Judges order DUI offenders to attend 90 A.A. meetings as part of their court sentences. Clinics suggest that their patients join a group in order to stop drinking or using. Family members and spouses believe that a loved one needs to start going to a 12-step group to get “well” and may even issue extreme ultimatums if such requests aren’t adhered to.
So, why would anyone question endorsing a model that has so much social and cultural momentum to back it up?
The question is really about what the meetings were and are designed to be. These groups are not about doing therapy or cognitive restructuring. These groups are about connection. They are about knowing and being known. It is a network of support and self-reflection from a point of spiritual awareness that allows the participants to begin assessing life from a different point of view and from a place of new understandings with the help of those who have suffered in the same way with the same disorders.
That being said, there is nothing that “happens” to anyone who attends meetings. We must be very clear when handing down these verdicts and expectations where groups are concerned that we are not setting up hurting people to fail. Sobriety doesn’t come to anyone simply because they get a sheet signed and a chip in their pocket. I have discovered that many times the very judges, doctors, and pastors pushing 12-step engagement have never attended a single meeting of their own.
What Is Necessary for Recovery?
Long-term recovery is the result of a multi-pronged approach. Trauma, shame, anxiety, and isolation are the root causes of most addictive or disordered behaviors, not to mention mental illness and co-occurring disorders (people who have more than one besetting issue).
When we see the groups for the supportive role that they play in recovery, but also recognize that there are a number of other treatment modalities we should insist upon in order to offer complete comprehensive care, we will go much further in the cause of individual recovery as opposed to simply parking traumatized, depressed, mentally ill and shame-filled people at the doorsteps of the magic meetings and assuming that sobriety will simply happen to them.