If You’re New In a 12-Step Program

Feelings of Worthlessness

I’ve been in a 12-step recovery program for many, many years. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people describe themselves, in one way or another, as a “piece of shit.”

Much of this self-degradation comes from the guilt we feel over our behavior when we were actively using: infidelity, disappearances, credit card debt, emotional/verbal/physical abuse, stealing, or, one of my favorites—emotional withdrawal.

Recovery, for many of us, involves taking responsibility for those actions and behaviors. Over time, through meetings, doing the steps, and being emotionally transparent, we learn a better way of living.

We stop having secret lives. We learn to be honest. We start owning up to our faults. And some of us learn to be more humble, especially if we hid behind our arrogance in order to protect ourselves during our drinking days (As someone in the rooms so poignantly said about himself, “I tried to be one step ahead of everybody else so I wouldn’t be hurt”).

But what about those of us in the recovery rooms who have a difficult time believing that we are worth anything?

Recovery as a Boot-Camp Versus the Life-as-a-Loose Garment School

Some try to overcompensate for this learned negative self-image by becoming very militant in their programs. They view their programs as a military camp. They see the 12 steps as commandments or rules to be followed rigidly and in order (I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard in the rooms say, “The steps were written in the order they were written for a reason”).

Many of us have learned to wear the program “like a loose garment.” We also know that militancy is often a ruse. Sometimes it is an attempt to infuse a kind of order in people’s lives in order to wash away feelings of worthlessness. The program becomes for them a self-flagellating exorcism of their old devils. And toughness, even tough-love, can end up being nothing more than a re-enactment of the abuse and feelings of worthlessness experienced in childhood. Lost time, after all, has to be made up somehow.

I continue to be amazed that these “hard-assers,” I call them, scamper right back to the very behavior they have been running away from all their lives. Just as they were relentlessly pursued with feelings of worthlessness, they make every attempt to militarize their programs and the programs of their sponsees. In the end, they often believe that worth has to be conquered in a kind of Armageddon battle between the defeated and the conquered. Defeat, of course, means that they can’t win against their own self-deprecations.

Beware of Overly-Zealous Certainty in Any 12-Step Program

This overzealous group also seems to believe that nothing worthwhile comes without a battle against odds. Because they have felt psychologically compressed throughout most of their lives, a quick and intense boot-camp approach to any kind of transformation seems to have the up-front, high-wattage energy they need to experience their resurrected selves.

In my years in the program, I have experienced lots of born-again sober militants—these are often people who try to find their new identities in certitude, in relentlessly rescuing others, and in their own self-proclaimed convictions that they’ve got the program down; now it’s time to teach others how to do it.

To the militant, the slower, cumulative approach to growth and sobriety feels like a weekly group of knitters making bed-covers for 1,000 king-size beds. It is far too slow and lacks the excitement they had when they were in the throes of their using. And, any long-term, non-linear form of growth cannot match the high-wire acts they require to feel alive.

On the flip side, those who first come in to the program often feel like cyphers. They become vulnerable to those who promise instant and dramatic relief from their feelings of worthlessness. Not coincidentally, the rescuers were often the same personality types as the rescued when they first came into the AA rooms—withdrawn, silent, guilt-ridden, and enraged at their own helplessness.

Among the instant AA rescuers I have seen, many have never had a strong sense of their own identities, even in recovery. They need to strong-arm their realities by assertively pursuing others to “cure” and to “save.” In recovery rooms, these same people often see themselves, not as equals among equals, but as having special gifts to take others through the programs.

Experience teaches us, however, that delusions come in many forms.

The Enthusiastic Caretaker

There’s another form of rescuer that I have gotten to see in the program: the caretaker.

Caretakers sometimes have very honest motives. But many also want to take over the world with grandiose dreams of rescuing everybody, especially the vulnerable. If you come into the rooms feeling like a doormat, then you will have to be even more careful not to let anyone use you for their own grandiose dreams of saving all the drunks in the world.

Many overly-zealous caretakers continue to work out their own feelings of inadequacy by trying to take over other people’s lives. Or to work out their own sense of worthlessness with you as an experiment. It is often their way, in a sense, of using you to convince themselves they are worth something.

What I Learned From the Old-Timers

The real wise elders I personally have experienced in the program, are more apt to have a wider vision of growth and transformation. They have been in the trenches of their own experiences. They have felt deep grief and loss. Some have lost a partner. Some have been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Some of their sponsees have gone out drinking and using, never to creturn to the program. Some have fatally lost sponsees. Some have gone through deep existential crises on their faith journeys. And some continue to be in deep financial crises.

But they continue to return, to grow, to love life, to share, to be emotionally honest.

Many of these wise old-timers don’t see their 12-step programs as linear and they don’t treat recovery as a drive-thru car wash. They see it as a long-term commitment with lots of forward movement, and not infrequent emotional backsliding.

They are the adults in the room. They don’t promise you that mortgage or new car. They don’t try to be matchmakers. They don’t control your lives. The know boundaries (if you are in the habit of asking people for money, a wise sponsor will request that you give that habit up). And they aren’t in rooms to “win” you over.

These are some of the other things I learned from these old-timers:

  • If you are new in any 12-step program, it is essential that you pay attention not only to yourself but to others in the room.
  • Give yourself some time to absorb the flow of a meeting. Listen to those who have some time and experience.
  • Hang out, “with the winners,” as they say.
  • Choose a sponsor wisely by paying attention, not just to what they say, but how they act among others and in their lives outside the rooms.



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