A common phrase in Alcoholics Anonymous is, “It works if you work it.” AA, to my knowledge, is the world’s most popular 12-step organization. In fact, AA more or less invented the 12 steps that are followed by numerous other programs, from Narcotics Anonymous to Overeaters Anonymous to Sex Addicts Anonymous.
I’ve been sober for nearly 30 years, and I would not be alive today if not for my continued involvement in AA. Simply put, I believe that it works. But it does not work for everyone. Some people give up immediately – some attend one meeting and that’s it. Others turn their lives around quickly when they start the program, and then stop participating in their own recovery. Days, months or years later, they return in worse emotional and mental shape than when they first arrived. I often wonder why they stopped attending when participating improved the quality of their lives. What are the roadblocks to continued involvement in a 12-step program? What scares people away? What drives them to abandon an organization that is helping them?
Here is a list of possible reasons I put together after discussing this topic with many professionals and non-professionals who have been or are currently involved in a 12-step program in one way or another.
1. Life gets good again. The heat is off or the pain has subsided.
2. “I’m too busy.”
3. Not choosing a sponsor to help through roadblocks (such challenges may include the word “God” in the steps, fear or reluctance to work the steps).
4. “I don’t believe my problem is as bad as those people’s.”
5. Social fears. A person may wonder, “What will I do at parties?” He may ask himself, “What will I tell people when they ask if I go to those meetings?” Many people wonder if they’ll ever have fun again once they’re sober.
Granted, change is scary. Most people who attend 12-step meetings aren’t attending because they have been on a “winning streak.” In fact, most are seeking answers about serious life issues. Some arrive at a 12-step meeting in need of more help than a 12-step fellowship can provide. Some need immediate assistance. They may require medical detoxification under the care of a physician or an inpatient psychiatric stabilization for severe depression or suicidal thoughts. But I think a majority who attend their first meeting do and can get relief if they are indeed attending the fellowship best designed to help them.
How can working or following a 12-step program solve so many complex problems? It’s not overly complicated. Successful involvement forces human fellowship, support and a spiritual surrender that gives peace and comfort to those who have overactive thoughts and compulsive behaviors.
I was 19 when I was introduced to the 12 steps, and only attended to avoid severe legal consequences. What I found was a fellowship of caring, accepting individuals dealing with my same feelings and issues. I was taught how to use the 12 steps to improve my life, and I was guided through my participation. The 12 steps were suggested, never forced. I quickly saw that the folks who did not follow the suggested steps tended to have more issues and emotional drama, and often left fellowship. So I stuck with it, and my continued involvement has been a blessing. Thanks to the program, I now have a wonderful, full life that I wouldn’t trade for anything.