This is an appreciation blog about 12 Step, most commonly known as “AA”, from a non (that I’m aware of) addict’s point of view. It’s by no means comprehensive. I just want to capture some of the reasons why I wish I had become aware of 12 Step communities earlier in life, and why you might want to, now.
My only vague association with 12 Step was that of sad sack people at the end of their rope. What I didn’t think of — and what I’m hoping to frame for you here — is a totally free, easily accessible, thriving global network of low-maintenance, ready-made friends, who are willing to openly examine and scrutinize their own compulsive behaviors, who are happy to accept you with open arms, without any sense of ongoing obligation.
If you experience discomfort in any area of your life where you suspect your own behavior may be compulsive, then simply google “12 Step” plus whatever that issue may be, and get instantly connected with a bunch of resources. Not just regarding drug and alcohol abuse — it could be about spending and debting, sex and intimacy, over-eating, under-eating, growing up in a dysfunctional family, really anything.
However, what I’m speaking to here even more, perhaps, is my own experience of desiring meaningful connection with others and not feeling quite satisfied with any of the more traditional venues — church, work, bar culture, house parties, online engagement, or special interest groups. Nothing (much) against any of those things, but they all have their obvious drawbacks. Words really can’t describe how earnestly I avoid groups, clubs, organizations, and repeating commitments. Most people are more socially “hungry” than me, which makes me a perfectly isolationist snob, and able to, I think, effectively advance 12 Step as the one -ism I regard as being unconditionally worth it.
Here, in no particular order, are my arguments to that effect:
One: 12 Step groups are comprised of people from every race, background, walk of life and socioeconomic demographic. This is something I really appreciated about my twelve years in the National Guard, Army and Air Guard respectively — as a young gal in my 20’s, I was rubbing elbows with so many ages, colors, and creeds. The dream of America was originally that of a melting pot, and it’s a beautiful dream. I like looking around a room and seeing that variety, hearing people’s accents, benefitting from their perspectives. I love the built-in variety of 12 Step, and it’s actually amazing how hard it is to find that via any other social venue.
Two: Because any given 12 Step group is about two things and two things only — one’s relationship to higher power, and one’s desire to improve x condition — it’s automatically immunized from most of the bullshit. I’m in the tough position of being interested in a spiritual paradigm for my life, and yet disinterested in regurgitated religious dogma. I’m not saying religious or secular organizations aren’t doing wonderful things — only that, for me, there tends to be a high bathwater-to-baby ratio. For 12 Step, however, all other agendas besides this — each individual’s desire to improve themselves, in connection with their higher power — are expressly rejected. It’s not about growing, profiting, affiliating, marketing, or steering anything, anywhere. And that’s a claim that not even churches can make. It’s so nice to have somewhere to go, and people to connect with, that literally isn’t about any fucking thing except the thing that it’s about; and that’s 12 Step.
Three: two sub-points about mentorship.
A, the idea of the guru is persistent in human consciousness. We imagine, in nearly symbolic terms, this enlightened being, on top of a mountain or meditating in a cave, or wearing a white lab coat, or the trappings of whatever form authority we tend to revere. If only we could find this person, and ask them our questions! We know, inherently, that our challenges are internal. The idea of the guru could not captivate us, otherwise. These days, though, we have an extra hang up when it comes to locating our guru: if something (or someone) doesn’t cost us money, we think it can’t be very valuable. But if it does cost us money, we think it can’t be very spiritual.
B: the idea of the one-room school house. These days, we’ve split kids into ages, grades, separated the younger ones from the valuable mentoring of the older ones, and the older ones from the valuable mentoring opportunity the younger ones present. Worse, we’ve then arbitrarily assigned limited conceptions of skill, awareness, and ability to each of those grades. We’re so focused on no child left behind that we ignore all the children held, frustratingly, back. In fact, our entire conception of childhood and childish things is patronizing. I know this sounds crazy, but when it comes to societal distortions of children, I’d rather see a kid riding around the jungle in the back of a Nissan pickup truck with a sub-automatic machine gun than medicated to complacence — another victim of the pharmaceutical pediatric frontal lobotomy. That’s a whole rant I’m not here to make at this point in time, but I do want to say that both learning and teaching are important activities for us, in childhood and throughout our lives. We learn best from those just above our level of understanding, and we teach best to those just below our level of understanding. A community that intermingles those stair steps of knowledge — as did the old one-room schoolhouse on the prairie — is very successful, in terms of fostering true growth and mentorship.
Tying these two sub-points together: 12 Step doesn’t tolerate fixation on the external problem. It acts as the guru we all crave, in that sense, re-directing our attention inward, to the only factor we can control — ourselves. Additionally, 12-Step fosters direct mentorship by, and on behalf of, every member on every point on the trajectory. These two things may not sound like a big deal at first, but I challenge you to come up with any other community that does not EITHER structure the flow of information and value hierarchically, from the top down, OR identify external factors as the “enemy” or “issue”. Because I can’t. 12 Step is fucking boss in this regard.
Four: in a society that struggles immensely to INclude people in ways that feel increasingly EXclusive — ie, exponentially fragmented and fragmenting — 12 Step is king. No community includes more types of people, more gracefully. That built-in acknowledgement of a higher power is a stumbling block for many, and in terms of treatment there are other modalities they can source if the God factor is too off-putting. But the God factor is literally what makes the whole thing work, on the individual level and the community level. If we can’t acknowledge that that’s something we all, at the end of the day, DO have in common, then we’re out the weeds with everyone else — sifting and sorting the minutiae of our own identities, including and excluding others based on that minutiae. Church, I have to comment, is *supposed* to offer this level of inclusion, but come on. Organized religion has been dividing people up into camps and then killing them, based on those divisions, for thousands of years. 12 Step is just secular enough to avoid typical religious pitfalls, and just spiritual enough to avoid typical secular pitfalls. It’s perfect.
Five: A 12 Step meeting is not a platform upon which you must, or even can, brandish a polished version of your identity and its various affectations; which is an exhausting thing we do, whether we have to or not (but usually we have to), everywhere else. It’s free and anonymous, which entirely de-incentivizes those egoic, rhetorical strategies we’re so hooked on in most other social situations. To put it another way: no one at a 12 Step meeting is going to judge you, but at the same time no one is going to be impressed by anything but your authenticity. And a community like that is really, really, really special.
Six: every 12 Step group has its own definition of sobriety, based on the goal of freedom from whatever compulsion is being examined. But they all have the idea of sobriety itself in common, which is an incredibly useful concept, and one that I misunderstood and oversimplified most of my life. The term “sobriety”, once you become acquainted with its broad and nuanced usage in this setting, represents a compassionate metric for analyzing compulsion and compulsive behavior in yourself and others. It’s easy to castigate — to say “wow, that person’s all fucked up”, or, even worse, “wow, I’m all fucked up”. It’s a lot more therapeutic to see myself and/or another as a fellow child of God, exhibiting unconsciously compulsive behavior in regards to a particular subject. 12 Step people learn to become incredibly kind, and yet they are terrifying ninjas as well. Just try to tell a group of 12 Steppers some bullshit, victim rationalization that’s worked on all your other friends. You won’t get the response you want, but you’ll get the response you need.
I’ve integrated the concept of sobriety into my life these days. It’s kind of like one of those words you learn that is common in another language but that we don’t even have a translation for, in English — like the Japanese word for beauty that is intrinsically ephemeral, or the German word for beloved, long-term acquaintances which are not at the level of friends but that’s totally okay and still honorable. I don’t remember what those words are. But back to the point, the word “sobriety” is like this entire concept of chronically centered, clear-minded, calm, peaceful effectiveness on a given subject.
Seven: While you will encounter some individuals at a 12 Step meeting that are more fucked up than the average person you’d meet in a bar or online, the large majority of individuals at a meeting are less fucked up than the average person you’d meet in a bar or online. There is value beyond the obvious, here. Do you ever find yourself saying things like “I’m so tired of drama” or “does every conversation have to devolve to a pissing contest” or “why am I the only fucking adult in this room” or, or, or…? In other words, have you noticed that all adult conversations seem to consist mostly of swapping neuroses and wounds and resentments and tragic adaptations? Do you find yourself wondering if everyone else is the problem, or maybe it’s just you? Chances are, it’s both, and 12 Step is the one place where you are, for sure, good enough — but you aren’t, for sure, too good.
Eight: you never have to show your face, if that’s an issue. You can read pamphlets online, or attend phone meetings, where you don’t even need to speak. You can just listen to other people say highly relatable things. Back to the online pamphlets — I never read a pamphlet, prior to 12 Step, that wasn’t some kind of white washed /sales-y / pseudo-impressive attempt at simply taking up space. 12 Step pamphlets are different. They’re, like, targeted little spotlights on the deepest, darkest suspicions or fears you may have about yourself, your own sense of unease in the world; those areas where you most hope you’re okay but worry that you might not be. They’re pretty fascinating.
Nine: Almost everyone knows that you introduce yourself at meetings by way of your first name and compulsion, and I personally found that really off-putting, out of context. For fuck’s sake — we pathologize ourselves and one another enough, I thought, without that. But this con has largely shifted to a pro in my mind, now, with increased familiarity. It’s like this: there’s a difference between having a fight with your spouse versus making up and talking about the fight you had, right? One is a trauma, the other is clarity. This is an important lesson of the 12 Step tradition: in regards to any given subject, habit, or compulsion, we can be in trauma or we can be in clarity. The outside-looking-in view of 12 Step is that of people in trauma. The inside-looking-out view is quite different, though — looking through clarity at trauma. By stepping right into the center of it, the paper tigers lose their fearsomeness.
Ten: in a world of corporate and governmental megaliths, 12 Step is the ultimate, ultimate grassroots movement. Your presence and your participation fucking mean something to the people there. We so often feel so invisible, and when we don’t feel invisible we feel highly vulnerable, and it seems there’s no middle ground. You’re either a lightning rod or a doormat, socially, and probably at your job and around your family, too. The only church service I’ve ever voluntarily attended with any regularity has been at the Friends meeting, ie the Quakers, because they simply meditate for an hour, then hold hands and say hello and goodbye. Anything any more formal than this gets problematic, if not invasive, for me, because you immediately enter the realm of hokey performativeness. I can honestly say, though, that 12 Step meetings hit the nail on the head in this regard. There is some structure, there isn’t a hierarchy, but it’s not anarchy; there are some traditions but it doesn’t feel like a cult.
There is a lot to love about 12 Step, and like I said — I wish I’d known about it earlier. Props to all the Steppers out there minding their own business and doing good work for themselves and each other. FYI they have phone apps.