I didn’t come to this observation from any pre-conceived bias in favor of 12 Step Program. If anything, my involvement with 12 Step early on was pretty negative. It was almost universally true, 15 or 20 years ago, that 12 Step Programs tended to view all psychiatric medications as “psychoactive substances” that were to be avoided. I sometimes run into this bias still, but nowadays most 12 Step meetings are far from this anti-mental health bias.
But back to the original comment. I was talking with a wonderful attorney that I’ve had an opportunity to work with and get to know for a few years. That conversation reminded me of other conversations with longtime AA members. Most of them were, as this attorney said, ne’er do well’s in their youth who caused a lot of trouble and a lot of pain, but eventually found the will to stop using substances through a slow process of increasing involvement in 12 Step Programs as participants and then sponsors.
This gentleman noted something that we’ve also seen, which is how often people will start out in AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and gradually move into Alanon. He described AA this way: “It’s about getting people who are being extremely selfish to think about others and become more selfless.”
On the other hand, Alanon, he said, is about teaching people how to take care of yourself well and it involves learning how to say no sometimes. In AA, you almost never say no.
We don’t know if it is common wisdom or just something that he has noticed (as have we) but it points to the interesting relationships between 12 Step Programs and psychological self-awareness. Some of the programs are more psychologically minded.
Although AA can seem rigid and inhospitable to psychological concepts, the people that we are thinking of have found ways of accommodating ideas like “a higher power” and some of the other concepts that may be difficult in 12 Step Programs. They found a way of giving personal meaning to these concepts and making use of them in their lives, rather than rebelling against them.
Those who made use of 12 step effectively decided that, if there were concepts that they could not make sense of, they left those ideas behind and focused on the many things that were useful. This is an that our colleague and friend Matt Tierney often recommends to those he works with: “take what works and leave the rest behind.”