The views express may not represent those of my employer or any other organization I am affiliated with.
I started this little project I call Grey's Recovery to fill what I felt was a void in my professional development. I want to share my development as a professional in the chemical dependency field but also share my development as a person in long term recovery. The two things often don't overlap but they do parallel each other. When I make a decision, take an ethical stance, or more importantly change my ethical stance I can't help but feel the effects of that change from both sides. A major change which started in my professional life and has moved to my personal recovery is the role of AA and the 12 Steps.
"Meeting makers make it" is one of the countless platitudes you will hear around the tables. We all know that people who attend regular AA meetings can achieve sustainable abstinence and by doing so long enough a richer more satisfying existence follows but that's often not the message of the person who pulls out this gem. The intended message is often that the opposite is not only true but but an absolute certainty. The message is that while meeting attendance and specifically 12 Step meeting attendance can't guarantee sobriety and a better life, not going to meetings will doom you to jail, institutions, or death.
Is this true? The short answer is no, but like all answers about recovery it's not that simple. The truth is that there are "meeting makers" that have very successful recoveries that grow into rich satisfying lives and there are some that get stuck in a perpetual circle of abstince and relapse that spirals into the very same jails, institutions, and graveyards reserved for the non makers. Those who don't attend meetings have a similar range of experience, some make it, some don't, and of course it isn't either/or for either group but a vast sea of grey between one extreme and the other.
Do meetings help at all? Should you recommend meetings to a friend, loved one, or a client you are counseling? Should you make meetings a staple of your own recovery? If meetings don't guarantee success do they at least increase the odds of it? Funny how recovery turns us all into gamblers. The answer to this question is a less satisfying maybe. There is data to suggest that 12 Step attendees do better in recovery than those who do not attend, there is some that might suggest that there is no difference at all. Some experts have said 12 Step work with its dogma of helplessness actually does more harm than good. I am not one of those people who sees all data as equal but if you are looking for clear scientific research that proves 12 Step attendance is helpful or harmful it really doesn't exist. 12 Step members are anonymous and that makes them hard to count. So what do you do? The answer is easier than you might think. You ask your friend, loved one, or client something like "did you try a 12 Step meeting? Was it helpful?" and the answer you receive will be the best indicator you will get.
I will say 12 Step meetings helped me, but the 12 Steps did not. Through 12 Step meetings I broke through the isolation I felt in the years leading up to my problem with alcohol. I learned that sharing my struggles with a group was a healthier coping skill than drinking my anxiety away and brought people closer to me. I learned that I could have close meaningful friendships with people who believed in a higher power though I myself did not. With the help of the fellowship I recovered, grew, became a better person, and found my career. But I never did the 12 Steps. I maybe took the first, but even that I've taken back. My sponsor advised me that if I wasn't comfortable with 12 Steps I should try 3. Don't drink, don't think, go to meetings, and that's what I did for almost 8 years. That's what I still do, though I now attend SMART Recovery instead of AA. While I don't see myself regularly attending AA meetings again I don't think anyone who knows me would doubt I am far better off for having done so.
I broke with AA professionally about a year before I did so personally. When I started as a counselor I tried to take my personal experience in recovery and apply it to those I worked with. Meetings had helped me, meeting attendance had been the turning point that brought me from abstinence to recovery and like many new counselors I assumed some version of that experience would work for everyone. I suppose it worked about as well as anyone who practices 12 Step recovery counseling. I had several ethical problems with professional 12 step work.
1) I was using clinical techniques that were developed a long time ago and had changed very little. It felt like we were practicing surgery with techniques developed in the 1930s.
2) I was using a technique that in its instruction manual required belief in a higher power, something which I did not myself believe.
3) I was paid for my services when there when the same service was available for free.
4) I became more and more concerned that the people who appeared to succeed after working with me could have succeeded with anyone or with no help at all.
5) Science, the lack of it.
I broke with the 12 Steps professionally after starting work at a medication assisted recovery center. While I could reconcile my discomfort in an abstinence only program I couldn't recommend AA and 12 Step work for clients on methadone and Suboxone. I couldn't recommend 12 Step meetings to my MAT clients because I didn't want them to have to lie about their type of recovery and I wasn't sure what reception they would get if they told the truth. There were "methadone safe" NA meetings in the area and some if my clients attended them. The center hosted a group called MARS which is a peer led support group for people in medication assisted recover that is not 12 step based. My office was across the hall from the MARS meeting and they were loud and proud of their recovery. I think MARS benefited my clients who attended but for the clients who went to NA it was a mixed bag. Some seemed to find healthy connections, others seemed to find more shame. The majority of my clients attended no meetings, and the majority of them did just fine.
As this post seems to be running away with itself I'm going to wrap it up. My point is I now treat meeting attendance much like I treat church. If a client tells me they are going to church and church is helping their recovery I assume that it is and tell them to continue. I make meeting information available to my clients but I make no judgment about the type of meeting they go to or how often they go. What the clients need is meaningful human connection, and while a meeting can be a place to make meaningful connections it isn't for everyone. I believe the client is the best judge of what will work.
Meeting makers make it and don't make it. What's more important is that one doesn't give up on positive change no matter how long it takes.