Why Don’t The 12 Steps Work for Me?

If you have found a treatment program that is a good match for you as you seek support we do not want to say anything that would undermine that support. But if you have tried a treatment program, that is based on the 12 Steps, and you have found yourself uncomfortable with parts of it. We want to assure you that you are not alone in your concerns. Many people have wondered whether a 12 Step program is appropriate for women who have experienced abuse.

The 12 Steps have their origin in Alcoholics Anonymous, which was started by two men, Bill Wilson and Robert Smith, in 1935. Wilson and Smith based the 12 Steps on their experience of working with 100 white men and one woman.[1] Bill Wilson, who wrote the Big Book, based his definition of an alcoholic personality on this group of people. He described alcoholics as egocentric, arrogant, resentful, controlling and violent.[2] Although this definition may describe your partner, it does not describe you.

The first people Bill Wilson worked with where privileged white men. They were people of power and influence. Bill Wilson was constantly concerned with the need to deflate the over-blown ego of these alcoholics. Generally, this worked for the white, upper-middle-class, alcoholic men he knew. But it does not fit the needs of most women, poor people, ethnic minorities, or L.G.B.T. people. People who have been victimized and oppressed need to be encouraged and affirmed, not further diminished.

The 12 Steps are intended to humble a person. Many women find the Moral Inventory, in particular, a shaming experience. If you have been dominated, controlled and abused by a man, the starting point for your healing is not humiliation and shame.

Further, A.A. was first developed in a Christian context and makes reference to a male God. Some groups have worked to take away this male language but still, for some, any language about God is a barrier to healing. This may be especially true if you have experienced spiritual abuse from your partner or your religious community. As well, you may want to draw on your own spiritual beliefs. For example, aboriginal people often want to look at their healing in a way that honours their customs.

The 12 Steps is one model of recovery. It has its strengths but also its limitations. Many people appreciate the support they get but do not appreciate the rigidness they encounter or the unwillingness to see the unique needs of each person. Many women have expressed discomfort for the way that men seem to often dominate the meetings. Perhaps being in a mixed group with both men and women does not work for you. Some women have found it preferable to find a group that is for women only.

Some women have found the 16 Steps that are outlined in Charlotte Kasl’s book “Many Road, One Journey” very helpful. The 16 Steps were developed with women and their experiences in mind. She identifies that women often start using substances as a coping and survival strategy. She looks at women’s use of substances in the wider context of their lives.  We have posted the 16 Steps for you to consider as one other model.

If you are seeking to reduce your use of street drugs, alcohol, or prescription medication, you are doing a very courageous thing. You deserve support that recognizes all the challenges in your life and especially recognizes the impacts of abuse in your life.

[1] Kasl, C. Many Roads, One Journey: Moving Beyond the 12 Steps, 1992. p.5

[2] Kasl, C. Many Roads, One Journey: Moving Beyond the 12 Steps, 1992. p.5


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