How different my life is now, without either drugs or any 12 step nonsense. A critical examination of the NA 12 steps.

Last night as I struggled to fall asleep due to my insomnia, I thought about this… How different my life is now compared to a few years ago when I used drugs. But not only that. I also thought about how difficult recovery was for me at the beginning, when as an atheist expecting it to be based on something tangible, like a program featuring psychology to address my issues from which I escaped using drugs, which were then ironically compounded by the drugs, I found myself thrust into a culture that essentially entailed belief in magic, without any treatment for the underlying cause of the addiction. All is well in my life and my recovery now, but I’m writing this post for others like me, who enter into 12 step programs expecting help, and instead find themselves in a culture that can not help them, but rather further isolates them instead. (By further isolation, I mean that being a drug addict, you already isolate yourself. One would expect this isolation to end in recovery.)

My first attempt at recovery was awful. Thrust into a culture where the 12 steps were accepted as the only way, I spent much of my time at NA meetings that did nothing for me in terms of solving my psychological issues that caused me to use drugs in the first place. Furthermore, wasting time focusing on recovery itself took time away from what (this time around) turned out to be the solution to getting back control of my life. So when I wasn’t distracted from using drugs by time-wasting and energy-draining meetings, without actually working on my issues and therefore never moving forward, I was bored and isolated. More on the isolation further on, but before that, let’s take a sceptical look at the NA 12 steps.

1. We admitted we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.

This faux admission is easy to make… Yes, my life seemed unmanageable. I’d made many bad choices, and had chosen to continue using drugs for some time despite horrendous consequences. So to mindlessly accept what I was told would be so easy. Except it isn’t really true. I chose to use drugs, over and over again. It’s tough to admit that, and people following the program don’t. The fact is that I was always in control, and that everything bad that happened to me, as terrible as it was, was my fault.

To claim powerlessness would be to deny personal responsibility for all those mistakes. My poor choices had many consequences which filtered through to all aspects of my life, my relationships and even my work. It felt like things were out of control, like my life was a runaway train with no driver, but that’s just how it felt. All I had to do was stop using drugs, and then slowly everything that seemed so unmanageable could fall into place. (And that is ultimately what I did. I took back control of my life.)

No, I was never powerless, and although it would be easy to accept this lie because the truth is more difficult, taking responsibility for those mistakes, and being personally accountable for continuing a life without drugs, has greater meaning for me. So I reject step one.

2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

I don’t believe in any god because there is no evidence for any god. I can’t just change that, change who I am, because it is convenient to do so. Also, I was never insane.

Sure, many people in the program told me that my “higher power” need not be God… All of those people were religious. All of them were convinced that I would eventually find Jesus, that their personal god would “reveal Himself” to me. But getting back to the idea of substituting something in place of god – as we examine the steps it becomes crystal clear that this needs to be god for them to make sense. So I reject step two.

3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

No. I do not believe in any god. Also, I screwed up. Using whatever means I could, it was up to me to fix my life, not to rely on some fictional deity. Again, this step is convenient if you don’t want to be accountable for your own mistakes, but remember, you came into this program expecting help. Belief in false hope is not help. So I reject step three.

Why go on? Well, I was forced to participate in a program, so I looked at the rest of the steps anyway. I tried to apply them to my life and it didn’t work out well. I’m writing this to help other atheists see that these steps are a waste of time and shouldn’t even be attempted.

4. We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Now I really don’t like where this is going. I happen to have impeccable morals. I made some poor choices, that harmed myself directly, and others indirectly. But those had nothing whatsoever to do with my morals.

On the one hand, I’m told that I’m not a bad person – that I have a disease. On the other, this step accuses us of poor morals. This is implying sin, a concept that I do not agree with. It also implies an argument from morality, the fallacious argument that our morals originate from god. So I reject step four too.

5. We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

Now this is beyond absurd. I made a mistake, but this is going somewhere else. This doesn’t help me at all. It doesn’t even try to address why I made that mistake. It’s trying to imply sin and repentance. It’s a blanket solution for all that addresses nothing. Of course I reject this step too.

6. We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

Defects of character? That I should ask some fictional deity to remove?

I don’t think so. I am the sum of all my parts, and my history, both the good and bad bits, made me who I am today. I learn from my mistakes, and do not accept that I have defects of character. Even if I did, I wouldn’t be asking a fictional deity to remove them. These steps look more like camouflaged born-again Christianity… where we ask Christ to save us from our sin. (Besides the fact that I don’t believe in Christ or any other deity, the message of Christianity itself, of us having to be saved from sin, fabricates the sin and provides a solution that involves believing in magic. I have rejected this already and do not need it shoved down my throat again.) I do not need to be saved or have character defects removed.

This step is pure bullshit.

7. We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

And you tell me it doesn’t have to be your God? I made mistakes. It’s was up to me to stop making those mistakes. Again, personal accountability goes out the window if you believe this nonsense. Obviously this step should be rejected.

8. We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

I only care about the effects of my drugs on my son, and have done all that I can to be the best parent that I can, going forward. It took a long time to get custody of him again, but it was never about making amends. It was about being a good and stable parent now, and in future. It was also about empowering him so that he knows better than repeating my mistakes.

You can’t change the past. And if there is anybody else I hurt, that’s unfortunate but I don’t look back. I am not interested in making amends with anybody. So I reject step eight.

9. We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Why is this even two steps? (I could ask the same about steps six and seven.) Again, I am reunited with my son. Nobody else matters and since I rejected the previous step, this one does not apply.

10. We continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

I do always admit when I’m wrong. I do learn by my mistakes. If it weren’t for this being a follow-up to step four that mentions a moral inventory, I’d agree with it and say that it got something right by accident. Except it didn’t really, because of the implied “moral” inventory, so this step must be rejected as well.

11. We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

Prayer and meditation? So I must ask my fictional Sky Daddy to fix me because I’m broken?

Let’s put it this way… I’m told that addiction is a disease. If I go to a doctor, and that doctor tells me to pray for my disease to be cured, I’ll leave and never see that doctor again. Instead I’ll find another doctor who knows what he’s doing.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

A spiritual awakening? I do not accept that anything spiritual exists. There is no god, all psychics and mediums are frauds, and I am responsible for my own actions. There is no way I can even creatively reinterpret this step to mean something else; no way I can apply it.


If you are a religious person and an addict who finds yourself in recovery, by all means rely on the 12 steps. It might work for you because you believe in god anyway. But do consider the fact that the program does not address any of your problems. Instead it involves working the 12 steps repeatedly and embracing a set of beliefs. It’s more like being in a cult. Sure, if you are religious, you can probably tolerate the nonsense and believe in it, but there are many articles out there that quoting the statistics and it seems to be generally accepted that 12 step programs are no better than doing nothing at all.

But if you’re not religious, if you’re an atheist or critical thinker, that program can not and will not work. In fact, partaking in it is torturous and an insult to your intelligence. Do I really even need to say that? Maybe for the sake of people who have never read what the 12 steps are really about, it’s useful, but otherwise it should be obvious that the 12 steps are a farce. They’re all about being powerless – having no control of our own lives, and asking god to save us.

I tried applying them to my life for a while, even though I could not believe in them, and it ended in disaster. I tried to make them fit, and could not. I sat in meetings where my lack of beliefs, my intelligence, counted against me. Instead of the program helping me, I found that I was further isolated. I was isolated from my family, who all assumed I was taking part in a program based on evidence that was helping me. I was isolated from my girlfriend, who believed in god. I was isolated from everybody else in the program, who all credulously and mindlessly accepted the nonsense of the 12 steps. I found myself disagreeing with everything said in meetings. The first time I tried it, without some other more sensible approach to my recovery, it was only a matter of time before I gave up on that program and relapsed because I had been convinced that 12 step programs were the only way to stay clean and sober. It’s ironic that I realized that the program was not useful, but also accepted that it was the only way. That was a failure on my part, but it’s a failure that any of us can make, and I now believe that going into recovery ignorant of the reality of 12 step programs is dangerous and could lead to many people relapsing. (And when you do, it’s your fault of course. Nobody blames the program, even though that program did nothing to help you.)

When I returned to recovery and got it right the second time around (this time), I attended meetings for a short while. (Long story short: I had a court order that required me to attend an outpatient program, as one of the conditions before reunification with my son could commence. But I waited until I was already clean for about 17 months before doing that program.) But I realized that I could not continue attending meetings; I could not pretend anymore; could not sit there listening to people talking bullshit when it did nothing for me. I even had to turn somebody down when he asked me to be his sponsor, and since he was in early recovery, I felt bad about that. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that everything he relied on so very much was nonsense (because he wouldn’t believe me – in his vulnerability he had become indoctrinated into believing what he was told in his 12-step based rehab) without being able to suggest a better way.

Next time I’ll write about what did work for me after I rejected the 12 steps and found my own way. (Or maybe I won’t. I have written about it before but do struggle to fully understand how I really got this recovery thing right, in all honesty. I don’t have a magic formula that you can follow for everything to be OK. If I did, I’d sell it and be filthy rich.)

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About Jerome

I am a senior C# developer in Johannesburg, South Africa. I am also a recovering addict, who spent nearly eight years using methamphetamine. I write on my recovery blog about my lessons learned and sometimes give advice to others who have made similar mistakes, often from my viewpoint as an atheist, and I also write some C# programming articles on my programming blog.
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