On the five pillars of recovery (bullshit)

This is one of those subjects I’ve meant to write about for a long time… Back when I attended NA meetings, I used to hear about it a lot, especially at one particular meeting. The man who chaired that one always spoke of the five pillars, and woe unto anyone who didn’t know what they were. (Meetings, higher power, step-work, sponsor and service.) He always introduced the subject the same way, comparing the stability of recovery to that of a table. His logic was that you could not have a stable recovery without the pillars, much like you can’t have a stable table without four legs to hold it up. And every time he said this, I thought of my three-legged table at home. It’s an office desk, a would-be rectangle with one corner removed in an oval shape, into which one slides a chair. So it has three corners and three legs, and is perfectly fine.

It’s easy to get caught up in your metaphor, but recovery is not a table. It’s also easy to project your own approach onto others and expect that what works for one works for all, but the reality is that we are all individuals, and there is no one approach, no correct way of doing recovery. I’m prone to such projection too, which is one reason that I write about my personal experiences and issues. I won’t tell you that it applies to everyone.


Of course there is some value to learning from the experience of others, especially if they have overcome similar problems. If that were not the case, no other former or current addicts would be reading this. And you get a little of that, the wisdom of others, in and around meetings. But that’s not all you get. I started with this point rather than writing it after the others, because if I wrote it only in the context of the other “pillars”, I’d have to conclude that it is useless.

A higher power

It’s convenient to believe that there is some guiding force, an intelligent designer of the universe. But there is no evidence for any such thing, and it is more about having something that you want to believe. It is incredibly arrogant though, to believe that you have a personal relationship with such a being, and more so to impose that notion onto others.

A higher power in recovery is a bad thing… No matter what anyone tells you, accepting the idea is all about the notion that you are broken, and cannot be fixed but must pray to a higher power for guidance, to be saved. It’s all about a one size fits all, generic approach, a cult-like culture where your individual needs and issues are forgotten as you waste your time on praying to something that does not exist, deluding yourself into the false comfort that your life is being guided.

People will tell you that you can have an alternative to god as your higher power, but those are people who believe in god, and who think that you will ultimately come around and be saved.

I have no higher power, and am perfectly fine without one, and without trying to pretend that some other single thing is the one thing on which I rely to stay clean.


These so-called pillars lose their value, and the metaphor breaks down, when you realize that they are not separate ideas at all. The 12 steps are all about god saving you from yourself, and you can waste your time pretending that they mean something else, but the reality is that you’d be better off spending your time on something that has personal significance.

I’d rather take my son to a movie, or read him a book, or spend time reading and increasing my knowledge by learning something new, than sitting with a sponsor and reinterpreting 12-step bullshit to make it relevant to me.

A sponsor

See previous point.

Having a sponsor is all about working the 12 steps. It is not a separate pillar on which to rely. It might be useful to have someone to talk to when you doubt yourself or are tempted to use drugs, but you don’t need a sponsor for that. I have several people I can discuss anything with, but don’t need to anyway because I am at a point, and have been since I was about two weeks clean (in September 2013, nearly three years ago) that I am not tempted anyway.


They were always vague about what this means… According to some, making coffee at meetings counts as service. So does helping addicts in prison (though I have no idea how that works), or helping people in a hospital. So it is all about helping others. I’m all for that, but not in the context of NA or anything that it stands for.

To conclude, I don’t believe that there is any right way to do recovery. If you find that you need to believe in a higher power, and that a 12-step plan works, then maybe that is for you. But I ask that you don’t go into meetings with a closed mind and tell people that it is the only way, especially if they say that they don’t believe in any god. Not only is it not the only way, but trying to force such an approach on someone who isn’t a believer may actually do them more harm than good.


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.
This entry was posted in Addiction, Methamphetamine, Recovery and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to On the five pillars of recovery (bullshit)

  1. pluviolover says:

    I find your blog interesting. You’ve inspired me to do a blog post on this topic from my point of view, but I’m not sure when I’ll get to it. I’ve often wondered how atheists deal with 12-step programs and you enlighten me on that. Thank you, Jerome.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jerome says:

      To be honest, I don’t know how other atheists deal with 12-step programs, although I have run into some of them on skeptic and atheist groups. For example, when I first joined the South African skeptic groups, I asked about this, and the most common answer was an acronym (that slips my mind right now for some reason) that was about a psychological method of treatment.

      I have much against 12 step programs because I was forced to participate in such programs and tried to make them work for a while, and it was only really this last stint clean from Sept 2013 where I found my own way, and it happened almost by accident.

      I also can’t even say that I ever “worked the steps” because I could not commit myself to something that I didn’t believe in. So when I did do those meetings, there would always be people telling me that I wasn’t “truly in recovery”… The trusted old No True Scotsman fallacy.

      But the conclusions of several studies (that I can’t cite because I don’t remember where I found them) seem to indicate that 12 step programs are no better than doing nothing at all, and that people who make them work may well have made whatever they tried work anyhow.

      Liked by 1 person

      • pluviolover says:

        Thank you. It may be SOS (Save Our Selves) that you speak of. I know little of it.


      • salsacookies says:

        Hi Jerome,

        I’ve got a big problem with this idea being somewhat forcibly prescribed by members of 12-step fellowships and found your write-up in trying to further my perspective on it.

        I believe the acronym you refer to is ‘GOD’ – Good, Orderly, Direction.


        • salsacookies says:

          My apologies, the above was in accommodating the 12-steps themselves, any reference to God or a Higher Power would be interpreted as Good, Orderly, Direction

          In reference to a method of treatment as mentioned, it may have been ‘CBT’ – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Jerome says:

            Yah… My therapist at the last place where I had to do an outpatient program (before getting my son back) also used that Good Orderly Direction acronym. I hated it. Only did that program because I had a piece of paper from the court saying I had to do that, but I only did so when I was already about a year and a half clean, and do not credit it with helping me at all…

            I’ve heard great things about CBT from other addicts in a couple of skeptic groups when I asked about it. I found it interesting that on joining an established Facebook skeptics group, filled with highly intelligent skeptics and atheists, there were several former addicts who responded to my question immediately. One does not get this impression from 12 step programs – they like to give the impression that it’s “their way or the highway”, that 12 step programs are the only way of staying clean. I feel that such programs were certainly harmful to me, and probably to others as well.

            Fortunately for me, after doing that program, where I had to be sure to say the right things to fit in, and getting my son back – which happened several months later… I have never felt the need for any kind of program again. I’m not 100% sure why that is, but I do not crave or have any interest in using – none whatsoever.

            But I do empathize with others like me, atheists and skeptics, who are forced to partake in such a program, who realize that it is not evidence based.

            That’s my main issue with such programs – they are universally forced on addicts by courts, even though the basis of 12 step programs has nothing to do with evidence and (in my opinion) does nothing to treat any addicts. They work (sometimes?) by accident…


        • Jerome says:

          Sorry, my other reply was first… replying on this one so there’s less nesting. I find the wordpress nested comment thread messy and difficult to follow…

          The thing is, besides what I wrote earlier, I can see the reason for those programs being forced on addicts. They have to do something, there has to be some way of following the progress of an addict who has to entered recovery, and the intentions are good. But I believe that the problem is that people are mistaken in assuming such programs really work.

          This means that if you are an addict who is struggling, and you realize the program is bullshit (woo as skeptics call it), you have a dilemma. You can’t just stop participating, because everyone, your family, your loved ones, your work colleagues, and the court, will assume that your non-cooperation means that you are not sincere in wanting sobriety. And then you are punished for it.

          I went through the motions of doing a program, but it has bugger-all to do with helping me stay clean. I managed to find another way, something to focus on, and for reasons that I do not understand, I made it. I ended up without even the tiniest interest in using meth. But it could have worked out very differently.

          This leaves me uncertain what kind of advice to give anyone who is struggling. Because I don’t fully understand what I did that worked. I tried to clean up before, and it didn’t work. But this last time it did. I wish I had a formula I could write down… say, “Do A, B and C, and you’ll be fine.” But I don’t.


  2. bbnewsab says:

    @Jerome: I anticipated you’d dislike the top answer. Like me you seem to be allergic to religion-tasting bullshit. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I beg you to read the case for Christ. Just amuse yourself. You seem to be grounded in your beliefs. It can’t hurt. All it can do is to help you have a deeper understanding of life.


    • Jerome says:

      Thank you for your comment, but please consider when making such statements to atheists, that one should not assume they have not already done so, and rejected the case for Christ after years of careful consideration, perhaps even after being brought up Christian and having gone through years of Sunday School and church services, as well as reading the Bible.

      If your belief helps you, and gives you a better understanding of your life, then good for you though. I mean no disrespect but it doesn’t work for me.

      Liked by 1 person

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