First of all – and this is an important point – I am one of you. For the past thirty years I’ve attended and been involved with a twelve-step recovery program for people who struggle with addiction. I’ve probably attended thousands of meetings, done years’ worth of service at the group, area, regional and national levels. I’ve worked about twelve sets of steps. I’ve sponsored dozens of women and had about six sponsors of my own. I came to believe in a higher power but I prefer not to define what it is. I can recite the literature although I usually don’t. I’m not a perfect member, but I’m a member.
To be fully transparent, these days, I sometimes go weeks or months without a meeting, yet I do love meetings when I get to them. I don’t currently have a sponsor nor do I sponsor other women actively, but I’m still close with many of my former sponsors and sponsees. I haven’t worked a full set of steps in a few years but I incorporate the principles of all of the steps into my daily life. I try as hard as I can to remain honest, open-minded and willing in all areas.
Before you feel compelled to judge how well I’m working my program – or not – I just want to remind you that the only requirement for membership in my program is the desire to stop acting out on my addiction. Come to think of it…that’s true for all twelve step programs.
All this to say I come to this discussion as someone who loves, honors and celebrates twelve step recovery. It is always the first thing that I suggest to women who are new to recovery and looking for resources. It’s free (although donations are accepted at each meeting) – it’s everywhere – as in all over the world including developing countries. Literature for my program of choice is available in 34 languages and translations are in process for 16 other languages. Twelve step recovery programs offer meetings specific to women, to LGBTQ individuals, young people and other groups. Clearly, twelve-step recovery is the most accessible free help available for people with substance use or other behavioral health issues.
The truth is, we can’t separate the issue of privilege and recovery when we talk about twelve-step recovery. Twelve-step recovery is often the only option for some people, for some women – especially when we start looking internationally. It’s important for me to recognize my privilege as a white, middle-class, straight Canadian woman. I can afford to participate in other recovery modalities such as therapy, treatment, yoga, online programs or in-person retreats. Not everyone can.
So, is twelve-step recovery perfect?
I say not.
I could say a lot about the things that I wish twelve-step programs did better. Anything run by humans is going to fall short in different areas. I know that there are problems with the language – as well as other parts of the framework. I’ll touch on some of these things in a few minutes.
My focus here is merely to suggest what women in twelve-step programs can do better so that more women can check out and experience twelve step recovery. Sadly – some of the most alienating and disappointing things I hear about twelve step recovery – are related to how some women treat or speak to other women within the programs and fellowships. I have been guilty of saying some very not-useful things to women myself in my early years of recovery. I simply repeated what I had heard myself. But for a long time now I have been thinking about how if we could just open up a conversation about this – we can all do better.
I offer these suggestions with love – but also some urgency. Women are dying, physically and spiritually. Children are suffering due to their mothers’ struggles. Women who are in or seeking recovery need to be able to access more – not less – welcoming, non-judgmental, accepting and loving spaces where they can heal and thrive. I’m not just talking about in-person twelve step meetings, but include online spaces such as online meetings, Facebook groups, Instagram and beyond.
Here are ten ideas on how we, as women in twelve-step programs, can do better.
- Let’s not force women brand new to recovery to identify as an alcoholic or addict. We aren’t the boss of how they identify themselves. This practice is really more about us than them. I personally don’t care if a woman ever claims a label. I do it in meetings because it’s no big deal to me, and I think that there is a certain power to saying “My name is Dawn and I’m an addict” in a meeting – there’s no emotional charge to it for me at all and I think that in itself can reduce stigma (others disagree, I know). I don’t identify that way outside of meetings.
- Evidence shows that the shame of relapse often prolongs relapse. Let’s celebrate when women come back to meetings after a relapse but for God’s sake let’s not shame them. I can tell you the names of women I know who kept using – until they died – because they were too overcome with shame to come back to meetings. That needs to change.
- When women express concerns about the overtly masculine, relatively religious overtones in the literature, let’s be on the same side and agree with them. Because it is what it is. But then let’s encourage them to ignore as best they can the language that they find triggering or disempowering. I no longer waste my energy trying to change the language, but I am open about its shortcomings and vocal about how I have the ability to re-interpret it for myself. Maybe one day the language will be changed. But maybe not. In the meantime recommend that women check out A Woman’s Way Through the Twelve Steps. Brilliant book – trauma informed and written specifically for women.
- Let’s do everything we can to correct the inaccurate perception that twelve-step meetings are for people who hit low bottoms. Reminder here – the only requirement is the desire to stop doing the thing (alcohol, drugs, gambling, etc). Please don’t ever tell another woman that she needs to and I quote “go back out and do more research” or suggest that she needs to – and I quote again – “go out and hit a bottom and then come back.” Both of these statements are absurd and dangerous. I actually kind of go ballistic on women if I ever hear them say anything like this to another woman.
- Can we lose the ludicrous suggestion that women need to attend 90 meetings in 90 days in order to “get” recovery? Can we instead suggest 90 days of self-care with as many meetings as a woman feels she needs and can get to after she has worked, taken care of her children, spent time with other loved ones, gone to therapy or for walks or a run, to yoga. We don’t get to dictate women’s recovery schedules – we can make suggestions but unless a woman is single, unemployed and believes herself that she needs 90 meetings in 90 days – we have no right to put that expectation on her. On a related note – as women get more secure in their recovery and are rebuilding their lives – they often cut back on their meeting attendance. Don’t try to make them feel guilty about that on the occasions they do show up at meetings. They will just go away for good if you do, and who can blame them? Familiarize yourself with the twelfth step – they are likely taking their recovery out into their families, their workplaces and communities. That counts. And remember – the only requirement for membership is _____________________ (fill in the blank).
- Can we remember that women are conditioned to go overboard with being of service to other people in their lives. Pressuring women early in recovery to be “of service” in twelve-step meetings can be too much for women who may already be over-subscribed caring for children and other family members as well as working and managing a household and holding on to their recovery with every remaining ounce of their being. Just getting to meetings is important enough – service work can come later.
- Women may have difficult experiences participating in meetings. Give them some space and time. They will speak up when they are ready.
- The pressure to “get a sponsor” can invite a lot of anxiety. I believe that women need to take their time picking out someone to works steps with (which – as we all know – is the purpose of a having a sponsor). If you want to offer to be a friend to a woman new to recovery – that works quite well. Don’t force them into relationships with sponsors before they are ready.
- Twelve step-work can trigger trauma issues – sponsors and supporters are with few exceptions not trained to deal with trauma that arises during “step-work.” If the women you are working with disclose past trauma – please dear god please – suggest that they seek professional help to heal from it. This might be the most important suggestion that I have.
- In some twelve-step circles – doing work “outside” of the program is viewed as unnecessary and therefore women can be judged negatively for seeking other types of help or pathways. Don’t be one of those judges. In fact, encourage women to get all of the support and help outside of the program that they can, always.
Well I’ve actually probably got more – but I’ve gone on long enough for now and those are my ten suggestions. I hope that you will consider them closely. I think that lives depend on it.
I know that there is a lot of energy out in the world that argues that we should just throw the baby out with the bath water and get rid of twelve-step programs altogether because of their shortcomings. I disagree vehemently. There are millions of people living healthier, happier lives today because they found recovery in one of these programs. I’m one of them. As I said earlier – I’m forever grateful.
I’m also grateful to and need to acknowledge the many women in twelve-step recovery who I have met and continue to meet who are like me – vocal advocates for all pathways and patchworks of recovery. I love hearing women who are strong twelve-steppers tell other women “I get that this might not work for you and I just really hope you find something that does.” And I love it even more when we can create spaces – online and in real life – where women in recovery can all come together and share what works about our own individualized approach.
I promise to always honor and respect your recovery pathways and patchworks. I only ask that you do the same in return.
I shit you not. We’re stronger together.