Why I Will Never Be Silent on Our Need to Keep Trauma-Informing the 12 Steps

Dr. Jamie Marich

“Janet [ my 12 step sponsor ]  inherently knew that in order to recover well, especially on a 12 step path, we had to do our deep healing work. While such work is to be encouraged, it must never be forced.”

Happy and content black women sitting in a garden

When I set out to promote the first edition of my book Trauma and the Twelve Steps in 2012, a podcaster asked me what my goal was in bringing my ideas to the world through a book. While I hadn’t deliberately pondered the question, the answer flew from my mouth immediately—my goal, and indeed my hope, is for everyone coming into recovery through the 12 steps to have an experience like I had with Janet, my first sponsor. I met her in 2001 before I ever set foot near the field of recovery and had only minimal exposure to mental health counseling. Janet was “trauma-informed” before that phrase was a buzzword in mental health and recovery. 

Janet inherently knew that in order to recover well, especially on a 12 step path, we had to do our deep healing work. While such work is to be encouraged, it must never be forced. For many of us, this work involves encountering the connections between unhealed trauma and the development of our addictions. Even though Janet was a 12-step traditionalist in many ways and believed firmly in the basics, she was never rigid. She encouraged me to come exactly as I was to meetings, and she allowed me to make modifications if certain language didn’t work for me in the A.A. Big Book. For instance, when I first sought recovery I believed that pills were my problem and not alcohol, yet we only had A.A. meetings available in the small European town where we lived. Janet still encouraged me to attend and to replace the word alcohol with any other drug or behavior I felt appropriate. She was gentle and person-centered, while she challenged me. This combination saved my life in so many ways. She made 12 step more flexible and accessible..

It is not lost on me that many people have negative experiences with 12 step programs, meetings, and/or sponsors. Experiences in some treatment centers rooted in 12 step philosophy–that don’t support individualized pathways and patchworks of recovery–can even be traumatic. Because of the foundation that I had built with Janet, I knew intimately that approaching the 12 steps in a trauma-informed manner was possible. And, I believe they worked so well for me because of Janet and her knowledge about the impact of trauma on the human experience. 

When I self-published the first edition of Trauma and the Twelve Steps in 2012—which Dawn and the team at SHE RECOVERS relentlessly supported—I set out to show people in recovery how to adapt the 12 steps to work for them. Never forcing a 12 step path on anyone, I believe that it is an adaptable program that can bring about meaningful lifestyle change. And, lifestyle change is imperative for success in recovery. 

Throughout the years, it’s delighted me to witness just how meaningful the Trauma and the 12 Steps work has meant to people around the world. In 2020, North Atlantic Books picked up a revised and expanded version of the book, which included additional content on how to ensure 12 step culture is diversified and inclusive—especially of LGBTQIA+ folks and multiple pathways and patchworks of recovery—and recovering from spiritual trauma and spiritual abuse. . For recovery month 2023, North Atlantic Books is reissuing a revised and expanded edition (written in collaboration with Stephen Dansiger and including a forward by Anna David) of the previously self-published Trauma and the 12 Steps Workbook

Although I’ve worked on other writing, teaching, and content projects over the years, the Trauma and the 12 Steps work remains closest to my heart. I truly believe that I will never stop sharing its message because so many facets of what I like to call the recovery world—which can include meetings, organizations, and professional treatment centers—still don’t seem to get it when it comes to trauma. Even if people don’t have a major story of childhood trauma to share, the experience of being trapped in addiction, an eating disorder, or another behavioral compulsivity is its own form of traumatic hell, and trauma changes our brains and our bodies. 

Although 12 step recovery pathways including the original 12 step program, Alcoholics Anonymous, have made significant contributions to society’s understanding of healing from addiction and substance use as mental and behavioral health issues in need of care, a great many updates have been needed since 1935. Sadly, I still see so many professional treatment structures afraid to fully “go there” with regard to healing trauma. It often seems like this hesitancy is a combination of not having enough staffing or resources to give clients the full attention they deserve around trauma and the immobilization that professionals feel due to their own unaddressed traumatic experiences. Whenever I hear stories like “you have to shut down trauma when it comes up” coming from treatment centers, I know that there is still work to be done. I applaud the SHE RECOVERS Foundation for the proactive stance that they have taken and implemented to make trauma-informed recovery resources available for so many women and non-binary individuals who identify with women’s communities.

After thirteen years of teaching how to better trauma-inform the 12 steps, and really all recovery models, I’m excited by the changes I have seen. The amount of work that still needs to be done surrounding the public health crisis of addiction can feel daunting for those of us paving these roads of recovery. Even though many professionals, coaches, and doctors are touting their new methods and miracle cures, people in recovery can still feel stuck and frustrated—especially when the quick fixes do not seem to work. Recovery of any kind requires patience, a commitment to lifestyle change, and a willingness to look at the wounds that keep us stuck in patterns that do not serve us. These are all aspects I see reflected within the SHE RECOVERS philosophy of redefining recovery if you want to better understand how we can move towards shifting the recovery paradigm, I suggest you take a look.

The English word trauma comes from the Greek word meaning wound. Unhealed wounds of all shapes, sizes, and varieties can profoundly impact our lives and our development. I sincerely hope that you are finding what you need to tend to your wounds today because healing is possible. Recovery is possible. And you are worthy and deserving of the healing that you seek. 

Dr. Jamie Marich (she/they/we) is an internationally-renowned researcher, writer, and educator on trauma, EMDR therapy, expressive arts, mindfulness, and yoga. She lives in Akron, OH. The founder of the Institute for Creative Mindfulness and the developer of the Dancing Mindfulness approach to expressive arts therapy, her work on Dancing Mindfulness has been featured in the New York Times. Her personal story of being out as a clinical professional with a dissociative disorder was published by The Huffington Post earlier this year. The Association of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Addiction Professionals and Their Allies and the EMDR International Association have both bestowed her with awards for her advocacy work in both jurisdictions. She is also the author of several books including Trauma and the 12 Steps (the revised and updated edition of wich is scheduled for release on August 29) and Dissociation Made Simple: A Stigma-Free Guide to Embracing Your Dissociative Mind and Navigating Life—she is currently finishing a personal memoir about surviving spiritual abuse, called You Lied to Me About God, due out in Autumn 2024.
( Photo by Jenna Forte of Third Eye Imagery )

To connect With Dr. Jamie Marich and to learn more about their offerings please visit drjamiemarich.com

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