No matter the level of crisis and upheaval in their lives, rarely do people want to attend 12 step meetings (e.g. Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, SexAddicts Anonymous) when they first come to me for help. I believe that this is because most of us have been raised to believe that unless you can fix a problem yourself, you are basically weak and incompetent.

Paradoxically, in my 27 years of clinical work, I have never seen anyone manage to stop their addictive behavior for any significant amount of time without the help of others. Those who attempt to “go it alone” inevitably relapse and have to live with more shame. This is referred to as “white knuckling it” or first order change, which is only superficial and short term. Their addiction counts on them being ashamed and alone.

People often say they are too busy/shy/proud to attend meetings, but sometimes, and especially after difficulties arise, they /make it a priority/overcome their shyness/swallow their pride and get to a meeting. Once they do attend several times with an open mind (and heart), changes start to occur at a deeper, personal level. This is termed “second order change” and is much more lasting if worked through and allowed to develop through a lot of hard work. It’s as if isolation and shame’s stranglehold is broken, and the addiction is weakened. People see that others care. About them. No matter what.

This realization can be powerful.

It is very different and uncomfortable for most addicts who have learned to be independent to a fault. When running addiction aftercare groups, it is remarkable how often groups are formed by self-described “lone wolves”. Most group participants start off by telling me that s/he wants to control their problematic alcohol/drug/behaviour on their own, and never thought they would be listening to others, or talking to others about their struggles. And it is equally remarkable how many people don’t want to stop attending 12-step groups once they realize that receiving and giving peer support actually makes them stronger.

A healthy amount of interdependence must be learned and accepted by those who move past addiction. Sometimes I need you and sometimes you need me.

Gradually, over time, unhealthy bonds are broken with the drug or behaviour of choice and replaced by healthy ones with real people. It’s a process that is reminiscent of the parable of the onion in Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov”, in which people are pulled out of hell by trust, altruism and selflessness, but pulled back by giving in to irrational fear, and caring only about one’s own interests.

An unfortunate barrier for many people is that 12 step meetings are “cultish” and all about religion-which is understandably a concern-especially when you are not of any particular faith. It is important to remember that although there may be reference to God and some elements of prayer at 12 step meetings, participation in this is voluntary, and as described in chapter 4 of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous on Agnostics, it is about finding your own perception of a Higher Power due to the fact that believing you have all the answers just doesn’t work and must be relinquished in order to learn to live in consultation with others, and build a network of support.

It’s OK to be yourself and you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do at 12 step meetings. Being respectful but assertive with your boundaries is critical if you don’t feel comfortable, or if someone is trying to impose something on you at a meeting. This is good practice for life. Simply bowing one’s head in respect and saying nothing or going for a walk break during a meeting is perfectly acceptable. Saying “I pass” or “I am just here to listen” are common phrases for those who are just trying out meetings and will be understood and respected at a healthy meeting.

So, if you are caught up in some type of addiction, start by doing the obvious: stop listening only to yourself. Get to a meeting where others can share the load with you. The support you will receive there is different than that provided by a professional. 12-step meetings are free and happen mostly every day. Participants have been where you are. Some have learned ways of getting out of addiction’s grasp by learning about themselves and changing how they think and act. You can learn too!