12 Step Fellowships – How attitudes have changed


I need to make clear at the start that I am not a member of any 12 step fellowship. I did get my recovery through AA and NA and went to meetings, on and off for about 5 years before I got into recovery, and then two or three times a week after that. I haven’t been to a meeting for, it must be, 15 years, so that will be around the time this story starts.

I wanted to clear that up because I don’t want anyone to think I am breaking my anonymity (a very important 12 step principle).

So, on with the story.

My job as a drug and alcohol trainer

In the late 90s I started work as a drug and alcohol trainer with a local NHS Trust. One of the reasons I got the job was because of my experience of addiction and recovery. On my first day I met with my manager. She said that, as this was a new post, I needed to visit local drug and alcohol agencies to get some idea of what training was needed and how I could be of use.

So I did, and it was an interesting experience!

I’ve always been pretty open about my addiction and recovery so I had no hesitation about telling various drug and alcohol workers and managers that my recovery was due to 12 step fellowships.

The response was striking. As soon as I mentioned 12 step I could almost see them looking around in panic for cloves of garlic and wooden stakes! Here was this brainwashed religious fanatic coming in to poison their minds, and those of their clients.

Anyway, as time went on and I got to know many of the workers better, in most cases developing close working relationships with them, I started to see what some of the problems were:

  • their experience was not with the fellowship but with individuals members who could sometimes be dogmatic and overbearing. “If you’ve got a problem with alcohol then AA’s the only answer” etc.
  • AA is made up of amateurs and professionals can feel either threatened by it or condescending towards it
  • most of what non-members know about 12 step fellowships is from outside the rooms and the picture is of a secretive group of brainwashed religious fanatics (this has changed a lot over the last 15 years or so. I’ll write about that later)

I don’t happen to feel that 12 step fellowships are the only answer. They worked for me, and for many others, but they don’t seem to work for everyone. I know that many people recover from addictions without any outside help, and many others do it through other ‘mutual aid groups’ in the modern parlance.

I think one of the things I needed to bear in mind was another principle, that of attraction rather than promotion. I didn’t push the fellowships down anyone’s throat and I always tried to be open minded about other approaches, including substitute medication and controlled use (although that never worked for me).

What I find interesting is how things have changed. Before I retired, a couple of years ago, I could walk into the local Community Drug Team (although now they tend to be combined substance misuse services rather than separate drug and alcohol services – about time too!), I could walk in and see on the wall posters advertising AA and NA meetings, times and venues of meetings (often these were in the services themselves). I also knew that clients were often being advised to go to meetings to help them with their recovery.

Why? There seem to be a number of factors. 12 step meetings are free so agencies, and ultimately the government, can save money by getting people to go to meetings. Also, I think there was the realisation that there are a lot of people out there with valuable experience of addiction and recovery and that they had possibly been discouraged from applying for work in substance misuse services because of the perceived negative attitude towards them. I’ve not got evidence for this, it just seems to make sense to me.

In addition to this Mark Gilman, the Strategic Recovery Lead for Substance Misuse for Public Health England has been a strong public advocate of 12 step fellowships for the last few years, promoting the 12 step approach in his presentations. Here’s a link to a relevant article: drinkanddrugsnews.com/tag/mark-gilman

Recovery is, after all, the official approach to treatment now with Recovery Leads and Recovery Coaches etc. What the word means is another matter, and I’ll write about that in another post.

Until next time, take care

One thought on “12 Step Fellowships – How attitudes have changed

  1. Pingback: What Is Recovery? | dive for your memory

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