When AA Is Not Enough

By Olivia Pennelle 02/22/17

There is a common misconception that the steps are all that you need. In fact, AA literature clearly states that you should seek outside help if necessary.

A broken stairway in front of a cloudy sky.
Now what?

I do not believe that I would be in my fifth year of recovery had I not found the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA). However, in my experience, the 12-step program of recovery does not meet everyone’s needs. There is no question that the 12 steps have transformed my life, but there is a common misconception that they are all you need. The stubbornness of this mindset discourages people in recovery from asking an important question: do the steps sometimes fall short?

As a person who has regularly attended meetings for nearly five years, I feel somehow ungrateful, or lacking in humility, to say the steps didn’t completely help me recover. After all, I haven’t had a drink or drug for nearly five years. That is a miracle. The program has delivered exactly what it promised.

AA literature, The Big Book, says this:

“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average. There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.”

I was rigorously honest and have not failed; I have maintained continued sobriety. I am not sure that failure, in this sense, is synonymous with continued sobriety, but that is what I interpret this to mean.

What the 12 Steps Did Fix

I arrived in the rooms with a thud. I recall that moment like it was yesterday. I had zero comprehension of addiction, with little or no sense of personal identity. I was completely fractured. I felt defeat in its ultimate sense. So, when a program of recovery welcomed me with open arms, told me that I never had to drink or use again, and offered it for free, I jumped at the opportunity.

I applied myself to the 12 steps with the same vigor as a person fighting for her life, because I believed that I was. I knew in my heart that this was my last option. I had tried every type of other option, from moderation to fighting the compulsion to use drugs and alcohol with sheer will. Nothing worked successfully. The 12 steps did.

They helped me to regain my life. My perspective was cleansed so that I could see the behaviors that led to addiction. I could see, with crystal clarity, the devastation that my addiction had caused. They helped me to take stock, clean house and repair relationships.

Not only that, I was shown love, fellowship and hospitality. I still am today. For that, and the program, I am eternally grateful.

But I still felt something was missing. There were other issues involved.

What the 12 Steps Did Not Fix

The reality is that the 12 steps did not complete my recovery. What I have seen, in my short five years, is that we come in all shapes and states. In my opinion, a one-size solution certainly does not fit all; there are often other disorders and illnesses at play. It is only in working the program and getting sober that those disorders either resolve or become more apparent. These co-occurring issues include mental illness (depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, personality disorders), eating disorders (bulimia, anorexia, body dysmorphia), sex/love addiction, trauma, and abuse.

With these illnesses or disorders in mind, I feel that there is a common misconception that the steps are all that you need. If you look at the literature closely, you will see that it quite clearly states that even though the steps help to resolve many issues, sometimes outside help is required. AA literature says this:

“Today many A.A. members find themselves faced with difficulties that ostensibly have nothing to do with their alcoholism and for which they seek help from persons or agencies outside A.A. Although this is not a new practice (the early A.A. members also sought help for other problems), it is perhaps more widespread today because both A.A. members and the helping professionals are more aware of the problems encountered by alcoholics during their recovery process. Whatever the cause, it is a fact that alcoholics who are recovering in A.A. often confront problems other than alcohol for which they must seek help. Most frequently, these problems include family difficulties, mental and emotional troubles requiring psychiatric help, spiritual or religious dilemmas, eating disorders, etc. Alcoholics Anonymous does not offer any panaceas for the multitude of problems that A.A.s may experience in sobriety. For these difficulties, extra help should be sought. A.A. does offer a solution to one problem: alcoholism. This singleness of purpose unites alcoholics in a common bond, which is the key to recovery in A.A.”

My Experience

I could argue that had I not undertaken step work, I would not have uncovered other issues. This is partly why I write this piece—it’s for the person a few years into recovery who still doesn’t feel right. It is for the person who is still struggling with destructive behaviors. It is for the person who is still trying to avoid something.

My issues were long-standing depression, romantic relations and my disordered relationship with food. Dysfunction was still prevalent in my life. I found myself three and a half years in recovery and suffering with depression, 100 pounds overweight and eating in a harmful way. I was seeking out unhelpful and harmful relationships. I wasn’t enjoying life. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t working a program of recovery either. This is where I felt advice was lacking. I heard the following unhelpful suggestions: I wasn’t working my program hard enough; I wasn’t grateful; I wasn’t handing over my will and my life; I wasn’t doing a thorough enough inventory.

I have firsthand experience of members saying that they will not sponsor people who are on antidepressants—despite the clear guidance of literature that AA has no opinion on outside issues such as diagnosis, treatment or medications; and that its primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety. The interpretation of this simple program is quite clearly misconstrued and potentially dangerous.

Had I not been guided by a solid network of support, I wouldn’t have been able to disregard those unhelpful comments and instead look for other solutions. I sought professional help for depression, a long-standing eating disorder, and dysfunctional relationships.

Ultimately, the steps do what they promise to, which is help us recover from a spiritual malady and a hopeless state of mind which led to addictive behaviors. To go from mere existence to fully embracing life can depend upon whether there are other issues at play—and that is where, in my opinion, the quest of the recovering person needs expansion. It is not the steps that need work, it is the conception of the recovering person—that they may need additional help and acknowledge that other disorders and issues are sometimes part and parcel of the person in recovery. We are all beautifully different.

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