My Objections To 12-Step Programs

I never held with 12-step programs. Sure, I was glad that they worked for some people, but I didn’t take them seriously. I didn’t respect them.

Why not? Chiefly because of the First Step where participants admitted that they were powerless before their addiction.

I didn’t buy that. I felt completely in control of my life.

Second, I found the notion that addiction was a disease to be absurd. You mean a bloke who can’t stop drinking has an illness like cancer?

I didn’t see excess drinking and drugging and the like as a disease. I saw them as a failure of moral will.

Third, I didn’t buy that having this disease and being helpless in front of your addiction was a valid excuse for bad behavior. I didn’t buy that you could go around and apologize to people for hurting them because “you were sick.”

As Genesis says, “Sin crouches at the door but you can rule over it.”

Since elementary school (probably since eighth grade), however, I’ve had the conviction that I have an addictive personality. I just didn’t think deeply about what that meant.

I would never try drugs or alcohol (when I became Jewish, I’d swallow the requisite mouthful of wine for kiddish but that was it, I never drank alcohol for pleasure and I’ve never tried any type of illegal drug nor ever taken a prescription drug for escape or for pleasure). While my peers got wasted, I abstained. I knew it would destroy me. While others could dabble in vice, I knew that I’d get hooked.

It was a big reason I never purchased the services of a prostitute. I feared I’d like it too much. I never bought a lap dance for the same reason.

I got into gambling in high school. I loved the rush. It made me forget my misery, my lack of comfort in my own skin. I would bet with my friends over everything possible. One day in 1982 I met a new friend, a neighbor. I bet him over a game of golf in his back yard. I won $5. To my horror, he asked his dad for the money. He said he had lost it to me in a bet. I immediately forgave him. His dad said to me, “That was very wise.”

I bet with other students at Placer High School. One took me for about $1400 on horse racing. I was graduating and leaving for Australia. I paid him off about $200 and asked him to forgive me the rest. He did.

After that, I resolved to never bet again. I fell down once when in Australia I succumbed to social pressure and put a bet down on the Melbourne Cup horse race. That was my last bet with my own money.

When I was in Las Vegas circa 2007, a friend gave me $20 to play the slots and I did because it was her money. I won’t bet my own.

Early on in my psycho-therapy, in 1998, my therapist asked me if I thought I might be a sex addict. I was certainly out to get all the sex I could with attractive women, but anything I did get, with few exceptions, took place within relationships that usually lasted from a few months to a year.

I said no, I wasn’t a sex addict, because I never did anything out of control. I never did anything criminal. I never felt in the grip of a compulsion so strong that I ignored consequences. I never avoided reality so that I could masturbate. I never patronized hookers or strips clubs. I didn’t look at pornography every day. I was just a normal bloke.

In April of 2011, my psycho-therapist said that it sounded like I had eroticized rage. I went home, Googled the term, and realized he was right and even though I only expressed my rage in socially acceptable terms, the rage was a sickness in my soul and holding back my life. I needed to get help. I needed 12-step work.

I told my therapist this at our next session and he recommended a program. A couple of weeks later, I went to my first ever 12-step meeting.

I wasn’t freaked out. I felt a tad awkward but simply accepted that this was the next logical step for my life and all beginnings were difficult. This seemed easier than my first yoga class. Now that was weird. Everyone had white turbans.

By this point, I had been porn-free for about six months. I was on a good trajectory.

I’ve got a strong pragmatic streak. I’ll try anything if it can’t hurt me. And if something helps me, I don’t care if it doesn’t make sense.

By living in so many different homes during my first four years of life, I learned flexibility. That I had ideological objections to 12-Steps wasn’t going to stop me from exploring if they could help me. When I was thinking about converting to Judaism in the early 1990s, I had all sorts of questions and objections, but I put them on the back burner when I saw that becoming Jewish was what I needed to do.

When I decided to explore yoga in 2009, it didn’t stop me that much of it seemed weird and dangerous and culty. When I met attractive women, it didn’t stop me if we had different political and religious views. I’m willing to go along with a lot of things I don’t agree with if I think they can benefit my life.

At my first 12-Step meeting, an even mixture of men and women, the speaker talked about how all of his relationships went through predictable patterns. They started off great and then they fell apart. He realized it might have something to do with him. And so he found this program and it had turned his life around.

I gave a three-minute share at that first meeting. Afterward, I met people who’d ready about me in the LA Weekly. They knew my story. I met a guy who came from the same type of Seventh-Day Adventist upbringing I had.

My first time in a 12-step meeting? Far less daunting than my first time in yoga. My first time in temple? Now that was daunting. I chose to go to 12-step, nobody pushed me, so it was easy. Converting to Reform Judaism was hard, converting to Orthodox Judaism was harder, but 12-steps have been fun.

I said to people outside my first meeting that I was a sucker for self-help. I was willing to try anything. I was told that 12-Steps wasn’t self-help. It was about self-transcendence. The answer to our addictions was through service to others.

I kept coming to meetings. I liked many of the people I met there. I got a lot of wisdom from them.

I remember a conversation with one guy after a meeting. He had the same predilections as me. We liked our women to dress up in certain ways. We pursued intensity more than intimacy.

“You know that this stuff we’re talking about isn’t our problem,” he said. “It’s just how we act out. Our problem is an intimacy disorder.”

He recommended to me the books of Pia Mellody.

It took me a while to find a sponsor because all the guys who were potential sponsors seemed like Nazis. I didn’t want anyone telling me what to do.

The longer I stayed in the program, the more impressed I became. I saw how it changed people’s lives for the good. I let my objections fall away and started working the 12-Steps. The more work I did, the more I realized how the sickness of my emotional addictions were reducing my life.

Instead of feeling hopeless, tormented and ill at ease much of the time, I found greater degrees of peace with myself, with God and with others.

Fifteen months into my work, I was asked to be the lead speaker to a meeting. That shook me up and spurred me to work harder on the 12 Steps, to up my bottom lines (behavior I wanted to avoid) to include a complete cessation from masturbation, and to more diligently pursue the program.

I knew I had pursued a lot of great things in my life but usually in such a half-assed way that they brought no glory to what I publicly espoused. Now I was convinced that this was caused by the corruption of my emotional addictions and that 12-step work would help me.

Yet I feared that I was a serial enthusiast and that many other times in my life, I though I had found the answer, found the key that would unlock my highest self, only to quickly fall back to my self-destructive patterns.

Why would this time be any different?

Where do I stand on my old objections to 12-Step programs? I’ve let them go. I see the program helping me and others. I don’t think the labels of “addiction” and “disease” matter. If working the program works for you, if it helps you to use these labels, then use them. There’s no need to argue over them if that prevents you from getting 12-step help. If you want to work any program, you have to accept its fundamental premises or to at least be willing to act as if they are true.

As we say in the program, take actions you don’t believe in and you’ll get results you can’t imagine.

“Whenever a guy does something remotely sensitive and heartfelt, his friends say to him, “So why don’t you just suck a dick and be done with it?” If you have an umbrella when it’s raining, your friends say to you, “What are you? Some kind of fag?” If you order a cookie or a banana with your pancake, they say, “Are you a fairy? Syrup isn’t sweet enough for you?” That’s why guys drop dead so young. It’s all those decades repressing the desire to ask for a cookie.” (Bill Burr)

I’m reading Pia Mellody’s book, Facing Love Addiction: Giving Yourself the Power to Change the Way You Love.

I’m not just a sex addict. I’m also a love addict.

Pia writes on page nine: “Although I see love addiction most often in female partners of sexual-romantic relationships, it is also possible for males to be Love Addicts. A person can also relate as a Love Addict in other kinds of relationships, such as with a parent, one’s children, a mother-in-law, a counselor, a close friend, a religious leader, a Twelve-Step sponsor, or a movie star.”

My Love Addict has come out in relationships with guys. Not because I had any kind of romantic or sexual feelings for them, but because being with them made me feel whole. When these friendships ended, it was as wrenching as the end of a romantic relationship.

I remember after one died a few years ago, my friend told me: “Here’s the feeling in this house — I don’t trust you, my wife hates you, and my kids fear you.”

I was so devastated that I missed our friendship for more than a year. Every day I thought about our time together. I sketched out notes for a novel about it but never wrote it.

Eventually we became friends again and then that died and I haven’t spoken to him in years.

Still, there was that one Shabbos afternoon when I was running down Pico Blvd for Mincha. It was cold and rainy. I ran past my friend in my thin suit and he said, “We have to get you a coat.”

I know I could get myself a coat, but that would not mean anything to me. However, the idea that someone else would get me a coat to make sure I was warm made me feel great.

In the end, he never got me a coat and I never got me a coat. I live in Los Angeles after all. But I have that wonderful memory of being cared for.

I know I’ve been seeking out substitute father figures all of my life. That’s probably my Love Addict.

It’s hard to disentangle all my neuroses.

If you don’t get nurturing in your first few years, you’ll likely go through your life feeling worthless and longing for a rescuer. You’ll meet powerful busy people and you just get a feeling that they can fix you.

Pia Mellody writes on page 17:

When the parent abandons the child, the child receives the message that “I won’t care for you because you are worthless.” Abandoned children can’t get nurture and affirmation from outside because their caregivers deserts them: and they can’t nurture and affirm themselves because they are too immature and non one has taught them what healthy nurture is. So almost all Love Addicts enter adult relationships with a built-in sense of defectiveness and worthlessness and the belief that they are helpless to care for themselves, which comes directly out of the original abandonment by the parent.

When I step into a 12-step meeting, it’s easy to spot who’s in the throes of addiction and who’s in recovery. People in recovery are buoyant while those in addiction are compressed, collapsed and depressed.

While listening to the following 12-step lecture on making a complete moral inventory, I was interested to hear the work described as a technique of subtraction. When you take away the things you’ve been doing to get in your way, such as making a substance, process or persons your higher power, the right thing naturally asserts itself.

Same with Alexander Technique. When you let go of unnecessary tightening and compression, good use naturally springs up.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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