Can you help me escape from the 12-step world, in which I grew up?

Break Free from the 12 Step WorldStanton,

Thank you for your web site! I am a 22 year old who has been abstinent from drugs and alcohol for the past 5 years. I have been drug and alcohol free much longer than I used drugs.

I feel lost in life; I have grown up with the 12 steps drilled into me, but I recently have been seeing holes in the lifestyle I am expected to live.

I have only had friends in this 12 step program since I was 17. My boyfriend, however, is normal. We have no alcohol in the house, and we live with 2 other 12 steppers.

To make a long story short, I don’t believe in the “santa claus” of Narcotics Anonymous anymore. NA worked at first to keep me from self-destructing, but I am dissatisfied with how my life is spent now. There is no goal for me in NA. I really don’t know if there is anything left for me to learn.

I have found myself happy in the company of friends who occassionally drink (and sometimes drink too much) with no compulsions to drink. Being in their company is a big “no-no” and a sign of relapse, people warn me.

I fear I have been socialized to only fit in with ex-drug addicts and ex-alcoholics. The program preaches that addicts have always felt “different than.” Now, more than ever, in the presence of those who live their lives as they please, without the intervention of the 12 steps, I feel “different than.”

NA has no peer group for me. There are no young people my age in it. I have been stuck with many judgmental people who are my parents’ ages or older for 5 years. All of the dogma and myths perpetuated in NA say that having friends who use drugs or drink will make you go get really high and lose everything. They say that I will never fit in anywhere but NA. (Which, I have learned, is VERY untrue.) NA members constantly reinforce at meetings “I am first, and foremost, an addict” and “I will never be normal.”

I honestly can say I don’t know what will happen when I leave NA. I would like to find others with experience being young and getting clean, and then returning to a “normal” life. I am scared that I have been overly socialized, and will become a self-fulfilling prophesy. I would like to know what a glass of wine, alone, tastes like, too. (Being 17 and drinking means you drink whatever is there, so I have never had a proper mixed drink or a single glass of decent wine.)

Do you have anyone or any resources you can point me to??? I want to know that there is life after NA.


Dear Belinda:

There is nothing so scary to me as people, like you, who are “captured” by the 12 steps before you can barely think. If there is anything cult-like about AA, this is its best example.

You describe what this experience is like perfectly from the inside. You are surrounded by 12-step individuals (although, in your case, you aren’t dating one, you are still living with two other 12-steppers). You are indoctrinated with the idea that you can’t associate with other people, aside from 12-steppers, without endangering not only your sobriety, but your life!

And, as you indicate, there are no guarantees when you leave this environment — life is uncertain, and you have hardly been exposed to it. But you must follow your inclination to escape this world — you have strengths you don’t know about, you must get beyond this artificial destructive environment you’re in, and you must understand for yourself what your abilities and limitations are. But it sounds like, on your own, you have already broken out of this closed circle — you are seeing other people, and I hope they have something to offer other than occasional drug and alcohol use. One obvious avenue it seems for you is to further your schooling, if you have not yet done so.


Do you feel trapped by the AA or NA?

The 12 steps teaches us that addiction is a chronic disease that cannot be cured. The Life Process Program was developed as an alternative to AA and other 12 step addiction recovery programs, and one that puts YOU in control of your recovery.

Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts by The Fix, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.


  • Counselorchick says:

    People are not “powerless” and never were “powerless.” Just that for a start allows clients to see how they were systematically brainwashed into the 12 step cult religion. That’s the place to start for those who have very good reasons for leaving the cult but still believe they were once “powerless.” From there, you can then discover how you were brainwashed to believe that your “best thinking” is your perpetual enemy. It’s a long road of deprogramming but people do it constantly since the 12 step cult religion is so good at brainwashing people and cultures. You can do it!

  • Melody says:

    I would not have been able to stop drinking without the help of AA and the people in those rooms. Count myself lucky that most meetings in my area were filled with folks that really cared. The main issue I found with AA is the egos can be a bit much and at times I would wonder why if we have stopped drinking and are applying the steps to our lives, how is ego even remotely an issue. But then again we are human. I’ve not been back to a meeting in three years but it’s only because I moved and just wanted to see if I was destined for failure if I didn’t keep going. During my 5 years in AA I definitely lost the desire to drink and it’s never returned. I have had a glass of wine I’d say every six months but it did not lead to more. I never thought of myself as a lifetime alcoholic and did not agree with the mindsets that it’s a disease and you are never cured. So in summary, AA gave me sobriety for sure but I’ve been fine without the program and do not look at AA negatively. I am Christian and rely on God a lot more since going to AA.

  • Alicia says:

    I am glad to have found this, I had a terrible experience in AA to the point where I had a few emotional breakdowns. I finally left for good this past May. There was so much hypocrisy and contradiction in those rooms and I certainly did not consider any of those people to be friends and I felt worse than I ever had when I was drinking. I lost so much through all those years of trying to force myself to be other than I was. I still am trying to rebuild my life after it. I joined a few Facebook groups that were supposed to be supportive for those who left aa but they were letting in particular one woman post who was clearly still attending meetings and was constantly attacking other people’s posts. It’s hard to find any kind of support once you’ve Been brainwashed into thinking that you should only be friends from that program. Sorry if I posted in the wrong place but just feeling kind of depressed

  • Kevin says:

    This really is ridiculous. If, at 22 years old you need “assistance” to “escape,” then you didn’t get a message somewhere in your upbringing. Further, for Diane-if your thoughts go to “being cool in NA” or anywhere, then you missed a message. Diane is correct on this though “don’t use(drink) no matter what”. IF you need freedom from compulsion…keep coming back. If you don’t. Don’t bother those of us who do, with these conversations. It appears to me that this is using dogma to try and control others by labels of “cult” and so forth. Organized religion stood between me and God for years. These steps help me find “God as I understand him”. Not God as the baptists (or whomever) understand him.

  • Dianne says:

    AA and NA are negative , brainwashing cults. The members do not seem happy, joyous and free. In fact, quite the opposite. It’s fear and shame based. There success rates for complete abstinence are abysmal. I suspect many people are not really sober and still take cakes . NA especially is a prison mentality cult. You want to be cool in NA? Be an ex con heroin addict. Heroin is glorified in NA. The slogans for both fellowships are meant to shut down critical thinking. The one slogan I totally agree with is “ don’t drink or use no matter what “. That denotes will power. Drugs and booze are not powerful. Your thoughts are! You have the power and I am a deeply spiritual person.

  • Sarah says:

    I recently have left NA and haven’t gone in about a month or so. I had to leave because I ended up holding up a meeting all by myself. I had become secretary, treasurer, chairperson and everything in between. No matter how many times I announced I needed help no one wanted to step up to help me. I felt like I was drowning. I got a sponsor after a year of not having a sponsor and all she did was make me feel like I was suffocating. She kept telling me that in my two years of clean time that I had not changed and that I have been saying the same things and doing the same things for two years. This really hurt me, because I have seen much personal growth within myself. The steps never appealed to me and I never felt a sense of enlightenment or accomplishment through working them. They only made me feel as though I was reliving my addiction over and over again. Since leaving the meetings, these people who I have known for over two years of my life, who I considered friends and people who cared about me have not contacted me. Only when I’m being asked about meeting money am I contacted. I’ve been told I’m going to relapse or die if I don’t go to meetings. I’m sick of the self righteous attitudes people have and just am wondering to myself where to go from here. Should I still try to include these people in my life? They were such a big part of it for two years and now my existence has shriveled into nothingness since I stopped attending meetings.

  • Chris Iholts says:

    I’m considering leaving NA and am significantly cutting down on meetings. That I had to do. They helped out a lot at first and showed me how to get and to stay clean. Now, with eighteen years clean time, I find myself unwilling to work a program. It doesn’t seem worth it. I’m fifty-nine years and life has kind of passed me by. NA seems to be more for the younger addict. . I never found working the steps to the best of my ability to be so profound as I’ve heard other addicts so enthusiastically share. The main benefit I noticed was in being able to bounce back after having screwed up. Working the steps didn’t stop me from acting out on character defects. That is always a personal choice. The steps can’t help with that, otherwise everybody would be working a twelve step program. I don’t see the freedom in having to work a program to the best of my ability. That is a very difficult thing to do. Where is the freedom in having to do something. I don’t like a lot of the NA literature either. The “just for today” mostly drives me crazy just listening to it. The basic text definitely has an addict attitude and I don’t consider NA as the ultimate authority as it seems they claim to be. Maybe they are just making suggestions but It sure seems that they are telling you how to live your life. I do like the book “it works how and why” although I don’t find myself compelled into reading it. I must give NA credit for saving me a lot of brain cells. I could also find myself one day using again. But not like I used to. I’m not the kind of addict who after having a beer will find myself with a needle in my arm later that night. But sure, it’s better not to use drugs in any way, even ultra lightly, I suppose.

  • Sheri says:

    AA is absolutely a cult and a dangerous one at that. I was raised in it and breaking free from the ideals is painful and an ongoing struggle. You are raised to believe if you ever struggle with alcohol you are “an alcoholic” and “will never be able to stop without aa” and brow beated by family or other aa members if you won’t admit it. The most dangerous part is that they tell people that they must belive in God. From a Christian perspective , yes it is good to believe in God… But that is something God helps the person with when they are ready and can be quite dangerous to force someone into it. If they are not ready to believe in the God of all creation, it opens them up into believing in other Gods which is forbidden by God because it opens the door to other spiritual forces. They will be right there to help so you stay in the aa cult but the power is not coming from the God of all creation. If you try to get out, yur mind will be tormented with thoughts and temptations until you go back. I have experienced other spiritual forces myself and continue to fight daily and had to come to Jesus for deliverence. Good and evil are very real. Be careful to be on the right side. Just because something helps people does not mean it is good or a path you should follow.

  • Dani says:

    I am so comforted as I read more and more testimony from people who have left their 12 step programs for one reason or another. I’ve been in NA for almost 4 years now, and I have to say that at this point, I’m starting to feel more like I’m being stifled than set free. In addition, the literature isn’t lining up for me…
    I used to be unable to stop using. I was, quite literally, powerless over drugs. My life was in shambles, and there was no doubt that I needed some help. I was introduced to the 12 steps like so many others, in a treatment facility. I clung to the message, and working the steps really did help me to get an honest perception of how addiction was destroying my life, and shined a light on reasons why I might have chosen that path in the first place.
    However powerless I was when I came into the rooms of NA, through hard work, self reflection, and the drive to change my life, I was no longer powerless. But it seemed that no matter how many wonderful changes happened within me, members still insisted that I was a powerless victim, and when I said otherwise, “it was my disease talking”. When I worked hard for a goal and achieved it through hard work, members insisted that it was not my hard work, but rather, a gift from God. When I remembered who I was, and regained my naturally buoyant and happy personality, members told me that I was “on a pink cloud” and wondered if I could stay clean “when the chips were down”. I thought it was a really negative attitude to have. Plus, when I shared my joy about a promotion at work, or moving into a new house, or getting engaged to a wonderful man, other members became jealous. I wasn’t imagining it. They were genuinely NOT happy for me. They encouraged me to go to more meetings rather than stay home with my family to rest after an exhausting day at the office. They told me that if my home group was the only meeting that I went to in a week, I was headed for a relapse. They told me that if I wasn’t part of H&I, if I didn’t sponsor people, if I didn’t volunteer at every function, that I was essentially stealing what was “so freely given to me”.
    I was told that NA would love me until I could love myself, but when I see a newcomer at a meeting, I notice that no one asks them to sit at their table or offers a phone number, and they rush out to the after meeting meeting without extending an invite. The “cool kids club”, as I call them, are only interested in those who make them look… well, cool. They don’t want to be seen with the homeless prostitute who can’t string 24 hours together, and I AM NOT EXEMPTING MYSELF HERE. I’m pointing out that several of the slogans I heard are not always true. And it seems that “until you can love yourself” is as far as the love is extended in my experience. Once I did learn to love myself, once I took my power back and started making serious changes in my life for the better, I stopped getting calls. I stopped getting invited to the parties. It seems that if I wasn’t a co-dependent victim with an inferiority problem and a need to make the cool kids my higher power, I wasn’t of any use to those who really, deep down, needed to be worshipped. They need that clap on the back to feel good about themselves. They need people to notice how much they do for the fellowship, and they need the congratulatory recognition.
    Maybe my service wasn’t so “in your face”. After the 1st year of NA, I stopped doing the extracurricular activities. I didn’t participate in our area newsletter anymore, I didn’t bring H&I meetings into rehab, I stopped planning activities, and I focused on my stepwork, because I thought this is a 12 STEP program, not a service program, or a hang out at the coffee shop program, and I really want to change my life. Imagine my shock when I heard rumors about myself through the grapevine, that I was either using again or on my way! It was very hurtful, though I tried not to let it trouble me because those whom I was close with knew better. But I was all of a sudden, out of the in crowd. My service of doing the yard work for local halfway houses, in an effort to give the residents more time to find jobs and work on themselves during the first year of recovery, well, I guess that wasn’t “cool” enough. No one knew that I did that except my close friends and family, and I didn’t feel the need to tout about it all over town. It made me feel good, I enjoyed doing it, and I helped people. But in the end, when it was time for me to move on after doing this quiet service for 2.5 years, I was given resentment instead of gratitude for my service. “Well NOW we have to pay someone!” is what was said to me with a theatrical eye roll…. No “thank-you”, no “what is your plan now”, no anything, except more negativity and self centeredness, “the core of our disease”.
    There are a lot of people who are sponsoring others, and I’ve learned, that not all of them have worked all 12 steps. When I question why we need a sponsor, as in, why do we need ONE special person who is responsible for guiding us through this extraordinarily personal experience, instead of relying on a host of people with different strengths and perspectives, I’m met with “well, you need one person to call you out on your BS”. I have parents, a best friend, and a husband for that. I don’t need someone who by all accounts, is just as “sick” as I am to guide me through my life journey. I say this after much reflection and study and searching, both within and outside of myself. These people are not professionals, and for them to demand that I choose one to exemplify is incredibly short sighted and potentially dangerous. If I were a person who had serious emotional problems, trauma, or mental diagnoses, Joe Schmoe is not qualified to help with those, regardless of how many meetings they go to in a week, and how many years they’ve stayed sober. Someone said to me that I need a sponsor in NA because “my best thinking got me here”. I laughed and said, “You’re sitting in the seat RIGHT next to me dude, so your best thinking got YOU here! What should I listen to you for???”
    I’ve been thinking myself into circles about this, because I’ve been indoctrinated to believe that if I leave the fellowship I will DEFINITELY use again, and then I will die. I’m afraid. However, there is no one who can see the future, and no one knows what waits for us out there. I realize that this mantra has been spoken by people who are afraid, and repeated by others who are afraid, and so on, and so on. I don’t want to live in fear of progress. I don’t want to stay in the same room listening to the same stories for the rest of my life; there has to be more!! I don’t want to continue reliving my past or believing that I’m powerless over my life and my behavior because I’m an addict. It just isn’t true!! I’m more than an addict. I’m so many things, some good, some not so good. But I’m not broken.
    I’ll close with the question that’s been on my mind all day: If our 3rd tradition is “the only requirement for membership is the desire to stop using” and I’m not using, so have no desire to stop, and no desire to ever start again, am I still a member??

  • Paul says:

    I’ve been clean for 29 years. I left NA when I had 16 years and came back to NA 10 years later. I left because there was so much conflict in the room with all the crazy people, some harmful, and I felt that I was not wanted there. I didn’t leave because i felt ready to leave, but because people told me I was no longer welcome because they were so caught up in their own heads, own imaginations. But during those 10 years, not once did I have the desire to use. I did, however, become very unhappy over time because my living skills got worse and my relationships became unhealthy and I did a lot of damage. This is why I came back 3 years ago. To try and improve my living skills through the 12 steps. I should have left when I was ready instead of leaving because I felt rejected. I should have stayed for ME 16 years ago. After being back for 3 years, I have put a tremendous amount of daily work into the 12 steps and applying them to my life and my life has significantly improved. But, I want to transition to leaving again. Not because NA has done anything bad to me, but because I don’t want to think of myself as abnormal anymore, don’t want to think of myself as “sick” and diseased. Don’t want to hang around people that just seem so messed up even with years clean and seem to have no willingness to address the real issues underlying addiction. They just seem to all be staying the same and I wonder if it’s unhealthy for me to continue to be around stagnant and unchanging people, that are OK with not changing because “hey, I’m an addict”. I’m becoming a very healthy man again but I’m going to leave in a balanced manner. I will add weekly therapy with a skilled therapist, will gradually, over a 3 month period, scale down my meetings, and make sure that I focus on these spiritual principles on a daily basis, even after I leave NA. I can still inventory daily by writing, still meditate and pray to my Higher Power, and still practice good principles in my life and help others. Don’t let the word Higher Power scare anyone, it’s just my personal choice, I believe in God and he’s with me always and I can take him with me, where ever I go. My Higher Power helps me remember that I’m never alone. I always want and need my Higher Power. I do not enjoy listening to drug-a-logs though, they bore me. I don’t like listening to how someone raped somebody or how they murdered someone, or how they want to hurt another person either. I understand that people need to hear this stuff to identify, but I don’t. I want to be around people that are focused on taking care of them selves, loving themselves and others and being compassionate to all. That can be found just about anywhere, not just in NA. The hard part is when I discuss this with an NA member. They convince me that these thoughts and conclusions of mine are because I’m “sick” and it’s the “disease” talking to me. I’m really trying not to believe that simple because it’s a common belief in NA. It will be hard to leave because part of me wants to stay at NA, where I’m comfortable, even though I’m stagnant by remaining. I will actually miss NA. But, I’m 54 years old and I just have a feeling and a sense that there’s a whole world of adventure and good people in life to get to know and spread my wings out with. I’m 54 and a little past the middle of my life and I don’t want to waste another second. I have to do this!

  • Richard says:

    I think it irresponsible and ignorant to refer to AA as a cult, personally I would liken it closer to a religion whereby dogma and extremism have taken away from the true sense of the message. I am also having a hard time trying to break free from fellowship meetings and the largely accepted belief system of its members, much of the dogma is a complete contradiction to the “spiritual” beliefs and I wanted to stop abusing substances so I could live life with a sense of freedom, the very fact I feel tied into the fellowship out of fears of what would happen if I was to leave, fears born as a result of what other people in the fellowship believe, is a good illustration of how, although the fellowships worked a miracle in helping me get clean and sober, it now seems to limit and even oppress me spiritually. I am grateful for the fellowships and am open minded enough to understand we are all on our own paths and if people find their calling in the 12 step programmes then good for them, personally I would like to go beyond the steps and have found some comfort in knowing I’m not the only one who feels, and thinks the way I do. I have been looking for alternatives and have found hope in the philosophy of people like Tommy Rosen and Scott Kiloby, former addicts who have an approach that resonates with me. I intend to connect with people who are all on the same page.

  • Caroline says:

    I too have left NA. I believe it contributed to my depression getting worse. Since leaving and seeking psychotherapy and getting closer to God and my family, I feel so much happier and at peace. But I have no desire to use any kind of narcotic substance. I know that I’m a recovering addict and I’m ok with that. I realized that my thinking was too narrow and I wasn’t truly living in the world. But now, I really feel like I’m a part of life.

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