Why use counselling alongside a 12 step recovery program?

Why use counselling alongside a 12-step recovery program? There are a number of very good answers to this question, and I will address the biggest of them below. I do not feel that this article is exhaustive on this topic however, and I would always welcome a conversation with any 12-step group member who is asking about this. So this, the fifth of this 5-part series of articles will discuss why seeing a counsellor alongside attendance in a 12-step recovery program may be a good idea. Across the whole of this series however, I will also:

As with the other articles in this series, I must make absolutely clear that what follows is not sanctioned by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Cocaine Anonymous (CA) or any other 12-step fellowship. Instead, what follows are my own thoughts having been involved with the 12-step recovery and its associated fellowships both personally and professionally for over 30 years.

So why should one consider using counselling alongside a 12-step program? First consider what you’ve learned from earlier articles in this series about the purpose of the 12 steps being to assist an individual who takes them to undergo a psychological change sufficient to recover from an addictive behaviour through a spiritual experience. You’ll also know about the support groups of the 12 step fellowships providing a place people can go to talk about their experiences of recovering from a pattern of unhelpful addictive behaviour, as well as a place to find a sponsor who might be able to assist them in working through the steps.

When it comes to the spiritual experience achieved by way of the steps themselves, the crucial aspect of it is that it not about becoming more spiritual, nor is it simply facilitating a connection with a higher power for the sake of having that connection. No, the whole point of this spiritual experience is that in having it, it provides one with a psychological change sufficient to recover from alcoholism (or insert other problem behaviour here), and to then pass that on to others.

Precisely what it is that qualifies as a spiritual experience/psychological change is not truly defined in any manner. The closest the book Alcoholics Anonymous comes in this regard is the statement “rocketed into the fourth dimension of existence”. For many, this definition doesn’t really do it.

Certainly, just having a spiritual experience or claiming to have experienced a psychological change is not necessarily enough for 12 step fellowships. Sticking just with AA for a moment, you can go to literally any AA meeting and you’ll see without question that there is an incredibly wide variation in how people define spiritual experience and psychological change.  The fellowship of AA has a number of different “camps”, each with their own beliefs about how to interpret what the psychological change sufficient to recover from alcoholism actually is. Ultimately, what a newcomer ends up being taught is kind of “pot luck” and very much dependent upon which meeting they walk into.  This author has seen individuals espouse a whole range of ideas and beliefs about psychological change (with a fair degree of eye rolling from those within earshot) that are hard to justify, all in the name of change as that person sees it. Because of these differences of thought from meeting to meeting however, it can be difficult to really know what to believe.

At the end of the day, it is a psychological change sufficient to recover from a problem behaviour that is the ultimate prize here. It is the finding of a new way of thinking and processing life experiences that relieve us from our addiction. It is the finding of a different manner of thinking about ourselves, others, and the world we live in that makes life bearable. It is the search for this new way of thinking bringing about recovery from addictive problems that spawned the 12 steps and their related fellowships in the first place. Back in 1939, when the book Alcoholics Anonymous was published, to have a spiritual experience was the only known method of achieving this psychological change. Science has moved on since then however, and in particular the science and methodologies of psychological therapies. This doesn’t mean to say that coming to counselling will enable an alcoholic or a drug addict to be able to safely control their drinking. It won’t. Plain and simple, it won’t. If you are an alcoholic, you will never be able to drink alcohol safely. That is the end of that story. But this doesn’t mean that AA and the other programs of recovery have the only method of facilitating psychological change either.

The problem here isn’t the 12 steps themselves, it is in how the steps are worked in 12 step fellowships, and the way sponsorship works. In fact, this author would go so far as to say that for many individuals (especially those with personal histories of any complexity), 12 step fellowships and their sponsorship methodologies make certain things worse. 12 step sponsors are, in almost all cases, good hearted, well-meaning people. 12 step sponsors are people who voluntarily give much of themselves away to others for no other reason than they wish to be of help. There is no question about this. Having said this, despite their well-meaning and genuine desires, there is absolutely no training whatsoever in how to be a sponsor nor any consistency in how people teach others about the 12 steps. Sponsors receive no training of any kind in how to help people with depression. Sponsors receive no training in recognising and treating OCD, have no awareness of or experience with helping people with difficult histories of abuse or any other personal difficulty beyond that which they themselves have experienced. Sponsors are everyday people from all walks of life. You may choose a sponsor who is an accountant, a bricklayer, or a recovering mass-murderer – you have no real way of knowing who they really are other than what say they are when they share during the meeting (giving personal testimony). Whatever they may be in their lives outside of the 12 step fellowship meeting in which you find them however, unless you’ve happened to pick an individual who is a psychiatrist or a therapist, they’ll have absolutely zero training in the workings of the mind. What this means is that while you may well be able to find a person who can explain how they personally managed to create a relationship with their higher power, that will likely be the extent of it.

Another incredibly important issue with sponsorship methodology is that you have no way of knowing how well you can truly trust that person with your inner self. You can’t really tell if the person you’re considering trusting yourself with come to your 12 step fellowship meetings full of the talk, but none of the walk. There is no real way of knowing (until its too late) that however amazing they sound when they talk about their lives during an AA meeting, they are actually an absolute train wreck in reality. This is one of the biggest dangers that newcomers to 12 step fellowships face. They have no way of knowing whether this person offering to help them is genuine and trustworthy, trying to build up a personal credit rating so they can borrow money off you, or aiming to get you into bed. Working with a professional therapist who understands the 12 steps is one sure way of ensuring these dangers don’t come to pass.

A third major issue with the sponsorship system is the ability (or not), of one’s sponsor in keeping confidences. This author has seen many, many instances where a newcomer has trusted another fellowship member to be their sponsor, only to have that sponsor go back out and engage in their addiction again. What you have then is an unpredictable individual out there who knows all your darkest secrets and who, quite frankly can’t be trusted. This author has also seen many instances where a trusted sponsor falls out with an individual they are helping. In these cases you now have a person who doesn’t like you, who is going to all the same meetings as you who and knows all about you. I cannot imagine this being a good set of circumstances for anyone! Working your 12 steps with a therapist who understands what you are working towards means that when it comes to your personal material, you will be safe

When you work your 12 step program with a professional, you’ll have somebody you can trust assisting you. You’ll have somebody who can not only help you in achieving your spiritual experience (if you are so inclined as to be seeking one), but also find your way through to the needed psychological change sufficient to recover from addiction which is the ultimate purpose of the 12 steps. You’ll have an individual with training and professional boundaries who can appropriately help you understand the causes, conditions and meaning of the things you discovered about yourself in step four. You’ll have an individual who understands what you need to do in order to experience the sort of psychological change required to recover from your difficulty, and you’ll have someone you know without question will keep your personal material safe and secure.

If you live near the East Herts, West Essex border and are considering working though the 12 steps, or attending a 12 step fellowship and would like more information about any aspect of these articles, please feel free to contact us on 01279 834 467 for a fully confidential, no obligation discussion of your needs.