In the recovery community, we have to grapple with this question all the time: are 12-step groups cults? The answer is complicated.
As far as what an addict/alcoholic needs to do to be successful in their recovery, there are many opinions and suggestions, and sometimes they can be so different that the newcomer doesn’t know what to do, what to believe, or who to trust.
For someone who is new to 12 step meetings like AA, CA, and DAA, it can be easy to get overwhelmed. As far as what a newcomer’s priority should be, there are many opinions that drastically oppose each other.
Many groups can’t even agree on which book to use or how big of a role the book Alcoholics Anonymous should play in recovery. Over the decades, this led to the emergence of “watered down” 12-step groups.
A watered-down 12-step group is a group that, in one way or another, does not actually employ the 12 steps as a plan of recovery. Basically, the Big Book and the 12 steps aren’t happening, and members are instead just going to meetings, which by themselves won’t keep a real alcoholic/addict sober.
In reaction to this, several groups emerged who were fanatical about the importance of the Big Book. They were so fanatical that it seemed to many people inside and outside the world of the 12 Steps that these 12-step groups are cults.
Sometimes they’re referred to as Big Book Thumpers. Sometimes they’re associated with specific groups or fellowships.
It’s important for us to ask whether or not these reactionary fanatics are toxic to recovery or positive for recovery.
Are 12-Step groups cults like outsiders and disillusioned former members say that they are? Are they hurting newcomers or helping them? Are they better than watered-down AA groups?
To find answers to these questions, we first have to look at the Big Book itself and its role in 12-Step groups.
The Importance of the Big Book
The book titled “Alcoholics Anonymous” (commonly called the Big Book) is the basic text for Alcoholics Anonymous.
Other fellowships, such as Cocaine Anonymous and Drug Addicts Anonymous, have adopted the Big Book as their basic text as well because it contains the original instructions on how to successfully work the 12 steps and recover from addiction/alcoholism.
The first 164 pages of the Big Book details the plan of recovery, which contains precise directions on how the 12 steps should be taken.
These pages are deemed so essential and important to many 12 step fellowships that there have been hardly any changes to them over the years.
The Big Book describes alcoholism (addiction) as a hopeless condition. Physically, when an alcoholic takes a drink or a dopefiend takes a hit, something happens in the body that makes it virtually impossible to stop.
An outside force (such as getting arrested) brings a binge to an end. For a while, we might achieve sobriety, but most true addicts relapse eventually. Why? Because the main problem of substance addiction lies in the mind—we get sober, but because we obsess over the thought of drinking or using, we eventually go back.
According to the Big Book, once a binge comes to an end, the addict feels restless, irritable, and discontent while sober.
The Big Book assures us that, in this irritable state, the mind will lie to the addict, telling them that they can get away with just one hit, shot, bump, etc. Once the addict believes this lie, they proceed to get high or drunk again.
The Big Book says this mental battle cannot be won by the addict in the long run, and that has been my experience and the experience of many others in 12-step programs. At some point, the addict’s mind always wins and takes the addict back into active addiction.
Now if this is true, then the addict does not have much time to waste after a binge comes to an end. Sounds pretty hopeless doesn’t it?
I have struggled with substance addiction for almost 20 years of my life, and I concur that the addict needs to get busy in recovery as quickly as possible because of this game the mind plays with us.
The subject of what an addict’s priority should be in these early days is a hot topic for discussion, and as the Big Book says about other areas of the steps, you will find opinions running to extremes.
Many of these 12-step group cults will agree with what I just said. They will also say that a group that isn’t pushing addicts to move quickly is killing people.
I believe this to be true, but I’ve also found that some of their other recommendations, and especially the communities they seem to foster through these recommendations, seem toxic at best and could also be said to be killing people.
Let’s try to look honestly at how “watered down” AA groups and these fanatical, 12-step group cults compare.
Are 12-Step Groups Cults, Like “Watered Down” AA?
Many AA groups (and other 12-Step fellowships) offer a “watered down” message that doesn’t involve the big book much (or goes against what it suggests).
At some meetings you will hear things like, “Go to a meeting everyday, and just don’t drink or use between meetings,” or, “Don’t drink or use no matter what.” These are things that a real alcoholic or addict can’t do.
If they could just not drink or use, they would do that already, wouldn’t they? Seems like worthless advice. They came to a 12-Step group precisely because they couldn’t do that.
Worse, many of the more experienced members of the group either aren’t taking the 12 Steps themselves or aren’t talking about the importance of taking the 12 Steps.
Worst of all (and this is truly dangerous to the real alcoholic/addict), their sponsors aren’t taking them through the 12 Steps at all, which is crazy because that is a sponsor’s main job.
This means that newcomers who have no idea what they’re supposed to do never end up taking the steps and then can’t figure out why they keep relapsing.
Even when these sponsors are taking their sponsees through the 12 Steps, they’re taking them through very slowly—a step a month.
The Big Book makes several offhand references alluding to the fact that their members were going through the steps in a matter of weeks, and it seemed to be effective.
These sort of statements are in direct opposition to what the Big Book says. According to the Big Book, the addict is going to use no matter what unless they experience an entire psychic change, which is also referred to as a spiritual experience.
That’s what I mean by a meeting being “watered down.” The original purpose of the meeting seems to have been lost. It’s just meant to be a beginning, a place where a newcomer can find a sponsor and work the steps.
Are 12-Step Groups Cults? The Emergence of the Big Book Thumpers
These watered-down meetings have inspired a reaction that goes too far in my opinion and verges on being a cult, or at the very least a group of fanatics (which is what a cult is anyway).
These groups are full of what some people would call “Big Book Thumpers.” This is a somewhat derogatory term used for people who are passionate about the precise instructions in the Big Book when it comes to how to have a spiritual awakening that will free someone from active addiction.
“Big Book Thumpers” have great intentions, and for many people it is the type of discipline that they need as addicts in recovery.
On the flipside “Big Book Thumper” meetings, such as DFW’s own Primary Purpose Group and DAA (Drug Addicts Anonymous) groups have an unmistakable arrogance and “holier than thou” vibe about them.
This pride and arrogance is in direct opposition to many other books on the 12 Steps, including the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions book, which urges members to seek humility in the chapters on Step Six and Step Seven.
Many members of these groups will tell you that if you aren’t going to their specific group (you often must be going to their group and their group only to be considered doing what you’re supposed to do) and studying the Big Book the way they study it, that you aren’t doing recovery correctly and that you will probably relapse.
In short, most of the members of these groups are fanatics, and because of their practice of either saying directly or heavily implying that their method of working the 12 Steps is the only true path to sobriety, it’s hard to think of any other word for their organization than a cult.
This is also in direct opposition to what the Big Book says: “We have no monopoly on God,” by which they mean, “There are many paths to God/sobriety.”
I am not saying that is good or bad (hey, cults can be great for some people), but nonetheless they are fanatics.
Now, I have friends all over the recovery community, and like I said, PPG and DAA work great for some people, and many of those people have put together decades of sobriety. This should be applauded. Following that same principle, no other meeting has a monopoly on sobriety either.
Anything that helps addicts/alcoholics get sober and stop hurting themselves and others is a good thing.
Not all meetings are what someone needs. What works for one person might not work for another. However, almost all of us can agree that not working the Steps and just going to meetings probably only works for people who abuse alcohol and drugs but aren’t full-blown alcoholics and drug addicts.
But the real thing that I want us to look at is whether or not meetings such as PPG and DAA can be harmful to addicts in recovery both new and old—I think that in some ways they can be.
Fanaticism, Shame, and Relapse
Fanatical groups tend to inspire feelings of shame in members who find that they’re not recovered like they’re “supposed to be,” which can lead to relapse, or even depression.
The problem with these fanatical fellowships (I like that term) is they give off the vibe that once you work the 12 Steps once and the obsession to use or drink is gone, that all of a sudden you should have perfect mental health and shouldn’t experience any growing pains of recovery that could last a lifetime in sobriety.
If you are experiencing discomfort, uneasiness, or agitation after working all 12 steps in order, then these members will gladly quote the Big Book to you to quickly point out that you must have or are currently doing something erroneous in your recovery.
So you’ll hear things in these groups like “The Big Book says that after we become spiritually well, we straighten out mentally and physically.” A newcomer might say to someone that they still feel depressed, or they don’t feel connected to their higher power even though they worked the 12-Steps.
Here’s where things get dangerous. It is absolutely not uncommon to hear things in the meetings like “Well, maybe those antidepressants are standing between you and God. Maybe you need to stop taking them.”
Even if that person is literally a doctor, they shouldn’t be handing out medical advice that could lead someone with clinical depression to become suicidal. Suicide is common enough in our fellowship without pushing more of it.
Many members who have chronic pain from injuries or conditions that can’t be healed will need to take a pain medication like Suboxone or medical Marijuana the rest of their lives.
It’s one thing to stay on Suboxone because you don’t want to go through withdrawal or because you believe it will keep you sober. If you want to do that, that’s up to you, and for many people, this does help them stay off hard, dangerous drugs the rest of their lives, and that should be applauded.
It’s quite another to be on it because it’s the only safe drug to deal with your pain.
It’s dangerous at best for a random person in AA who just happens to have a few years or decades sober (in short, some random drug addict) to give medical advice to someone who is already impressionable and who looks up to them (because of their length of sobriety).
Many people kill themselves because of chronic pain. Many turn to much more dangerous drugs, like OxyContin and Heroin.
When a meeting inspires feelings of shame in those who don’t feel “healed” despite working the 12-Steps, and those feelings of shame lead other members to tell them their medications are the cause, newcomers can become even more demoralized than when they came in.
Recovered Doesn’t Mean Healed
In the meetings, the newcomer often hears nothing but stories of perfection in terms of the sobriety of the recovered members and their emotional health, with often nothing more that a cursory nod to the fact that these members struggle with things like work and taking care of their children, but never acknowledge deeper issues.
The newcomer is filled with shame because they’re not healed like they’re “supposed” to be, and the detrimental effects of inspiring shame in someone who is trying so hard to get better cannot be overstated. Shame can lead directly to suicide.
Again, this is controversial. Many people in AA, consciously or unconsciously, believe that the addict is the source of all their problems (and let’s not forget, this is exactly what the Big Book teaches).
This makes many members and newcomers essentially hate themselves. They come to believe they’re bad people. The book was written by Bill W., a man who was certainly an egomaniac.
He certainly needed to have his ego squashed, but many addicts come into the rooms overloaded with shame.
They don’t need more, and they certainly don’t need medical advice from anyone but a licensed doctor.
I’ve heard truly insane things from some of these cult-like 12-Step groups, truly dangerous things, like the idea that using hand sanitizer with alcohol in it can cause someone to relapse.
Telling someone that in the middle of a pandemic could cause them and others to be killed.
And we have to ask simple questions about that. What about nurses and doctors in hospitals who need to use hand sanitizer dozens of times in a single shift to keep their patients from getting infections? What about people who are immunodeficient and need to protect themselves?
This type of fanaticism can absolutely be toxic. While many people get sober in these groups, we have to wonder about their members who can’t stay sober, who die. We have to wonder what role these groups play in those deaths.
You Must Be Perfect in these 12-Step Group Cults
Let’s be realistic, growing up as an adult in a 12-Step fellowship has its painful and uncomfortable moments.
My personal experience is that the internal work of an addict in recovery has merely begun when they have gone through all 12 steps with a sponsor.
I can direct anyone to parts of the Big Book that support my personal view on growth and growing pains while working a 12 step program. Let’s not forget the section in Bill’s story where, at 6 months sober, he was depressed and considering drinking before luckily finding Doctor Bob and working with him.
And let’s not forget Doctor Bob himself, who had the desire to drink for the first few years that he was sober. Many people in these cult-like groups would tell you that if the obsession to drink or use had not been lifted by the time you’d been through all 12 Steps that you’d done something wrong.
I believe that DAA’s and PPG’s flavor of recovery make people scared to be honest with themselves and other people in the fellowship when they’re struggling or not feeling how they’re “supposed” to feel.
I have seen firsthand how this can become a part of a person’s relapse. When they had negative feelings, they thought they were wrong for having them, didn’t tell anybody, got miserable around it and picked up a drink or a needle again.
Now, at least these fanatical meetings are talking about the Big Book and the 12 Steps, so in the grand scheme of things, I would say that they are significantly better for the recovery communities than the watered down meetings.
That’s just my opinion. You’re free to agree or disagree. If you’ve gotten sober in what others call “watered down” AA, you should be proud of yourself. That’s awesome.
If you’ve gotten sober in one of these 12-step group cults, you should also be proud of yourself. That’s awesome.
Getting sober and staying that way is always awesome, no matter how it happens, but I believe we should always be able to think critically about the 12 Steps, that we should be free to criticize them and point out problems, that we should work to improve them if we can.
When criticism isn’t allowed in a country, we usually find that it’s a dictatorship, or a fascist regime, or a communist regime. Criticism is healthy. It helps all of us.
We should always be working to get better. Isn’t that what the 12 Steps are about anyway?
There’s a 12-Step Group For Everyone
I’d say that there is a 12 step meeting for everyone, so if one doesn’t jive with you, you can quickly find one that does if you are earnestly looking for one.
What is your experience with different 12 Step meetings, and what meetings do you prefer? Do you think 12-step groups are cults? I’m always happy to discuss these things.
Let’s have an honest discussion in the comments.