12-Step Recovery, Multiple Pathways & Recovery Coaching

One of CCAR’s foundational principles is “There are many paths to recovery“.  To support this principle, CCAR hosted 4 conferences focused on multiple pathways of recovery. Recently, I attended a Wellbriety All Addictions Conference in Santa Fe. This event focused on the 12 Steps. I have spent a great deal of time since thinking how 12-Step recovery fits into a larger paradigm. I have concluded that, generally, people respond from four different world views.

  1. 12-Step recovery for all. Real recovery is 12-Step recovery because no other way succeeds.
  2. 12-Step recovery did not work for me.
  3. 12-Step recovery hurts people (a cult filled with brainwashed people).
  4. 12-Step recovery is one way out of many.

Before I dive into these, and for the sake of full disclosure, I’ll describe my personal recovery pathway.  When I finally summoned the courage to cross the threshold into a 12-Step meeting a few decades ago, I sat down quickly in a seat near the door. Some people had the gall to say hello. I sheepishly offered a “hi” back. My anxiety throttled up; my senses on full-alert mode. I scanned faces and watched people interact until my eyes abruptly settled on a large poster hung on the wall titled appropriately enough The 12 Steps. As I read them, a peace settled over me and I calmed down. For the first time, I encountered a solution to my problem. It became apparent, step by step, that God could relieve me of my malady.  Although not fully convinced, my mind opened to possibility. Hope flickered.

The 12-Step fellowship soon became my lifeline. I learned to live without substances. I developed relationships with people who claimed happiness, joy and freedom. I found purpose. I built a wonderful, meaningful life on a 12-Step foundation. I attended meetings regularly. As my family grew and other responsibilities emerged, my meeting attendance declined. My sponsor consistently warned me that I trod in dangerous territory; without a consistent regimen of meetings, my sobriety lingered in jeopardy.

Now 32 years in recovery, I go to meetings when I can. I thoroughly enjoy them and love to go.  I also take care of my recovery in other ways – prayer, meditation, reading of spiritual material, church, fellowship with other people in recovery and time in nature. The 12-Step foundation still serves me well. I live by the slogans and the principles…  so I’m OK, just for today.

Let’s explore some world views I’ve met along the way…

1. 12-Step Recovery for all.

For the first 10 years of my recovery I believed that 12-Step recovery was the only way to achieve long-term, stable, meaningful recovery. The proof resided in the pudding; 12-Step recovery worked for me. I heard several times from people (other than my sponsor) who stated with fervent conviction that if someone stops going to 12-Step meetings, that relapse with severe   consequences (jails, institutions or death) loomed ahead.  I believed it too. When my career with CCAR launched, I developed relationships with many people in recovery from “outside the rooms”. Their eyes flashed from the fire in their hearts; their recovery genuine. My personal paradigm shifted.

It took me 10 years to recognize that another pathway of recovery did not threaten my personal recovery.  Another way of illustrating this point; it took me 10 years to develop confidence in the foundation holding me up.

2. 12-Step recovery did not work for me.

 I believe many people try 12-Step recovery, but do not continue with the program. A few of these folks work at CCAR. They do not call themselves members of a 12-Step fellowship. They are not opposed either. I don’t think anyone knows how many people fall into this category.  I discuss a personal watershed moment in the blog You’re In Recovery If You Say You Are.

3. Anything but 12-Step.

30 years ago, a young, angry woman stood up in a 12-Step meeting and ranted about how this fellowship sucked, that we were a bunch of freaks, brainwashed into submission to a God that didn’t exist. My mouth hung open wide, incredulous. Until an old-timer shouted back at her.

“If you don’t like it then get the f*%$ out!”

She defiantly flipped us the bird as she stomped out. I gasped. A palpable, awkward silence settled over the room. Someone finally spoke up and the meeting continued, but I felt something shift deep within. I couldn’t identify the shift then, not sure I can now, just to say I think there could have been a better way to handle the situation. Right then, I realized some people harbored passionate, negative feelings toward 12-Step programs. Prior to this incident, I had no idea.

Social media now provides a platform for those opposed to 12-Step recovery. Reasons for disliking/discrediting 12-Step programs abound; insistence on abstinence, lack of tolerance for people on medication, sexual exploitation, reliance on a Higher Power/God and white, Christian male orientation. I do not discount anyone’s experience. I simply point out that some people have a strong adverse reaction; therefore 12-Step programs did not effectively help them achieve long-term recovery.

4. Multiple Pathways.

Simple. In the words of Bill White,

“There are multiple pathways of recovery and all are a cause for celebration.”

I envision many pathways up the same mountain. I think the 12-Steps pathway is the carriage trail, the widest and most traveled to the peak.  And I also believe there are other trails.

In summary, the recovery community, in general, is a passionate lot, harboring deep convictions. Post something on social media about 12-Step recovery, abstinence, harm reduction and/or medication assisted recovery and you have a high chance of fanning and fueling a firestorm. Contentious, hurtful debates abound. Personally, I have reactions to several of these debates, but I do not respond. For many reasons, I believe it’s important for me and other recovery coaches to maintain neutrality; emulate Switzerland.

As part of “discovering and managing our own stuff”, we must honestly assess our own personal bias when it comes to recovery pathways. Many recovery coaches with a stout 12-Step orientation find it difficult to support other pathways. And the reverse is true, coaches with an adverse experience to 12-Step recovery are uncomfortable referring recoverees to 12-Step meetings.

Where do you stand? I’d love to hear from you.

“In 2015, I finished a thruhike of the entire Appalachian Trail, a trek of 2,189.2 miles. It took 189 days and 6 pairs of boots.  During that sacred time, my purpose in life became more precisely defined.  I am, simply, to coach recovery.  Recovery saved me from an early demise and brought purpose to my tattered life.  I have learned that I’m a coach to my very core. I am blessed to put the two together. I started work at the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery (CCAR) in January 1999.  I became the Executive Director of this recovery community organization in 2004.  I have trained the CCAR Recovery Coach Academy© dozens of times and have a hand in modifying, improving and adapting various recovery coach curricula.  I’m old enough now to start considering my legacy. This is one way for me to share lessons learned in my recovery, in my role as Executive Director and a trainer. When I engage with others, I present the same messages repeatedly.  It’s time to write them down.”

Phil “Right Click” Valentine
Recovery established 12.28.87

Phil "Right Click" Valentine

Phil "Right Click" Valentine

In 2015, I finished a thruhike of the entire Appalachian Trail, a trek of 2,189.2 miles. It took 189 days and 6 pairs of boots. During that sacred time, my purpose in life became more precisely defined. I am, simply, to coach recovery. Recovery saved me from an early demise and brought purpose to my tattered life. I have learned that I’m a coach to my very core. I am blessed to put the two together. I started work at the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery (CCAR) in January 1999. I became the Executive Director of this recovery community organization in 2004. I have trained the CCAR Recovery Coach Academy© dozens of times and have a hand in modifying, improving and adapting various recovery coach curricula. I’m old enough now to start considering my legacy. This is one way for me to share lessons learned in my recovery, in my role as Executive Director and a trainer. When I engage with others, I present the same messages repeatedly. It’s time to write them down.

13 Comments

  • Marianne says:

    Hi Phil from Florida
    I believe God of the Universe can do miracles! I’ve heard from so many who have shared their experiences of miracles.
    I also believe we have multiple avenues for success, we have to continually search and try what works for us at this time in our life.
    Including CCAR, organizations like yourself open the door for support, encouragement, peer to peer support, educational opportunities and over all direction.

    Marianne

  • Russ Nasoff says:

    Great blog. As someone who has been working in the field for a good while, my path was very similar to yours. My epiphany was a friend, who I’ve been watching struggle to grasp hold of 12 step ideology for over 15 years… I won’t say that he will never get it, that’s not up to me, but, in my mind, the odds are pretty low… I urged him to try other avenues, and he is now in an MAT program and thriving… As a working recovery coach for several years now, the way i see recovery has certainly shifted. Personally, i think this shift is necessary for continued growth. Thanks for publishing this.

  • Hope Broker says:

    Hi Phil, my name is Rick I have been around recovery for some years Built the foundation in the 12 step programs. I have been a recovery coach for 4 years now I’ve come to believe at appreciate the many paths of recovery. I believe recovery just like life Has many different components. And all these different components working together produce a perfect storm for long term recovery. Family, work, play, support, God (higher power) Just like the fact that every person is different Every person’s recovery will look different. Putting recovery in a Box one size fits all in my opinion is the beginning of disaster.

  • Mike Collins says:

    Extremely well said Phil. 35 years in recovery and
    my trajectory is very similar.

    Keep up the great work.

    And Bill White is right.

    “There are multiple pathways of recovery and
    all are a cause for celebration.”

    MC

  • rick p says:

    I’m not sure about other 12 Step programs but I am comfortable in claiming that AA NEVER says it is the “only way.” A study of its literature, contact with GSO, and a purview of its history will show their admission of the validity of multiple pathways. Before individual opinions judge and condemn any program – please check the facts from the official source. Come and stay., or peek and leave. But don’t misinterpret or badmouth whatever 12 Step program that has saved the lives of millions.

  • Joyce Fetrow says:

    If your pathway to Recovery is underwater basket weaving and it’s working for you. Then let it work!! I am a huge proponent of the 12 step program, it became that solid foundation to help rebuild my life. Today, there are many layers of grit, tears, laughs and love that have become those foundational layers to who I am today. Today, it’s connection, connection with others, those who are struggling and those who are succeeding that contribute to who I am today.

  • Njon Sanders says:

    While 12-step orgs never claim to be the only path, there is a very strong propensity for members to take on a proselytizing role in evangelizing 12-step to an extreme. We often hear the mantras about AA being a spiritual program and distinctly not religious while the practices (official and not) are, by most definitions, indicative of religion.

    Secular 12-step orgs are in a quandary as many members feel that their program saved their life but that they do not agree with the religious or spiritual aspects. They also face pushback from traditional members who see them as a threat or as not being in “real” recovery.

    All of this said we know that 12-step is effective for those who can accept and adhere to its principals. This is proven true of all of the recovery modalities that I have read studies on. One of the big issues that 12-step faces is that similar to other religious orgs, the base teachings profess tolerance and acceptance while a vocal minority sew intolerance and blame to those who do not or cannot follow the teachings. Phrases like “not ready for recovery” or “character defects”, and the notion of “surrender” have permeated 12-step culture to a degree that out of fear, many do not question the 12-step-as-a-default mentality. This fear-based interpretation results in most of the behaviors that turn people away and that can cause people substantial harm. When members actually follow the foundations of the programs, however, occurrences are more limited to new members who would have taken issue with any mainstream recovery source.

    There’s also the application of 12-step as a substitute for clinical therapy or attempts at infusing it into clinical settings. I feel quite strongly that 12-step can be an amazing source of mutual support and ongoing fellowship in recovery, but trying to apply religion and spirituality into clinical settings is inappropriate and misguided. To be clear, 12-step was never intended for clinical use. It’s not the one-size-fits-all solution we are being sold by providers nor should we expect it to be effective with more or most people seeking treatment.

    So, we tend to get caught up in our ideas of program efficacy while it’s largely a moot point. This is one of the things that I think sets Recovery Coaching apart. In an environment of mutual support and zero tolerance of proselytizing, we become able to look past our experiences and focus on the needs and goals that others have. I have my share of biases, but I love the work I’m doing in being conscious of them and getting past them. I am constantly inspired by the people and organizations that help me do so. We really have to be all about trusting the goals and desires of the individual and not what we imagine they can or should be.

    Thanks to CCAR for advocating for us all!!

  • P Bowman says:

    I am loving your thoughts on this issue Phil !! I am a in recovery and on Medication and have been for 10 years. I got most of my recovery from a recovery support center and they are my family now and I just love being a part of this community of people who I love and I also feel their care for me and have become some of my most meaningful relationships.
    I just never see people like me in leadership roles at most places that support multiple pathways, I also see groups that they think NA or AA is what a multiple pathway is.
    I would love to train a RCA with someone like you or see more organizations give us recovery professionals on Medication a position on a board or a job in leadership as a person out of the MAT closet.

    Thank you

    Paul Bowman

  • Dennis Daley says:

    Nicely stated Phil. Very insightful and true.

  • Sara Dulaney says:

    I am in such identification with you on this, Phil. 36 years in 12-step recovery, later education and professional training in the field, 15 years rehab CASACing, now working on coaching practice and engaged with some “new movements” in recovery. I have evolved, for sure. I’m disturbed by the competition-mindset and the bickering between and among the various “schools.” My commitment from the beginning continues: “to stay sober and help another” achieve recovery.

  • Geoff says:

    I am also in recovery. Highwatch in 2016 and a mans sober living home followed that. I am currently a manager of the sober living home I moved into. My full time career is in SUD recovery and am enrolling in the Recovery coach academy. I believe all journeys that lead to a new life can work if the person has the willingness to begin. I’m finally doing something that I love to do!

  • Herb C. Boyd Jr. says:

    Hi Phil,
    I’ve been blessed by being introduced to, and now understanding multiple pathways to recovery. I compared it to the multiple pathways in all other areas of life. The foods we eat, clothes we wear, cars we buy, the denominations we choose etc. The career choices we make even the substances we used. Recovery will never be a one size fits all. To be effective as a coach we need to be flexible and learn that pathways are as multiple as personalities.
    Herb B.

  • James D Flynn says:

    Like many others, over the years I have evolved. I have become less dogmatic or doctrinaire about my belief that people need to embrace the 12 steps as a means to recover from Alcoholism or Addiction.

    As a CRPA, I do continue to share my lived experience, and continue to advocate or reccomend the utilization of mutual aid support groups. Especially where I feel that group support would be beneficial to the participant.

    However, I offer the participants that I work with a range of choices, and try to educate them with regard to the existence of multiple pathways to recovery.

    When I first discovered the rooms of A.A. and N.A. in 1985, these meetings seemed to be the only viable pathway to recovery. The entire thrust of mainstream treatment seemed to be geared towards detoxing you, giving you a crash course on the disease concept of addiction, and getting you involved with going to 12 Step meetings.

    At first, I went in and out of the rooms of recovery, cherry picking the suggestions, and doing the “research” needed to “fully concede to my innermost self” that was indeed powerless over all mood altering substances. (With the exception of cigarettes
    Which bottomed out on later in my recovery process. )

    I transitioned from the discovery process, (finding out that I am an addict) to the recovery process (knowing that I needed to acknowledge that reality and act on it accordingly). In short, I became “willing to go to any lengths” to stay sober. Consequently, I took my last drink and drug Oct 4th, 1987. For that I am very grateful.

    In my early recovery, I was dimly aware that there were other treatment modalities or approaches to treating addiction, but I tended to diminish them in my own mind. For example, I frowned on methadone maintenance programs. I honestly considered them to be just a means of replacing one drug for another. I had no appreciation of how MAT reduced harm, or how it helps some people to recover.

    In the early 1990’s I was certified as an Addictions Counselor, and I began to encounter other people who had gotten into recovery via a different pathway. Some through therapeutic communities that did not emphasize the 12 Steps, others through religious conversion, some through medication assisted treatment, and others who seem to have simply quit using all on their own.

    Around this same time, Rational Recovery and the Secular Organization for Sobriety came on the scene, and began to advocate for referrals from the National Helpline I was working for (SAMSHA’s 1-800-662-HELP). It was made clear to me, that it was incumbent upon me as a professional to learn more about these alternative support groups, and to make referrals where appropriate.

    Later, when I read William White’s book, Slaying The Dragon, and I learned more about A.A. History. I became aware of other groups and movements the pre-existed A.A., all of which had produced their own recoveries.

    Nowadays my prevailing attitude is that there is no right way or wrong way to stay sober. The important thing is for people to find something that aligns with their own beliefs, and that works for them.

    I still go to my 12 Step meetings, but I don’t insist that they are the only pathway to recovery for everyone. I have learned to stay in my own lane, and how to truly Live and Let Live.

    Jim Flynn, NCPRSS, NCPT3, NYCPSS-P, CRPA, CARC

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