I started this blog originally to share my journey trying to tackle some pesky health issues. It later evolved into a platform to talk about my recovery from a relationship with a narcissist and from growing up in an abusive dysfunctional family. On this journey of recovery, I tried many things to get better. Some of them worked better than others. Some worked for a while and then stopped working. Some were dead-end streets that opened my eyes to the prevalence of toxicity and controlling behaviours in our world.
I want to return to discussing all the avenues I experimented with on this journey and how I feel about them in hindsight. Would I do it this way again?
One of the things that for a while seemed to offer certain positives was the 12-step fellowship called Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families (ACA). For those of you who don’t know, 12-step fellowships are loose organizations of people that share a common problem. The most famous and original of those fellowships are Alcoholics Anonymous. The fellowships are organized around meetings, which essentially function like support groups where you can rattle on about your challenges in a supposedly supportive and safe environment of people who have been through similar experiences and therefore understand your plight.
The problem is that these groups frequently are neither safe nor supportive and you are quite likely going to get retraumatized. Here I explore why.
Why I got into a 12-step fellowship
I got into the ACA fellowship in May 2021 after I reached a bit of a dead-end in therapy. I had a great therapist who I worked with for about four years and who helped me immensely to see the effects of psychological abuse, gaslighting and invalidation on my psyche. At some point, however, I realized, that my psychotherapist was sort of my best friend. There wasn’t anybody else I could discuss these things with, and it dawned on me that there was something profoundly unhealthy about such an important relationship being a paid one. A relationship with a psychotherapist is always a business transaction. It’s not a friendship and the moment you can’t afford to fork out for the bills, the relationship ends. That for me, felt profoundly unsafe. I realized that to achieve true healing, I need to experience what I was deprived of as a child: a truly caring, reciprocal, nurturing and understanding relationship with another human being interested in me for me and not for business.
The concept of the ACA fellowship therefore resonated with me since on paper, it claimed to provide this new, healing family to people who are exactly like me. Those who don’t have nurturing, caring and supportive families.
In 12-step fellowships, people meet a couple of times per week and are supposed to develop supportive relationships, reaching out to each other throughout the week to share life’s challenges.
One of these ‘fellows’ is supposed to become your fellow traveller, or sponsor, with whom you go through your 12 steps. 12 steps are at the heart of all of these fellowships. They are essentially a revision of your life and its problems. You are meant to own your shit and hold yourself accountable.
The fellowship has its ‘literature’ which is a sort of watered-down psychology book that you are supposed to treat almost like a Bible. The fellowship does have cultish elements as throughout the book and throughout the meetings you will read and hear people say things that should make you feel that the fellowship is your only chance of salvation and that leaving would mean ‘failure’ and ‘relapse’.
And here is where the problems start.
What are the major problems?
The idea of the fellowship is quite sweet. But it doesn’t work. As I said, at the heart of the fellowship’s teaching is the so-called Red Book, a handbook of diluted pop psychology that contains some useful stuff but certainly does not capture all the complexities, impacts and psychological consequences of being raised in an abusive, dysfunctional home. Most importantly, it doesn’t explain toxic family dynamics: the issues of control, manipulation, covert abuse and forcing others into submission. Neither does it explain how complex post-traumatic stress and triggering work. There is not a word about boundaries and your right to have your needs met and assert yourself healthily in the world, which are the major topics that people who grew up in abusive families don’t understand.
What is worse, the fellowship actively discourages people from reading other stuff, which I find incredibly arrogant and let’s say it out loud – cultish.
The arrogance continues with the attitude of many fellows who would ramble on about how they found recovery through ACA but whose behaviour, upon closer inspection, is usually incredibly unhealthy, controlling and even delusional. You are putting your mental well-being into the hands of people who are not trained, properly educated and recovered (even if they think they are). A recipe for retraumatization.
Let me try to find something positive about the experience.
You do get an opportunity to talk about your heavy stuff in a semi-safe setting.
There might be some benefits (although usually temporary), in connecting with people who have been through similar stuff. Especially when you are going through a difficult episode, it might be too overwhelming to be in a regular social setting. Through the fellowship, you can share the darkness of the experience with other people instead of isolating in your little bubble of despair, which frequently leads to more darkness.
Going through the 12 steps is an interesting experience mostly because in the process, you will have dark stuff coming from the unconscious, so it does work a little like in-depth therapy. The problem, however, is that your fellow traveller, or sponsor, is not a trained therapist and is quite likely someone pretty messed up, unrecovered, with a tonne of issues of their own that they will end up projecting onto you. They also may have some unresolved control issues and will try to bend you to their will in one way or another.
Risks of retraumatization
There is a huge risk of retraumatization in these groups. These meetings are full of people who mostly rely on their Bible Red Book for guidance, and as a result have a very limited understanding of themselves and the intricacies of toxic family dynamics. And that only means one thing – they are bound to recreate those dynamics.
1. Control issues
This is what I have seen in those groups: Usually, you would have someone on the narcissistic controlling side of the dynamic over-eagerly stepping into the so-called service position. They will run the meetings to a) make themselves feel good about themselves b) allow themselves to play the martyr (look how much service I am doing, that’s who I am) c) manage their narcissistic supply matrix and have control over the meeting.
These people actually act against the official code of conduct of the fellowship but as all narcissists who are successful at managing their narcissistic supply matrix, they will disregard any criticism of their behavior and blame others.
There was an incredibly toxic woman in one of the meetings I encountered, who ran meetings so that she could control who gets into them, because she had personal problems with people in other meetings (probably those who set boundaries against her). She suffered from some type of paranoia and had a thing for creating so-called safety issues out of mole hills. Her spiel would be to propose to ostracize people (the dissenters) from meetings, or close meetings altogether (which is against the rules anyway), then go about having smug patronizing comments about the other person’s lack of recovery. It was shocking, absolutely disgusting and against the rules of the fellowship. But here is the funny thing: Most people in the meeting didn’t see it and kept enabling this woman.
What I have just described is the toxic family dynamic replay. Because toxic families are not about hitting and boozing. They are about control. Control is about someone trying to use other people to enable their dysfunction, whatever that dysfunction is. And very many people who were raised in such environments and have not done enough recovery work, will instinctively bow down to this evil controlling mother because they don’t want to fall out of her favour. If you happen to be the one who dares to speak up against the controlling behaviour, you will be ostracized, trashed and smeared and no one, either in the family, or the so-called healing group, will support you, because they are under the evil mother’s spell.
In fact, I too stayed in that group way too long despite very many red flags. Why did I stay? Because I allowed myself to be brainwashed with all that talk that I mentioned above (this is your only chance of salvation, people rattling on about how the programme changed their lives). Because of my deeply ingrained feelings of loneliness. Because the situation retriggered my childhood trauma. I am a scapegoat child, I am the one who tried to challenge the toxic patterns in my family and who was trashed, smeared and scapegoated for it. It brought up my deep feelings of being the problem and being faulty.
I eventually left the group and never looked back, having made, to my disappointment, exactly zero lasting connections. But I did feel retraumatized by the experience as it only replayed the core trauma of ‘you have to shut up and not speak up’ or you get trashed. This wasn’t the only group where I encountered such dynamics.
Believe it or not, my ultimate departure from that group had to do with noise on the street and an open window and a controlling person’s refusal to address the problem and then vilifying me for asking to have a basic need (not to be exposed to excessive noise levels), addressed.
This is exactly what children of controlling parents learn: no matter how much discomfort you are in, shut up and don’t ever talk about it. Because your needs, even the most basic ones really are just a nuisance.
And you will be shocked to learn how many profoundly unrecovered people are in these meetings that they think nothing of such a behaviour.
2. You can’t trust people in 12 step groups
People who grew up in dysfunction have a lot of weird behavioural patterns that make them rather unpredictable. Many of them are geared towards gathering some form of supply – attention, validation, just plain acceptance. Some of them have this funny fawning adaptation pattern, which means that they might sound like they like you and agree with you and support you when actually, inside, they feel something totally different, which they are not confident enough to openly discuss.
They might, however, shamelessly discuss it with others behind your back. That’s rather shocking because ‘gossip is toxic and leads to relapse’ is a matra that gets repeated at every 12-step meeting.
The concept of outreach and fellow-travellership (sponsorship) that is an important part of the fellowship creates a fertile ground for this behaviour.
People talk about others from the fellowship who ‘triggered’ them (obviously, the problem is the other person, right), and don’t care too much how easy it is to figure out who they are talking about.
The environment this set-up breeds is unsafe to the core and profoundly retriggering, ripe with covert abuse, triangulation and manipulation. It’s plain disgusting.
The evil queen that I described above, who loved to smirk at the lack of recovery of others, virtually went from one meeting to another meeting, complaining about the triggering she experienced in that other meeting because of some other horrid person.
As I eventually learned, she resented me secretly for the fact that one of her pawns, an appliance in her narcissistic supply matrix, once offered me a lift to the tube station, which clearly triggered her insecurity, but as a narc, she simply couldn’t sit with her feelings and simply face them.
But anyway. I am quite amused thinking about this person spending the rest of her life going from trigger to trigger, from meeting to meeting, complaining about the ‘unrecovered’ others, while leaving a toxic trail of destruction in her wake. Those with a bit of brain will eventually see. And the rest probably deserves what they get.
To be fair, this woman wasn’t the only toxic dysfunctional person I met in the fellowship, and I eventually came to the conclusion that lack of recovery is as prevalent in these groups as the lofty talk about it.
The fellowship’s belief that after completing your 12 steps you are somehow recovered and healed is totally delusional. I have seen people going from one fellowship to another, completing their steps over and over, still being much more messed up than someone who does proper therapy and proper self-education.
Healing is rebuilding
It is my belief that true healing is about rebuilding your life (or the broken aspects of it) and creating new, safe and healthy experiences. That involves healthy relationships, were you can safely ask to have your needs met (for example, not to be exposed to excessive noise levels), without being subject to covert abuse for it.
Talking about the dark past stuff and excavating it is an important part of the healing process. There are defence mechanisms on top of those extremely painful beliefs and feelings that are buried in your unconscious and these defence mechanisms result in faulty behavioural patterns that cause problems in your life.
However, just like you need to create positive experiences and positive value in your life, to really experience healing, you also need to bond with people based on the healthy and not just the unhealthy in you. In those fellowships, you are more than likely going to connect to others through the dysfunction. The darkness will not be balanced out by the light, the excavating will not be complemented by the creative and constructive.
You would enter the fellowship thinking that people who’d been through darkness would more likely have your back, but you will learn that they are more likely going to behave like your dysfunctional mother or sister.
Is it worth joining a 12-step fellowship?
I am not going to completely trash it, but I think you need to manage your expectations very carefully. You have to keep educating yourself about boundaries and healthy relationship dynamics and don’t expect too much.
I think it’s fine to treat those meetings as a dumping ground if you have too much on your plate and need to off-load. But that’s it. Don’t get caught up in the cultish thinking. Don’t get sucked into someone else’s power games. Don’t become an enabler of someone else’s dysfunction, a narcissistic supply provider to a sneaky manipulator who is actually refusing to truly look at their issues in spite of all the lofty talk.
The literature might be worth reading, it has some interesting stuff in it, but do not treat it as bible, there is much better stuff out there to educate yourself.
Don’t fall into the trap that the fellowship is superior to therapy. No, it’s not and it is very arrogant of those people to think that. It’s their sense of grandiosity that makes them think they could know better than people who spent years studying trauma psychology and subjected their work to extensive peer review.
Be smart, be on guard, don’t give too much benefit of the doubt. The more varied your support matrix throughout the healing process, the best your chances that some of will work.
The world is full of predators and toxic controlling people, and it really is challenging to find those you can connect with through your healthiness and not slip into a co-dependent enmeshment of enabling.