Ask an Addict: Do People Become Addicted to Addiction Recovery Groups?

for Paste Magazine

Addiction is an issue that impacts almost everyone in some way. I’ve been in recovery from alcoholism/addiction since January 2008. During that time, I’ve gone through ups and downs but have fortunately managed to stay sober. I’ll be answering a reader-submitted question about recovery every other week (information on how to submit below). I’m not an expert or mental health professional, just a sober person offering advice based on my experience and the research that’s available. This week, I’m talking about loud, authoritative people in 12-step meetings.

Dear Katie,

I read your column about potentially falling into other addictions after leaving alcohol itself behind. The word “addiction” itself is often thrown around in a cavalier way, both by everyday folk and people in or seeking recovery, but it seems clear to me as someone who’s been around 12-step programs for many years that it is extremely common for people to go right from casually laying off the booze to attending multiple meetings a day, not just in the short term but indefinitely, seemingly to the detriment of career, family time and so on.

In other words, people really do get hooked on meetings. Since these are the most visible people at any meeting and often the most vociferous, this sets up a situation in which the people nominally at the forefront of healing from addiction in these settings are actually still wallowing in a form of their disease. This makes them perhaps the worst possible envoys for recovery at such meetings, especially when they repeatedly say that multiple meetings a day are the cornerstone of their and others’ sobriety.

What are your thoughts on—to summarize—12-step addicts leading 12-step meetings?

From, Sober guy

Dear Sober guy,

This is an interesting and complicated question. I should get this disclaimer out right at the top: I’m not speaking on behalf of any 12-step organization (or any other organization for that matter). My opinion about this is just my opinion.

There is certainly a common criticism of 12-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous that they become a so-called “replacement addiction” for whatever the previous addiction was. Usually, I hear it from people who have a loved one who has been attending 12-step meetings. Let’s use fictional Sally and her partner Sam as an example. Sally is happy that Sam is getting sober (or trying to) but finds the number of meeting he attends, the sudden new vocabulary and behavior off-putting. Most devastatingly for Sally is the appearance of a group of people who seem to understand or be able to help with Sam’s addiction better than she could (when, in all likelihood, she’s been trying to help him with it for years to no avail). It’s one of those situations that’s painfully understandable on both sides: of course the addicted person should do whatever it takes to get and stay sober and of course the partner is going to feel hurt that they couldn’t help.

So while the Sally and Sam situation isn’t what you asked me about, the majority of the time I get questions about 12-step groups as a “replacement addiction,” it’s in the context of that scenario. Usually that’s just a period of adjustment (or, I guess, prolonged resentment). Either way, it usually doesn’t meet the criteria for addiction. (There are many definitions of addiction, which vary slightly from each other but a good short one is, “a brain disorder characterized by compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli despite adverse consequences.” A longer definition and explanations can be found here).

As for your actual question: ahhhh, yes. The dogmatic, vocal minority of any 12-step group (and possibly just any group). For those who haven’t spent as much time in group meetings as it sounds like you (and certainly, I) have, this analogy might help illustrate what Sober Guy is talking about: (continued)

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