12 Step Meetings | A Retrospective

28 years ago nearly to the day, I walked into the world of 12 Step meetings. I surely wasn’t immediately enamored with the slogan reciting, platitude-on-cue, regurgitating crew. I thought it to be some sort of cruel and unusual punishment for my transgressions and gotta admit, it took some doing for me to develop a taste for, “the rooms.”

Well, it’s a bit like the substances and behaviors we replaced, isn’t it? I mean who enjoys their first puff on a cigarette or first gulp of beer? Okay, maybe the beer…but you get my drift when I’m telling you that 12 Step meetings really do take some getting used to, or at least they did for this recovering skeptic. So now in retrospect, I look back and think, you know, if I’d walked into anything I was previously unfamiliar with like a Greek Orthodox mass or an IRS workshop for auditors, there’d be a learning curve and that, “welcome to change, buddy” feeling that’s always uncomfortable.

Clean and Sober

Clean and sober circa 1986

Clean and sober circa 1986

I’ll never forget my first 12 Step meeting. A traditional clean and sober, no-nonsense “closed” meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. “Closed” meaning A.A. members only, or for those who have a drinking problem and, “have a desire to stop drinking.” I qualified.

In 1986 smoking cigarettes was still okay at meetings, so the coffee scented, smoke filled room–it was. I remember sitting next to men in camouflage jackets and hats presumably from the Vietnam War era as I was thinking this whole scene is a good enough reason to quit my shenanigans–and never go back.

Go back–I did not–for three years as I practiced the white knuckled, cold turkey shuffle and getting my dopamine without the dope from the then, current addiction; exercise. Then, I discovered how love, sex and finally, opiates could do the trick and I was off and running–on empty.

Back to the Rooms

I found my way back to the rooms by necessity and frankly, it was the go-to addiction recovery “modality.” Still is, even though there are many others. In retrospect, I would have also perked up to the harm reduction, brain science informed approaches available these days–and maybe then too!…but I don’t remember hearing about them. One reason…the brain science hadn’t been scienced’ yet…

But as all things unfold as they should, I learned to find meetings that worked for me. I’m an early bird, so a 6:15am meeting with other early morning sunshine worshipers; perfect. I like deep discussions and topics so how ’bout a Noon meeting on the campus of Stanford University where erudite recovering drunks hang? I swear-ta-god, that room was like being in the presence of the Dalai Lama on any given day. In one hour I may have heard from the resident, savant schizophrenic man to a recovering physics or English professor tell a story with aplomb–JUST the story and message I needed to hear like those song lyrics on the car radio that speak to you–right on time.

All of the rhetoric and what first sounded like sing-song, cryptic communication settled into a regular practice, a ritual around which the day and the week centered. The lessons learned, the insights and wisdom from these formerly assessed freaks turned out to be some of the most informing, how-to-live-life stuff in my life–and cherished relationships and lifelong friendships to boot. To think, a bunch of humans agreeing to meet regularly to get out of their own ways and talk about right thinking and right living. Miraculous.

To 12 Step or Not to 12 Step

Alright, so now in the year 2014 we have many ways of recovering from addiction in addition to the 12 Step path. For example, Dr. Tom Horvath’s, Smart Recovery speaks to millions of people. From secular to religious to community based approaches, really…isn’t it all the same approach–to take a look at how you’re taking a look at your life while surrounding yourself with people who are on the same path? For me, deep empathy and BELONGING are the central-most implications.

Most of the addiction treatment centers remain 12 Step based because it works. After all, the 12 Step approach was not for me…until it was. But what we’re finding when wedding the brain science with such programs, is that recovering people need a more robust wellness model including all aspects of mind, body and spirit fitness. ‘N that great news? Not either/or, but both/and. 12 Step programs not the whole picture, but as an integral part of the whole and now what we’re finding to be, bigger picture.

12 Step Meetings | Think Integrate

12 Step meetings can be an integral part of addiction recovery

12 Step meetings and other mutual support groups can be integral parts of addiction recovery and wellness

In this day-and-age we’re hearing and reading a lot of friction around, “If AA is so hot, how come it only helps ___% of people?” And of course the answer is that its structure and language doesn’t speak to everyone and so like I had to do with finding different kinds of meetings, it seems to me the implication is to find a path that does work. 12 Step programs don’t care, really. What, are we all supposed to be Muslims or Catholics or atheists or short board surfers (certainly not the latter)? NO!!…but something tells me we’re all supposed to be on a path of our own choice to pursue right thinking and right living.

I see the day coming when addiction treatment paths will all be integrated and all include the various mutual support/aid groups in that integration. We’ll move away from “12 Step based or Non-12 Step based” to integrated, multidisciplinary approaches including suggestions for mutual support groups of one’s choice, because all of them–along with balanced lifestyle skills fostering wellness, work as an indispensable piece of the treatment puzzle.

What works for you?

Dr. Herby Bell is a Recovery and Wellness Coach and owner of Recovery Health Care, an integrated approach to wellness and addiction recovery in Saratoga, California. For more information please call 650 474 9411 or Email: herbybell@me.com.  Connect with me online too:  Facebook | Twitter | Linkedin

Join the discussion 12 Comments

  • Kyczy Hawk says:

    Inclusiveness that is what I yearned for in sobriety and what I yearn for in recovery. And, yes, I think recovery paths can benefit greatly form including one another in the healing way. Congratulations on you 28 years (I am a year and a few days older – I celebrated last week). There is already a change happening in the rooms (accepting more addictions in each meeting rather than excluding “addicts” from AA and so on) and we can also reach out to sister programs in our paths of healing. September is recovery (and yoga) month- a time when the Many Paths One Destination celebration has an opportunity to include these other fellowships to truly hold RECOVERY first and method / means second. Thank you for putting this out there.

  • HerbyBell says:


    For the record, 20 years…The first 8, research…slip and slide…harm reduction? A most happy birthday to you too. And I really rez with the inclusiveness piece, IE, what I want and now have. The change happening in the rooms makes me sing, because it feels good and right on time. Thanks for including RHC in your bright, hopeful world, Kyczy.
    HerbyBell Wants You To Read…#37: Bobby Coffey | Recovery Advocacy | The Power of OneMy Profile

  • This is an inspiring post, Herby and it is interesting to learning more about your path through the 12 steps meetings. As a parent, I went through a similar process with Al-Anon. It was suggested from my daughter’s wilderness program that I attend. I asked a friend to go with me, as I too had the “welcome to change, buddy” feeling that’s always uncomfortable. I tried a number of different meetings until I found one for parents that fit what I was looking for. I have met some amazing people who have become friends. Integrating the recovery programs for parents and other family members seems to to me to be the most beneficial. Recovery can be an offering of a smorgasbord of options, so that folks can then find what works best for them. Congrats to you on your 28 years!
    Cathy Taughinbaugh Wants You To Read…Remembering My Mom This Mother’s DayMy Profile

    • HerbyBell says:


      Right on to your including the analog…the Al-anon path. I remember at one point thinking I should be attending 3 or 4 different 12 Step slants because they ALL began to appeal to me, but ‘n that just like a guy addicted to, “more.” Can’t help but thinking how lucky your friends at Al-anon are to have met you too.
      HerbyBell Wants You To Read…#37: Bobby Coffey | Recovery Advocacy | The Power of OneMy Profile

  • Thanks Herby! Yes, it looks like to me that we are now starting to approach a more holistic, integrated, and varietal approach that may or may not include the 12 step/some or all of the steps in it! Thanks for sharing more of your story, I am always interested in that!

  • Hey, Herby, ‘Ole Pal/’Ole Buddy…

    As always, a well-considered and nicely written piece – from the heart. Man, those 12 Step meetings – I go back to just a few years before you. Fact is, though, I attended prob twice a week for two years. And that was that. Hey! Had absolutely no prob with AA – nothing personal, just business. I mean, who could/can deny the efficacy? It simply wasn’t for me for a number of reasons. One, actually, was a wad of social anxiety, which had yet to be addressed (much less diagnosed). And I’ve never been much of a group guy. No big. So I found other ways to manage my leanings. As you say, “…find a path that does work.” I did. God, I can only hope that someone wouldn’t get their nose out of joint that another recovered from nasty depression using something other than CBT. Come on, who in the hell cares?

    In my mind, this is all about personal responsibility. Yes, I, you, and millions of others are responsible for our recovery – our tomorrows. And to pitch stones at the treatment approach du jour is just silly. Way I see it is if one wants recovery badly enough, one will find her/his way to it. Maybe? Much like you implied in a comment on one of my pieces – let’s get over ourselves and save some lives.

    Yada, yada, yada, my friend. You know I could go on and on. I shan’t. You do good work, Dr. HB. Peace (and thanks)…

    Bill White, Licensed Counselor Wants You To Read…Mental Health Awareness Month | 14 Pop-Up Thoughts from One of Us (that would be me)My Profile

  • HerbyBell says:


    ‘Ats what I love about the recovering community when a learned guy like you can come forward and say, “C’mon, who the hell cares?” about splitting hairs over “the way.” And why I’m always invigorated when I see your comments here at RHC. Thank you, Bill.
    HerbyBell Wants You To Read…#37: Bobby Coffey | Recovery Advocacy | The Power of OneMy Profile

  • Wow, Herby – this is amazing and it helps shift from the “you’re either with with 12-step or you’re against it” to a more inclusive – “hey, take what you like and leave the rest” approach. And as you can imagine, I love your concluding paragraph, “I see the day coming when addiction treatment paths will all be integrated and all include the various mutual support/aid groups in that integration. We’ll move away from “12 Step based or Non-12 Step based” to integrated, multidisciplinary approaches including suggestions for mutual support groups of one’s choice, because all of them–along with balanced lifestyle skills fostering wellness, work as an indispensable piece of the treatment puzzle.”
    Lisa Frederiksen – BreakingTheCycles.com Wants You To Read…The Fight or Flight Stress Response – Secondhand Drinking ConnectionMy Profile

  • Karen Lee says:

    Well done, Herby! I so look forward to your posts because you are NOT ‘mainstream’, spouting the usual rhetoric regarding addiction, treatment and this is how it has to be to get better! Hopefully your readers are also reading the comments and your responses as they offer even more insight into whatever topic you were addressing. This article really resonated with me as I had my doubts about these “coffee-scented smoky rooms’ (at least how they were 10+yrs ago in our area) and these people, who had managed to gain abstinence and even, recovery from the bet living in Las Vegas)….much like that of an alcoholic working as a bartender! Thank you for sharing your experiences gained over a span of 28 years!!!
    Karen Lee Wants You To Read…It can happen to anyoneMy Profile

  • HerbyBell says:


    So cool and kind for you to stop in and give us a glimpse of the process addiction of gambling as an analog here. My addiction professors always used to say, “Gambling, the purest form of addiction”, because there truly is no limit to “the bet.” Forgive me if I’ve misinterpreted your comments, but you got me goin’…

    Most grateful for your kind comments, Karen and lettuce keep comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable!
    HerbyBell Wants You To Read…The Anonymous People | A Community Screening & DiscussionMy Profile

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