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Resistances to 12-Step Recovery

by Robert G. Waldvogel


As the old saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” This may equally apply to those who are Higher Power-led to twelve-step recovery venues. While they may be physically present, lack of will and work will only oppose the process. There are times, however, when even concerted effort bears little fruit, compounding frustration and creating doubts about whether such programs produce any benefit. But there may be one or more of three resistances at play that oppose improvement.

Recovery is work, effort, and usually of long duration. It can also be a battle in the present a person wages to overcome his past, where adversity accumulated into insurmountability, especially if attempts to do so without proper help.

The disease of dysfunction, over which he is powerless, can be equated to a runaway freight train, whose momentum only builds over time. Just trying to slow it down is a Herculean task, much less stopping it on its tracks and then reversing its direction.

It can constitute a war between a person’s damaged, converted side and his stronger, healthier one. And the severe difficulties he experiences in everyday life, such as fear, anxiety, weakness, low self-esteem, regression, and mistrust, pose the same obstacles to recovery. Pain, doubt, faulty memory, fear of his own feelings, denial, and impatience can become additional, obstructing aspects during it.

Nevertheless, even after he has been led to twelve-step recovery waters, there can be three very specific elements that constitute resistances to the process.

The first is avoidance of the pain that it may entail.

“People want recovery, but they prefer it to be pain-free,” according to the Adult Children of Alcoholics textbook (World Service Organization, 2006, p. xxiii). “This is understandable, but unfortunately identifying and feeling our feelings is a part of healing… Feelings are cues and signals to tell you what you need. It is the repression or distorted expression of them that gets people sick or into personal difficulty.”

Facing the past in the present may be little different than recreating the same retriggering, retraumatizing, and powerless circumstances originally generated by blaming, shaming, and abusive parents. But there is a psychological axiom which states that “the only way out is through.” These incidents must be revisited and re-seen to be desensitized. What minimizes their effects now is the presence of a stabilizing, understanding support group within meetings after sufficient trust has been gained and a Higher Power who lifts and melts negative emotions away. The more a person talks about difficult feelings, the more they begin to change because he is replacing and therefore erasing the original ones.

Another resistance can be considered family betrayal.

“People of all ages are so afraid of betraying their parents,” continues the Adult Children of Alcoholics textbook (ibid, p. xxiii). “Speaking your truth (and) owning your reality is not an act of betrayal with your parents…The betrayal is with the disease, the disorder, the dysfunction. To not own your reality or to not speak your truth is the ultimate act of betrayal to yourself.”

Like an invisible web whose hold can only be felt, but which is maintained by the rigidly upheld rules of “don’t’ talk, don’t trust, and don’t feel,” family members remain trapped, but ensure its perpetuation by refraining from exposing it to the outside world, thus explaining the dichotomy between the cultivated image to others and the insanity that sometimes plays out after the door has been closed.

While these attempts camouflage the family lie, exposing it in twelve-step meetings reveals it for the first time and can be the equivalent of airing a person’s dirty laundry. Powerful and preservative, this deception is not easy to break and the person may feel that he will be rejected from his family because of his “treason” to it.

The third resistance is a breach of two of the very adult child survival traits—namely, an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and isolation, leaving such people to gain high degrees of self-sufficiency and autonomy. That they fear asking for help only compounds this aspect.

“(But this) rigidity of self-sufficiency is based upon mistrust of others and the fear of letting go of control,” the Adult Children of Alcoholics textbook advises (ibid, pp xxiii-xxiv). “When you allow others to be a part of your path, that is when it is possible to meet the resistance of fear of feelings… Recovery is about connection.”

A person cannot recover alone. Isolation and self-sufficiency are symptoms of the disease, not channels to its cure. Only an anchor to the collective strength of recovery members and a Higher Power can surmount it.

Resistances can be considered roadblocks to recovery, but when a person is aware of why the serve this purpose, he can overcome them and continue healing.

Robert G. Waldvogel has earned the Interdisciplinary Certificate in Behavioral Health for Late Adolescence and the Emerging Adult and a Postgraduate Certificate in the Fundamentals of Cognitive Behavioral Treatment at Adelphi University’s School of Social Work. He has led Twelve-Step support groups on Long Island for the past decade, and created the Adult Child Recovery-through-Writing, and the Strengthening Our Spirituality Programs taught at the Thrive Recovery Community and Outreach Center in Westbury. He is a frequent contributor


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