Why The Steps Didn’t Work For Me

Table of Contents

Recently, I was helping my parents move and was asked to go through my old stuff, to discard any “junk” and to save anything worth holding onto.  While sifting through the relics of my past, I came across an old journal that I kept as a teen.  I spoke candidly about how it felt to be me; the things that were hard, the things that I was curious about, my perception of the world around me, and my experiences with drugs and alcohol.   As I read, I discovered that even back then, in the genesis of my journey, I was able to see that my use of drugs was a “solution” to a problem that was spiritual in nature; and that this solution, although effective, was only creating more problems in my life.

I was taken aback to read this, considering that it took me another 15 years of attempting to manage my use of drugs, through a multitude of mediums, with varying degrees of success.  I have traveled across the globe in search of meaning through service, I have wholeheartedly aligned myself with various religious practices, I have moved more times than I can count, I have been treated by an army of therapists, been to workshops, rehabs and I have worked the 12 steps.  All yielding positive results, for a time, and invariably followed by a tragic manifestation of a still untreated illness; breaking the hearts of many and perpetuating the insidious fear, that I may, in fact, be a hopeless case.

Among these attempts, was in the fall of 2012 when I washed ashore at my parent’s house, strung out and in need of help.  I was in a bad way; the worst I have been to date.  I was without a home, a job, a community, a path or a clue as to how I could repair any of it.  I was fortunate enough to land in a detox facility; and as my mind began to clear, for the first time in my life, I began to listen.  And in that moment of grace, I surrendered, and embarked upon a process of discovery.

At this point, I was aware of the 12 step communities, and I began to familiarize myself with the reality that I qualify for a lifetime membership.  So in step with my defeat, I began to work the steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

During this process I was given hope for my future, I found a community of lifelong friends, I eventually got to experience great successes professionally and I fell in love with a girl I wanted to marry.  Of course, these things did not happen overnight, nor were they self-generated.  They were gifts, and for a time, I was perpetually dumbfounded by the goodness of it all.

Now that’s a great story, isn’t it?  But I suffice to say, it does not end here.  Years had passed since my last use; my addiction began to feel like a scary dream I once had, rather than a reality of a still progressing and fatal illness.  And those gifts, began to feel more like obligations that I struggled to keep up with.  I grew tired and was almost constantly overwhelmed by the life I was required to show up for.  My curiosity and wonderment had morphed into distress and stagnation.  My boxes were checked and by all intensive standards, I was successfully “adulting”, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was indeed, burning the candle at both ends.

This continued until I wound up at my doctor’s office with flu-like symptoms, utterly exhausted.  I outlined to her the details of my lifestyle, and all the things that could be contributing to my repeated lapses in physical health.  Long story short, I left her office with a prescription to a medication I had no business taking.  But still, after all those years of a life immersed in recovery, I went to the pharmacy, filled the script and took the pills.  Within a matter of weeks, I was using heroin and methamphetamine, leaving my loved-ones heartbroken and my beautiful life in ruins.

“How does this happen?” one might ask.  “He had everything going for him”.  “What about his beautiful fiancé?  His career? Couldn’t he have just taken the medication as prescribed, after all that time?”  These questions are not unique to my story, as they are commonly asked by those gazing in heartbreak and befuddlement at the life of an addict.  “Cunning, baffling, powerful” is a phrase from the Big Book of AA that always resonated with me, because it spoke to something I knew to be true within me, something I could never fully explain.

So where do I go from here?  How do I start over, all over again?  My initial response, and that of many of my peers, was that there must be some sort of unresolved trauma; there must be some limiting belief that keeps me from embracing success.  At the time, this felt true for me.  So true, that I launched out on a course of action with the best therapists and intensive-workshops in the country.  My colleagues banded around me to offer their services free of charge and to help me in my quest.  At this point, I gave everything I had to this process as I truly believed that the 12 steps had let me down, and that this was my last shot.  After about 6 months of this, I gained an acute awareness of the storyline of my brokenness but found myself lacking in the ability to heal or change.  Unable to cope, I got high again, and this time for keeps.  I rendered myself hopeless, and settled into the reality that I was destined to die in my disease.

This is the point in the story where I must give a shout-out to the people who have loved me through the peaks and valleys of my life, and have refused to let me fall prey to this disease.  If it were not for my friends and family’s intervention, I would not be here.  Plain and simple.

So, as I was sitting in my house using drugs in a way that danced with death, a dear friend of mine from AA paid me a visit to lovingly rebuke my foolishness and self-pity, and to inform me that it was time to go to detox, again.  And in another moment of grace, I didn’t put up a fight, for deep-down I knew that there must be more to the story.

Now, the work begins.

Coming to, in detox, with a head full of recovery-knowledge and opinions, and a life behind me set-aflame by active-addiction, I had some crucial decisions to make.  Decisions that I’ve had to make every day, since that day.  First, I had to decide to shut up and listen.  I had to decide to entertain the idea, that maybe I don’t know everything.  I had to decide to take suggestion, despite my beliefs about that suggestion.  I had to decide to be humble.  I had to decide to stay put and hold loosely the details of what I thought my life should look like.

Let me just say, that I didn’t make all these decisions on day one, but rather progressively, as I experienced the pain of not making them.

Through this process, and an incredible amount of grace, I wound up in Carbondale, CO with all my belongings and a little bit of willingness to do some un-learning.  Let me emphasize “little bit”.  I went to meetings and got a sponsor despite my belief that “AA didn’t work for me” and I began to work the steps quickly and resentfully.  I guess I just wanted to see at this point, if anything good would happen, as I really didn’t have much else going for me.  And in the months that followed, something remarkable happened; I started to feel better and to my amazement, I learned that I had never really truly worked the 12 steps.  Sure I had been through them and taken other guys through them, but I am humbled to admit, that I had never really worked them.

What I mean by this, is that previously, many of the guiding principles of the program never really penetrated me.  Things like humility, rigorous honesty or service were not able to get past the armor of my ego and into my heart and soul.  The idea of only having a “daily reprieve based on the maintenance of (my) spiritual condition” is a concept that I am humbled to say, is entirely new to me, and has given me more than I could have ever asked for.

Coming back to the rooms, unlearning everything, repairing the wreckage of my past, and abandoning the things that I thought I needed, has been without a doubt, the most difficult thing I have ever done.

Yet, working this program on a day-to-day basis has cultivated a different kind of freedom for me; a soundness of mind and a quiet trust that the forces of the Universe are indeed conspiring on my behalf, and that there is always more to learn.  This year I have learned what it means to understand and embrace the broken parts of myself as perfectly whole, and to do extend that same grace to my fellows.  All concepts that felt fleeting or abstract before, have miraculously found their way into my life.

To say I am grateful for this process would be a terrible understatement, as my feelings about it lie beyond the confines of written language.

So, I will conclude with this.

As mentioned above, I have been fortunate enough to be treated by and to work alongside of some of the brightest minds in the behavioral health field; and have subsequently been exposed to a vast array of treatment modalities.  All of them beneficial and I wouldn’t hesitate to say all of them, in a way, have collectively led me to this beautiful place.  Yet, if I were to mine it all down, I would conclude that to-date, there has been only one approach that’s yielded a sustained and enriched life in recovery, for me.  That approach, is working an earnest and ongoing 12 step program.  It’s not sexy, it’s not new and it has afforded me a life that seemed to distant to touch.  I mentioned in the story, a time that I believed the steps didn’t work for me, because I had been through them and still got high.  What I am coming to understand is that the 12 steps were not designed to be a single momentous undertaking, but rather a construct in which anyone can build a meaningful life within.

So in short, the steps didn’t work for me because I didn’t work the steps.

So wherever and however this story finds you, I wish you peace and clarity on your Journey.

In gratitude,


author avatar
Stefan Bate, MA, LAC, CCTP Chief Clinical Officer
Stefan Bate, BA, MA, LAC holds a Master's Degree in Applied Psychology from Regis University and is a Licensed Addiction Counselor in the state of Colorado. Stefan has wide-ranging experience in the field of addiction recovery including: working as a recovery coach, therapist, and program director.

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