12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous dominate the recovery space. In fact, when most people think of someone in recovery, they typically assume they are part of a 12-step program.
But, what if the traditional 12-step programs don’t work for you? For example, if you are an atheist, don’t like the idea of a sponsor, or want a program driven by self-empowerment, are there other options? Join us as today’s guest, Mary Beth O’Connor, shares with us that 12 steps are not the only choice when it comes to peer support recovery programs.
Mary Beth O’Connor has been sober since 1994. She has also been in recovery from abuse, trauma, and anxiety. Six years into her recovery, Mary Beth attended Berkeley Law. She worked at a large firm, then litigated class actions for the federal government. In 2014, she was appointed a federal administrative law judge, a position she held until 2020.
Mary Beth is a director, secretary, and founding investor for She Recovers Foundation and a director for LifeRing Secular Recovery. She regularly speaks about multiple paths to recovery to groups such as Women for Sobriety. Mary Beth’s op-ed, “I Beat Addiction Without God,” where she described combining ideas from several secular programs to create a robust recovery foundation, appeared in the Wall Street Journal.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Welcome to the show, everyone. I’m your host, Gabe Howard, and calling in today we have Mary Beth O’Connor. Mary Beth has been sober since 1994, and from 2014 to 2020, she served as a federal administrative law judge. Her new book, “From Junkie to Judge,” is out now. Mary Beth, welcome to the show.
Mary Beth O’Connor: Thank you, Gabe. I appreciate being here.
Gabe Howard: First, congratulations not only on your sobriety, but on all of your success. If we had an audience, there would be a ton of applause right now and it would be very well deserved. However, this next part that I’m about to say, I imagine, always splits the room. Your now famous op-ed, I beat Addiction Without God, which appeared in The Wall Street Journal continues to stoke controversy. Do you think it should matter how someone reaches recovery?
Mary Beth O’Connor: Absolutely not. I mean, I support all pathways, whatever is going to work for the individual. And my goal with that op-ed and always is to just inform people of their choices so they can find the right fit for them. And I think that’s going to increase their odds of success. That’s always my goal. How can I provide information to increase their odds of success?
Gabe Howard: I think most people believe that 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous are literally the only options when it comes to reaching sobriety or recovery. However, we know those programs do not work for everyone because, well, for example, they didn’t work for you. In your opinion, why do people believe that AA and NA and the 12-step programs are the only path? And what can we do about that to get them to widen their viewpoint?
Mary Beth O’Connor: Twelve steps was there first, at least in modern times. And so, they sort of had that historical, traditional advantage. They’ve also become embedded in the in the recovery communities, in rehabs, in the training. They’re larger than anyone else. So, there are more meetings. And in the media, television, in particular movies, if someone’s going for to a peer support group for a substance use disorder, it’s always AA or NA. And so, they just have that sort of advantage. And I know when I went into rehab in 1994, I thought I was going in for medical treatment and it turned out I was going to a 12-step house and they didn’t tell me that before I arrived. And so even if, you know, that’s not going to be the right fit there, you’re usually not informed that that’s the program until you get there. And it’s really hard to assert yourself when the experts in the room are telling you this is the one and only way. And that’s what they told me repeatedly and vehemently. And I had to go out and find the other options that were better for me.
Gabe Howard: One of the things that you said there is that they said this is the only way. The only way, not this is the easiest way, not this is the most popular way. Not this is our way. This is the only way. Is that a dangerous message for people if they believe that there is literally only one way to reach recovery, to reach sobriety, and to get the life that they want?
Mary Beth O’Connor: I think it’s problematic and it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous because, for example, if I would have believed them, I would have given up because it’s not a program that I could even force myself into. So, to me, to tell someone, there’s only one way when you have no idea if that’s a way that’s consistent with their philosophical beliefs or consistent with whether they want to view themselves as powerless or instead if it would be better for them to be in a self-empowerment program, you’re really taking a risk. I think what we should all be saying, however we got sober, is here’s what I did, here’s what worked for me, here’s why I found that valuable. So, I think you should consider this. But there are other options. And if you know them, name them or otherwise send them to the Internet. There was no Internet in 1994. I actually went to the library, but today the options are much easier to find.
Gabe Howard: As I’m sitting here thinking, I’m thinking, okay, well, the only reason that you could dislike a 12-step program is because of that God thing, that higher power thing. Is that the only reason that 12-step programs won’t work for people because they don’t believe in God, because they’re an atheist or an agnostic?
Mary Beth O’Connor: No, I’m on the board for LifeRing Secular Recovery and our program does not require a higher power. We’re secularized and there is no religion in meetings. However, a high percentage, a notable percentage of LifeRing members have personal, religious or spiritual beliefs, and they just aren’t comfortable with other aspects of the 12-step program. They don’t like the powerless idea. Some of them don’t want to turn their will in their life over, even if they believe in and have a spiritual or religious belief. Some people don’t like sponsors. Some people don’t like the sort of rigidity of the one size fits all approach. So, there are multiple reasons. And the other thing I’ll say is that there are 12-step members in LifeRing. Some people today do what I ended up doing, which was mixing and matching for some people 12 steps in the beginning because it’s very structured. They like that structure. They like having something very clear to do. But sometimes a year or two years later, they’re looking for new ideas or looking to incorporate other perspectives into their recovery.
Gabe Howard: As I’m listening to you speak, you’re making perfect sense. I’m like, well, that makes sense. There’s 12 steps. So, if any of those steps don’t work for you, seeking out a different path makes well, it makes sense. But I got to tell you, in every single bit of research I read on any secular program, the amount of no, no, no, it’s they hate God. It’s they don’t have God. They don’t want God. It really comes down to, frankly, I’m trying to clean it up as much as I can, but it’s it really just comes down to people believe that people who are seeking out secular recovery programs do not have a personal relationship with God. And in fact, they take this additional step of saying and those people hate God. And I really don’t know how to formulate a question, but I want to give you the opportunity to answer, well, frankly, just the Internet, because that’s what they believe.
Mary Beth O’Connor: Well, I will say this. When I went into recovery, there was a lot less discussion about options, peer support options, and also about doing what I did, which was basically mix up the programs. I actually did pull some ideas from 12 steps, which I’m happy to talk about. So today it is not uncommon for people to do what’s now called a hybrid or patchwork plan. So, I think 12 steps as a group have gotten more aware that there are options that work better for some. And I think 12 steps as a group is more open to some members also simultaneously doing other programs. There is always a core group who believes that 12-step way is the one and only way. There’s actually data that shows that all the peer support groups are basically equally effective. It was called the PAL study done by Sarah Zemore. So, 12 steps is not only not the only way, it’s not really a better way. It really should be about where is that individual comfortable? Sometimes newbies say to me, Mary Beth, how do I know what’s going to work for me? And when I say is read up on the options, read up on 12 steps, read up on LifeRing, She Recovers. I’m also on the board. Women for Sobriety, SMART. Read up on these groups. 1 or 2 of them is going to feel like that’s where my people are. That’s the philosophy that’s consistent with my belief system. That’s where I suggest you go. But if anyone thinks that we’re anti-God, it’s really not about that at all. It’s really about where am I comfortable, what philosophy is the right fit? What philosophy is going to help me as an individual have a robust recovery foundation so I have long term success?
Gabe Howard: It’s fascinating to me because we live in a society that has multiples of everything, multiple clothing stores, multiple grocery stores, multiple food places, and even within our food places. I’m going to I’m going to pick on McDonald’s for a moment. Right. We have the quick McDonald’s, the airport McDonald’s. We have the big Manhattan McDonald’s. That’s very, very fancy. We have eat-in McDonald’s. We have drive-thru only McDonald’s. So, there’s even division in that. But yet when it comes to recovery, something as serious as taking control of your life, I really think the majority of society believes, no, you do it this way or you are not invested in your own recovery. Is that dangerous thinking?
Mary Beth O’Connor: I think it is dangerous. And I will say, I do a monthly meeting for the family members of LifeRing members because I do understand that often the family and friends have never heard of anything other than 12 steps. And so, if their let’s say, their son says, I’m not going to do AA or NA, I’m going to go to this other program, and they never heard of it, they may interpret that as their son is not serious about his recovery, that he’s trying to find some other system that’s not going to have the results of 12 steps or isn’t going to be require abstinence the way 12 steps does or any of that. So, I hold a monthly meeting for friends and family where I give my story in brief because I feel that with my 28 years of secular sobriety, and let’s be honest, the fact that I’m a retired federal judge, will give them some reassurance that this is a viable program.
Gabe Howard: Now it’s important to point out that having fear that your loved one has picked the wrong program is very different than being angry that your loved one didn’t pick a program with a higher power or with a religious message. So that becomes very understandable. I can certainly see the concern. Do you get pushback in those meetings where people say, Hey, I have now listened to what you say, but the removal of a higher power, the removal of religion and the removal of God still makes me think that my loved one has picked poorly?
Mary Beth O’Connor: Well, when I let them know is that if they have a higher power belief system and they want to do family and friend support, then Al-Anon, which is the 12 step version of friends and family support, may be the right place for them. If they’re a friend and family member without a higher power requirement, they might want to look at other options. LifeRing has friends and family, Hazelden does, SMART does, other organizations. But when I really try to get them to focus on is that first of all, there’s this study that says we are equally effective. But also, what’s important is that their family member gets to choose what he or she thinks will be right for them. If the family member is going to try to force their son or daughter to do something that they don’t want to do, the odds of success are going to be lower. And we need to focus on the odds of success. And they need to watch. Is my family member going to the meetings like they said they would? Are they reading the book? And doing the workbook? Is their sobriety getting stronger and stronger over time? Look at the outcome. So don’t get invested in the how. Let them choose what they believe is right. Look at the results. That’s really what I encourage them to do.
Gabe Howard: And we’re back with Mary Beth O-Connor discussing the need for secular recovery. I could not agree with you more that having multiple options is better. As I as I’ve already said, we have multiple options of everything. And I do think that people need multiple pathways to recovery. But sticking on the criticism of secular recovery, people point out that in AA, you don’t need to have a higher power, you don’t need to have God, you don’t need to have religion because you can define higher power however you want. You can choose a plant, you can choose a doorknob, a trusted picture. You can even choose a friend. Is that a reasonable thing to say that we don’t need secular recovery because the 12-step program already makes an accommodation for secular recovery?
Mary Beth O’Connor: So, I’ll say this. Some people in 12 steps do use the approaches that you mentioned for the higher power and for some people that works for them. For others, that doesn’t make sense to them. It doesn’t seem to be a good approach. But the other part of it is that it’s not just the higher power that can cause people to want to do another program. So even if you resolve the higher power idea, people often don’t want to turn their will and their life over in the way that 12 Steps requires. And please, when I say these things about for some people, they don’t want to do this. I absolutely support the 12 steps when it’s a good fit for people. I have no concerns about 12 steps being an option for those who find it to be useful, who’s who are comfortable with the philosophy, however they make it work for them. But I always want to make sure that we’re not trying to make people, you know, twist themselves and wheel themselves into this box when there’s no need for that. There is no need for me to try to force myself into a 12-step box when there are other options that are going to be a better fit. Why would I do that?
Gabe Howard: Let’s talk about how those other options work. Most people are familiar with the 12-step program, even if they’ve never had addiction issues or alcoholism issues or known anybody with them, because as you pointed out, it’s heavily covered in the media. How does the secular recovery program and let’s speak of yours, how does LifeRing Secular Recovery differ from the 12-step programs?
Mary Beth O’Connor: So, we have what we call the 3-S philosophy, and the first S is sobriety. So, we are similar in that we are an abstinence organization. We do emphasize that abstinence includes taking medication as prescribed. So, for example, medication-assisted treatment is permissible within LifeRing. Any medication that the doctor prescribes for a medically indicated condition taken as prescribed is consistent. Twelve steps is can be squishy about that. And 12-step members can often be adamantly against it. But the official standard, I believe, is more, more forgiving or willing to have that than sometimes you see at the meetings. The second S is Secularity. So out of respect for all faiths and none, there is no religion in the meetings. But again, people often have personal, spiritual or religious beliefs and we have no concern about that. We have no opinion about that. And the third S is Self-empowerment. And what we teach is that you are not powerless. If you have a substance use disorder, you need to fight for your recovery, but also that people are unique. They walk into recovery in different places and so they have they need to develop what we call a personal recovery plan, an individual plan for that person.
Mary Beth O’Connor: So, for example, people can walk in the rooms where maybe they’ve destroyed their life professionally, but they have relationships and someone else, that’s the opposite. So, the details of the plan might be different. And the other thing we emphasize is that the plan needs to be adjusted over time. The plan that you have for your recovery on day one and at six months or a year should be different because you’ve already hopefully achieved some of your initial goals and now you’re going to add new goals and work towards new areas. Try to go further in your life in those areas. So, we really focus on the personal aspect of the recovery plan. We also, by the way, if members think that going to 12 steps simultaneously will be helpful to them, LifeRing supports that 100%. A member is encouraged to do whatever she thinks will give her the strongest recovery foundation and the best odds of success. And that does sometimes include also going to 12 steps or also going to She Recovers.
Gabe Howard: Now, you’ve talked about an individualized recovery plan and an individualized path. Can you expound on that? Because you believe very strongly that it’s all very, very individualized, yet people are in a group setting. So, I’m curious as to how those two things resolve.
Mary Beth O’Connor: So, we do have a workbook for people who want some structure to go through the different what we call domains of life. So, for example, there’s a chapter about feelings. There’s a chapter about your current exposure to drugs and alcohol, there’s a relapse prevention chapter, and it’s really an analytical tool. What it’s like checklists and worksheets and fill in the blanks. It’s a way for people to think through what’s their plan in these areas. But at a meeting, we have cross talk, which 12 steps doesn’t. That means members can talk directly to each other. Cross talk has to be positive or neutral and there’s a convener there to control it. let’s say that you’re going to a work event where alcohol is going to be served for the first time in your recovery and in a LifeRing meeting you can actually ask the group for suggestions. Has anyone here faced that situation? Do you have any suggestions? But they’re only suggestions because what worked for me might not work for you. But hearing ideas from people in the room who have experienced it can still be useful. So, the room is about supporting people’s recovery. We call it supporting the sober self, building up the sober self. But it is also an opportunity to get ideas that you then filter for what you think will work for you.
Gabe Howard: I have to confess, Mary Beth, as you’re speaking, it just sounds so much easier to follow 12 steps. You know, step one, step two, step three. It just sounds easier than finding this individualized path. But at the same time, I know that the 12 steps don’t work for folks. I can imagine that nobody shows up at any program on their best day. They’re in crisis. They’re wanting to change. But something has happened. Something has driven them there and that something is usually negative. Do you find that when people show up and they’re like, Look, just tell me what to do? And you’re like, I can’t do that. You have to create an individual recovery path that this is a barrier to recovery, a barrier to treatment. Because I think one of the things that people like about the 12-step program is, as you said, you just give yourself over, you follow the steps and recovery happens.
Mary Beth O’Connor: So definitely the structure of 12 steps is a good fit for many people and in LifeRing for the people who would like more structure. We have a basic text which explains the program and the ideas, and we have the workbook that I mentioned and people can do the workbook on their own. Or we also have meetings, workbook meetings where people can do it as part of a group. So, some people like those extra layers of structure. They’re still building their own answers, but they’re discussing it as a group. They’re doing the analysis as a group; they’re asking questions as a group. So that’s how we can meet that need to a degree. But if someone wants to be told, do this now, do that next, do that next, then we may not be the right fit for them. And that’s okay. And that’s why I mentioned that sometimes people actually do 12 steps in the beginning because of the structure, but then later they want to get new ideas and they look outside. So, I am not saying that LifeRing is right for everyone or that She Recovers is right for everyone. It isn’t. Some people will have a better fit in the other programs, and that is fine. We want every we like the number of options because that means people have more choice and they can find what’s right for them.
Gabe Howard: Mary Beth, thank you so much for being here. And thank you for answering all of my questions and thank you for letting the audience know that there are multiple pathways for recovery that can accommodate all kinds of belief systems, including no belief system. I do really, really feel that there is danger in thinking that there is only one path to recovery. Because after all, if that path doesn’t work for you, it literally leaves you hopeless. So, thank you for all that you have done to illuminate the world and congratulations on your sobriety and all of your accomplishments.
Mary Beth O’Connor: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to talk to your audience. Absolutely happy to be here.
Gabe Howard: Now, where can folks learn more about you?
Mary Beth O’Connor: So, I have a website. It’s JunkieToJudge.com. Some of my writings are there. Also my book link is there. You can order my memoir. “From Junkie to Judge: One Woman’s Triumph Over Trauma and Addiction” through Amazon and all the usual sites. I’m also on Twitter @MaryBethO_.
Gabe Howard: Thank you so much for being here.
Mary Beth O’Connor: Thank you.
Gabe Howard: You are very welcome, Mary Beth, and a big thank you to all of our listeners. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations.” I’m also an award-winning public speaker who could be available for your next event. My book is on Amazon, but you can grab a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me by heading over to gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. It is absolutely free and hey, can you do me a favor? We don’t have a giant advertising budget, but we do have is you. So please recommend the show to your friends, your family member, your colleagues. Hell, send a text. Sharing the show is how we grow. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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