Co-occurring Disorders and 12 Step Meetings

One of the prevalent challenges for many of those who are recovering from addictions and co-occurring disorders is attendance in 12-step meetings or self-help groups. The formats of most meetings are not going to accommodate those who are diagnosed with an addiction and a co-occurring disorder. Few of those who do not have these diagnoses are going to understand the nature of the battle being fought by those who do have them. Finding a sponsor and a peer group that is comfortable with and familiar with the path that is necessary for someone with a co-occurring disorder to walk can be tough.

Understanding Both Disorders

Becoming a member in a 12-step community requires self-disclosure in the group, at least to the extent that the members identify as recovering alcoholics, addicts, or whatever addiction the group is meeting to recover from. This can be the first of many challenges for newly recovering addicts, because many feel compelled to share their diagnosis, which is not pertinent to the nature of the group, nor is it really appropriate at the group level. Unless they are in a meeting of therapists and psychiatrists, there will be few present who truly understand what their diagnosis even means. Add to that the strict adherence to 12-step traditions of not discussing issues other than those that are pertinent to the 12-steps of recovery and how those apply to ones’ life. When sharing with others about mental illness, this is the wrong forum. However, many newly recovering addicts do not understand the nature of the meetings and what types of disclosures are appropriate or inappropriate. It is hoped that treatment professionals, therapists and psychiatrists referring their clients to 12-step meetings will give them a heads-up about this type of information.

What Do You Share?

Sadly, too few of those referring to the meetings are familiar with the guidelines for what is and is not appropriate to share. What happens then is that the newcomer is inundated with unwanted and uneducated responses to what they have shared with the group. Not that this is appropriate, either, but it happens. Many newcomers leave a 12-step meeting torn because they are told by other members of long-standing time in recovery not to take anything, no matter what. This is good advice if they are still participating in recreational drug use, but not when it comes to their medications for their diagnosed co-occurring disorder. The best thing for professionals to understand is where they are sending this person so that their exposure to 12-step recovery is untainted by mixed messages of what recovery is and is not.

Staying Focused on Addiction Recovery

There will be a great deal of controversial information heard and shared either in the meetings or by members before and after the meetings. What is important for those with co-occurring disorders to remember is that they are in the 12-step meeting to work through their addiction issues only. They can hopefully find a sponsor who is savvy in the recovery they are working on with their additional issues and share everything with that person. If they are lucky enough to make a few close friends that they feel comfortable with, they will be able to process with these members as well. But it is important that they know not to share with the general population of a 12-step group issues other than those regarding their addiction. The onslaught of unwarranted advice can be terrifying to someone who is newly recovering and trying to sort out the pieces of their new life. The meetings are supposed to support their addiction recovery, not make it more confusing and difficult.


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