From Powerless to Empowered

By Jeremy Brainard…

I have, for lack of a better term, “mixed” feelings regarding my experience with 12-step culture and am just now coming to terms with the good that that experience did me. My foray into the 12-step world was admittedly somewhat brief, but I feel it served a purpose for a very specific time in my life, with both positive and negative effects. Once the negative outweighed the positive, I found it was best to move on with my life and pursue the things that matter most to me. After all, isn’t that what life is all about?

I was first introduced to AA after a 2.5-year heroin habit (and several years of sporadic opiate use prior). The wheels inevitably fell off of my addicted life and I checked myself into a residential 28-day rehab facility in May 2017. Immediately I hit the ground running, and found a tremendous sense of excitement at a future where drugs didn’t control my life. At the time, the 12-step fellowships looked very appealing to me, as it was the first time I had encountered any sort of holistic program aimed at recovery from addiction. I was in treatment with others who had gone down this dark, lonely path, just as I had, and I was seeing “recovering addicts” everywhere – employees of the treatment center, people coming in to bring us 12-step meetings, and even my counselor. I detected a sense of joy and unity about these people when I saw them interact. This sold me entirely on the recovery lifestyle – I wanted what they had, to borrow the phrase. I was all-in, and immediately upon leaving the facility, I moved into a “three-quarter” house for about four months, got an AA sponsor, worked the steps like a bat out of hell, and hit as many meetings as I could. I internalized the platitudes from the meetings and the grave warnings of my sponsor, and almost totally convinced myself that I was powerless and had a “spiritual malady.” I bought it all wholesale, as I desperately wanted this to work and wanted to become a success story more than anything. However, I was quietly suppressing a nagging feeling that I was shoehorning myself into something that didn’t quite make sense to me.

After that four months of abstinence, I relapsed and was thrown out of the sober house. I stayed with my then-girlfriend for a couple weeks and lamented my relapse to my sponsor on many a difficult night. I doubled down on my step work, assured by my sponsor that this is what would keep me sober, attended more meetings, and moved into another sober house. After a month of this, I relapsed yet again and was kicked out. I was beyond discouraged and feeling emotionally catatonic. This external force was supposed to keep me sober, wasn’t it? The “AA Triangle” – Service, Unity, Recovery — was supposed to keep my mind clear, and give me more motivation to continue the path of abstinent recovery

But it wasn’t working, and I felt utterly hopeless. I was assured by the sober house owner that if I went back to a treatment facility for another 28-day stay, he would save a bed for me. I was resistant to this, as I didn’t feel I needed inpatient care (I wasn’t in need of detox either,) and I was scolded by the incredulous house manager for even suggesting that I would turn down this alleged much-needed help.

Reluctantly, I went back to the treatment center. I rarely spoke to anyone for about a week, in stark contrast to my first visit, when I had been enthusiastic, outgoing, and full of life. This time around, I felt used-up, let down by the results of my earnest attempts in AA, and dead to the world. While in there, though, I gradually opened up a little more and vocalized my misgivings about the 12-step approach. I became more interested in SMART Recovery and didn’t hesitate to share my evolving views with others. Due to this, another client recommended I check out Marc’s book, “Biology of Desire”. I was very interested in this, but was still in a very foggy state of mind when I left, so I didn’t examine it upon my discharge, as I had wanted to.

I left treatment on schedule and stayed with a friend. I remember the first sip of beer I had. I felt powerful — as a forceful, spiteful reaction to others’ attempts to impose abstinence from ALL substances. This seemed completely wrong-headed, since alcohol was by no means my drug of choice. They couldn’t touch me now. I felt free.

After a few days of nurturing this spiteful attitude, I decided I could sneak a bag of heroin and no one would know. I overdosed that night after my friend went to bed, and the poor guy had to find me the next morning, near-lifeless, blue, in a pool of vomit. I had been unconscious for 7+ hours and had to be revived with Narcan. I spent the next four days in the hospital with pneumonia, reduced kidney function and nerve damage to my hand and right side, all of which I’m very fortunate to have fully recovered from.


With nowhere to live and an overwhelming sense of fear over what I might do next — because of my “disease” — I went to another treatment facility. This facility was INTENSELY 12-step-facilitated, and by this point I had a laundry list of resentments toward AA/NA. My counselor was very patient in working with me on these resentments, and eventually understood that I simply did not feel that the program was a good fit for me anymore. Fortunately for the both of us, she let go of her part of the job, where she had to be a 12-step cheerleader, and we reached mutual ground. I was able to admit to myself and to others that my recovery path was to be MY path, and that I did not have to let someone else dictate my life (sponsor, counselor, sober house manager, etc.) She helped me begin to find peace in taking ownership of my life, despite our fundamental disagreements on AA/NA.

After that treatment experience, I had no choice but to reside in yet another 12-step-based sober house. It was a nice enough place, and I knew several people in the house from my recovery journey. However, I was only attending meetings to fulfill my four-meetings-per-week minimum as required by the house. I took my time in finding a new sponsor, and only chose him because I was being eyed by the house managers. They knew I wasn’t buying into the 12-step philosophy anymore, and I made no secret of it. I was openly working on SMART Recovery worksheets (MI, CBT, and REBT tools), reading “controversial” literature by Marc Lewis, Stanton Peele, and Lance Dodes, and often sharing my interest in SMART with others in the house. The house managers urine-screened me twice because they “thought something was ‘off’”. I completed an outpatient program recommended by my previous treatment facility and trailed off a little further from the 24/7 recovery community lifestyle. Eventually I didn’t hit my required number of meetings for a couple weeks, and they kicked me out in the middle of the night.

I’ve been staying with my girlfriend for the past month and I have been to exactly one meeting since. If anything, I feel better than I had when I had been attending meetings religiously. I’m taking steps to rebuild my professional career, picking up income again, and I’m regaining a sense of control over my life. I don’t feel nearly the same urges to use as I did when I lived in recovery houses. I’m not surrounding myself with people who are actively suppressing their wishes to use — a tendency that amplified my own urges. It’s just not a component of my life right now.

Of course, the thoughts appear from time to time, but I have other things to focus my attention and habits on now. I have tools I can use, and I can question my beliefs about any given situation when I feel I’m headed for danger. I don’t need or want the constant “drug talk” in my life. The support from the fellowship was absolutely wonderful in the time I needed it, but I don’t agree with their premises, and the concerned faces and “are you okay?” questions I encounter when I see an old AA/NA acquaintance are repellent to me. When I am feeling “off”, I talk to someone — my girlfriend, a couple close-ish friends I made in the fellowships — and then go about my day. The threat just doesn’t seem to be looming over my head like it had when I was in the program.

I am under no delusion that it will all be smooth sailing from here on out. I have a history of using again during recovery, but I don’t let it define my recovery by itself. I drink socially on occasion and don’t feel the need to score heroin and crack and shoot speedballs all night. [do you mean as a result of drinking? but that’s exactly what happened when you drank booze…was it a month or two ago? And then you OD’ed. I’m sorry but this begins to feel way too over-confident.]

I am able to take ownership of my path, and it feels hugely empowering. I still deal with some of the rigid, black and white thinking that AA and NA seemed to condition in me, but that’s to be expected for a while. Deprogramming is a process, much like addiction itself, and it will continue to take time and effort. I know I have much work to do, but I am willing and able to do the work. I want a good life again, and there’s nothing in the universe that says I can’t have it.

One thought on “From Powerless to Empowered

  1. Luca Fiorilli July 15, 2020 at 12:30 pm #

    Thanks for this. Wish I could hear more from you.

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