Guest Post # 10: Narcissistic Abuse in 12-Step Programs

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Artwork by Danny Jock

Ceetee, who wrote this post, writes an interesting blog about the darker side of 12-step programs, called Quicksand: The Darker Side of 12-Step Programs. Be sure to click on the link and pay a visit.

Ceetee writes about a little-known problem in 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous– some members of these programs adopt a cult-like mentality and “take your inventory” for you, even though one of their slogans is “don’t take my inventory.” I have known people, including family members, who treat AA and other 12-step programs like a religion. You must follow their Commandments (the 12 steps) to the letter, and if you disagree with old-timers’ “assessments” of what your problem is, they tell you you are resisting or are on a “dry drunk.” Not all members are like this, but many of them are, and they can be cause psychological trauma to those who are new in these programs. Others have also written about the religious cult-like atmosphere often present in the meeting rooms.

Don’t get me wrong. AA and other 12-step programs have helped a great many people, and are one of the most effective (and cheapest) ways a person can get clean or sober. They have saved many lives. They also have a spiritual aspect, which adds another dimension that goes deeper than just “curing addiction.” They also tell you that once you’re addicted, you’re always addicted and should refrain from using or drinking, one day at a time. This is excellent advice and works for many people. But the dangers of these programs is that many people with addictive disorders who join them are narcissists, and use their “knowledge” or “experience” to make themselves feel superior to others. They think they know you better than you know yourself and don’t hesitate to lord it over you as if you’re nothing. You are told to “shut up and listen” because they are the “old timers” and have a right to tell you what you’re doing wrong. Since 12 step programs are run by the members themselves, there are really no safeguards against narcissistic abuse within these programs. One must proceed with caution.

Another problem with 12-step programs is that for some people, they seem to become another addiction.    I suppose that’s fine as far as if goes (going to meetings beats drinking or drugging), but too often , recovery stops there, and the member never attempts to address the roots of the problems which caused them to abuse alcohol or drugs in the first place.  From what I can tell, disorders such as NPD and BPD seem to run rampant in these programs, and people with these disorders often do become addicted to substances, in their attempt to fill the emptiness they feel inside.  Getting clean or sober is great, but it’s only treating one symptom of a deeper problem, and their disordered, grandiose, gaslighting, entitled behavior remains the same or even becomes worse.

Here, Ceetee writes of her own experience with certain narcissistic individuals in a 12-step program she joined, whose toxic “help” she had to recover from. It almost destroyed her life, but she has quite a story to tell.

NARCISSISTIC ABUSE IN 12-STEP PROGRAMS

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Nearly twenty-two years ago, I made a mistake that destroyed my life and my family. In the middle of an ongoing battle with my mother that I had no idea how to resolve, I took the approach that perhaps total strangers could be objective and would have a solution. It began with pen-pals; I’ll call the first pen-pal “Marie.” Marie offered hope for a better life; but she said what I must do is “work the Twelve Steps.” And without any drug or alcohol problems, that’s how I became involved in 12-Step programs. It didn’t even occur to me until much later that after I was immersed in ‘the programs,’ the actual problem was never addressed again.

Throughout the years, I knew many good people who participated in programs. However, I also met those who took the slogan “If you want what we’ve got–and are willing to go to any lengths to get it” to mean targeting and destroying others. And while there is plenty of information around the web describing all sorts of crimes members commit, this particular subject is rarely addressed: “rewriting your life history” to include false memories of childhood sexual abuse. I feel it is necessary to address it, as I’ve known many individuals who have had similar experiences–no memories of abuse until they were ‘worked on’ by old-timers in the Programs.

I was ‘worked on’ by three different members–each in a different location. Each had something they wanted from me, and this scam was the most destructive tactic they took to achieve it. They tried to cause me to doubt my own mind and memories; but more destructive, took the approach to other people ‘See how crazy she is–she does not even know what happened in her own life!’

I dismissed many “red flags,” because I didn’t understand what they were about. One example was (as the older generation would have called it) being “too familiar”–a total stranger would act like he/she was your dearest best friend, your confidante. Second, total strangers pushing the attitude that they know more about you and about your life than you yourself know. Third, the attitude that they and only they know ‘the truth’–everyone else and everything else is ‘wrong.’

Each began with a different approach. Individual #1 took the approach that he was an expert on everything related to drugs. Individual #2 basically rewrote the English language to suit her agenda–which is a common thing in 12-Step programs. Individual #3 claimed virtually everything about me were signs and symptoms of repressed trauma. None of these individuals were professionals in any capacity. All I could figure was they ‘read a book’ or ‘saw something on the Internet,’ as much was aligned with what memory experts said decades ago: the ability to create false memories, and to plant seeds of doubt, are almost limitless. Between the three of them, they attempted to get me to believe virtually everybody in my childhood had ‘sexually abused’ me. Individual #1–the first I actually met in person–demanded I give him all my family photographs; he tossed them in a wastebasket, set fire to them, and smugly remarked “You’ve gotta mark ’em all as Perpetrators.”

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Artwork: Chloe Cushman for The Guardian

Another red flag that bears noting: while Marie and most others focused on their programs, the present, and looking toward the future, these three were much different. Their entire focus was on “The Past” and “Abuse.” And yet another red flag: looking for any ‘crack in the armor’ that they could exploit as ‘proof’ that their assessments were correct.

Hopefully it won’t sound too ludicrous taking it all out of context, but some examples:
One, upon learning I’d had a minor medical problem as a small child that required prescription medication, assessed: “Your parents lied to you! They were drugging you so they could Abuse you!”
Noticing I’d run outside to see what the commotion was when police cars arrived at a neighbor’s house: “What is it from Your Past that caused you to Fear the police?” Individual pressed me to search my early childhood to see if I’d known any police officers that may have sexually abused me.

Upon learning I’d never gotten along with my mother, another individual dismissed the fact that it was nothing more than personality conflicts, and claimed I was an incest survivor and had post-traumatic stress disorder because of it. This individual said anything you dislike is sexual abuse, and must be called ‘rape.’

In one instance, I had a minor cold; when this did not require a visit to a doctor, this individual asked, “What is it from Your Past that’s caused you to Fear doctors?” This individual pressed me to think about the doctors I knew in my childhood, and asked if either of my parents were in the profession.

Vertigo attacks from an inner-ear infection; migraines from hypoglycemia; and my habit of watching where I’m going when barefoot so I don’t step on sharp objects were pounced on as proof that I had ‘traumas in the past that I just don’t remember.’ Also, a person does not have personal preferences, likes or dislikes, or objections to anything–they’re all proof of sexual abuse.
Similar to the tactics used when the so-called recovered memory movement was in full swing, I was pressured to consider every thought and dream as a ‘memory,’ any ache or pain to be a ‘body memory,’ etc.

The only incident that actually did occur was blown way out of proportion: when I was four years old, a neighbor of indeterminate adult age exposed himself, and then told me a ‘scare story’ so I wouldn’t tell my parents or brothers what he’d done. The incident was confusing, but it was not ‘traumatic.’ However, one of these members claimed it was a matter of “delayed stress,” that I “only had a cap on it,” and at some point without warning my mind would blow apart. Note I was told this asinine nonsense more than forty years after the incident.

The reason I was vulnerable to this nonsense: I’d never heard of this crap before. For years I knew something was fishy, but didn’t know what to make of it. My first breakthrough came when I met a 12-Step member who was pointing at nearly everyone she’d ever known and accusing them of sexually abusing her. I knew for a fact some of the people she was accusing hadn’t even been in her life when she was growing up.

The second breakthrough: I did some research, and found the ‘drug’ I was told my parents had given me wasn’t even available in the United States when I was a young child. In addition, while the member went by my description of the medication (size, shape, color), the two drugs bore no resemblance to each other.

Fortunately, these breakthroughs occurred before individual #3 intruded into my life against my objections, tried to “convince” me that I was “insane” because of my “past,” and destroyed my reputation and my life because I didn’t fall for it.

This is a widespread problem in 12-Step programs. I’ve known many people who had similar experiences–both male and female in all age groups. And while this is only the tip of the iceberg of what I went through, I’m hoping that exposing this issue can help others avoid these problems. First, if someone you don’t even know gets too familiar, too close, too intrusive, take whatever steps necessary to get that person away from you, your life, your family. Second, if you’re pressured to believe things happened that you don’t remember, keep in mind that this ‘information’ is not coming from within you, yourself, but that it is being placed there by outside sources.

Further Reading:

Narcissists Who Use 12-Step Programs to Further Their Agenda

Why isn’t there a 12-step program for narcissists?

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…and I’m not talking about this either. 😉

A commenter on this post wondered why there aren’t any 12-step programs for people with NPD, and that got me thinking — well, why aren’t there?

About a month ago, my friend Mary Pranzatelli and I were having a conversation about this very same thing on Facebook.

There’s a lot of good reasons why a 12-step program might be helpful to a narcissist. After all, narcissism and addictive disorders like alcoholism have a lot in common. This isn’t an idea I just dreamed up. Sam Vaknin also wrote about the similarities, as well as others like psychologist Tian Dayton.

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Here’s a quick list of things both narcissists and people addicted to substances have in common:

1. They are often in denial about their disorder. When a narcissist or an addict realizes they have a disorder they may want to get help. (This is actually the first step of programs like AA or NA.)
2. In some ways, both addiction and narcissism is a choice, even if it was made unconsciously (although there is likely to be a genetic component too that at least gives one a predisposition toward these disorders).
3. The narcissist’s drug of choice is narcissistic supply, which gives the narcissist an adrenalin rush. When it’s lacking or in short supply, they will crash and burn. The addict will also crash and burn without their fix.
4. Once a narcissist or an alcoholic (or drug addict), always a narcissist or an addict. You can stop drinking and using (or stop acting so narcissistic), but the underlying disorder is unlikely to ever be cured.
5. Treatments like CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) work much like the 12 steps of AA–they change behaviors but not the underlying disorder. The person must make a conscious effort to replace the old behaviors with the new ones.
6. High possibility of relapse or “slipping” back into the addictive or narcissistic behavior patterns if the program isn’t strictly followed (or even if it is).
7. An addict or narcissist without their fix (or supply) can both act in antisocial, selfish and narcissistic ways until their fix (or supply) is procured.

and finally…

8. Because narcissism (and addictive disorders) have a spiritual component, admitting that God or a Higher Power can help you is an integral part of all 12-step programs.

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True, a 12-step program wouldn’t cure narcissism (just as AA doesn’t cure alcoholism), but I think such a program could help a narcissist who is self-aware and wants to change their attitudes and the way they treat others.

So why isn’t there a 12-step program for NPD?

The 12 steps of Narcissists Anonymous

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1. We admitted we were powerless over how great we are–and making other people’s lives unmanageable.
2. We came to believe that there is no power greater than ourselves and everyone else must be restored to sanity to recognize how great we are.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of Ourselves. (We might need some narcissistic supply from you from time to time to keep ourselves propped up, however.)
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves and found nothing wrong with our morals.
5. Admitted to God (who’s God anyway? Me?), to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our superiority over others.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove any stray defects of character from us and project them onto others.

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7. Humbly asked Him to keep blessing us with more power over others.
8. Made a list of all persons we want to harm, and became willing to manipulate and torment them all.
9. Did not make direct amends to other people at any time, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly denied it, projected it, or gaslighted against someone.
11. Sought through navel-gazing and meditation on ourselves how to improve our conscious contact with Ourselves as we understood us to be, praying only for knowledge that will enable us to one day become Gods ourselves.
12. Having realized we were magnificent specimens of perfect humanity, we tried to carry this message to everyone we come into contact with, especially those who are under our thrall. We continued to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Narcissists who use 12-step programs to further their agenda

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Today I was reading a couple of new blog articles by Dr. George K. Simon, which can be found here and here. Dr. Simon has written a number of books about psychopathy, narcissism and other “character disorders” (his term for the DSM “Cluster B” personality disorders, which are in part characterized by a lack of empathy or capacity to feel remorse). The two articles I was reading focus on narcissistic/antisocial behavior and addiction.

Indeed, many disordered individuals have a concurrent alcohol or drug problem, but unlike neurotics (people with anxiety issues who have the capacity to feel shame, empathy and remorse–usually so much that they sabotage themselves), the character-disordered are not very likely to seek treatment for their addictions. This really isn’t any surprise, since Cluster B types (especially Narcissists and people with antisocial personality disorder) aren’t likely to seek any kind of psychological treatment or therapy because they’re not the ones suffering–they’re more likely to cause others to suffer. Narcissists and those with APD also think they’re superior human beings who don’t need any help. Instead, they blame their victims for being the ones with the mental or emotional problems.

But there are some character disordered people who do join 12 step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. They may be aware they have a substance abuse issue, but that’s as far as any insight into themselves goes. These are the “recovered” addicts and alcoholics who lord their recovery over others, and treat their 12-step program like a religion that allows them to believe they are superior to everyone else.

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My mother falls into this category. She’s a Narc who, back in the early 1980s, decided she was an alcoholic and became involved with AA. Speeding through the 12 steps at a pace that was most likely unrealistic for most people trying to recover, she went from being merely abusive to intolerably, infuriatingly abusive. While her drunkenness had been mostly unpleasant, at times she could almost be “fun,” or at least so out of it that she handled her abuse of me clumsily and sometimes forgot she was supposed to be abusing me and would shift into treating me as a younger woman she could party with. But after discovering AA, suddenly she became a self-righteous, judgmental, rigid you-know-what who lorded her new “religion” over me in particular. Mind you, I am not dissing AA or any other 12 step program, as they have helped many people turn their lives around and free themselves from addiction. But when narcissists find these programs, they use them to further their own agenda, and as they do with everything else, turn the steps of recovery into weapons to be used against others. Narcissists in recovery programs are as bad as the worst kind of religious zealots and treat the program as if they alone discovered it, seeming to equate themselves with Moses being hand picked by God to discover the Ten Commandments.

They also turn the various slogans associated with these 12 step programs into handy justifications for being even more self-centered, arrogant and unempathic than they already were. My Narc mother, for example, now had handy canned excuses for her horrific treatment of others. For example, if you called her out for a hurtful action or comment, she’d respond with “your feelings are your own responsibility, not mine” or “stop taking my inventory.” If she wanted to belittle you, she’d say “you’re on a dry drunk” (actually she was the one on the dry drunk) or “that’s your addiction talking.” (she thought everyone who wasn’t a teetotaler or occasionally indulged in a little pot was an alcoholic or drug addict).

The 4th step of AA is “taking a fearless moral inventory” and a later step is “making amends to those you have harmed.” While these two steps would seem like holy water is to the devil for a Narc, sending them off flailing and screaming, some narcissists can and do take these steps (others get “stuck” at step 4, and may quit the program), but if they do, they work these steps in a shallow, glib manner, usually only addressing the substance abuse itself, while glossing over any pain they caused others. This is how my mother handled these steps, and when she “made amends” to me, I didn’t feel any sincerity there at all. Her “amends” seemed as phony as an mass-mailed Christmas card from your local bail bondsman. I suppose I’m guilty of “taking her inventory” but that’s how it felt to me. She was never one to apologize for anything, ever. No narcissist is.

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Another interesting thing about Narcs who join 12 step programs is they don’t dig any deeper. Many non-narcissist alcoholics and drug addicts come to a point in recovery where they want to learn more about themselves, what makes them tick, and perhaps what led them to self-medicate in the first place. They realize that the addiction, while it very likely has a genetic component, can also be caused by psychological factors and they want to dig deeper to find out why they drank or used in the first place. A Narc will never do that, because any sort of therapy requires introspection into their own behavior and that is terrifying to them–because even they know that all they’ll see when they look into the mirror is….an endless black void of nothingness. As I’ve talked about in previous posts, for whatever reason, narcissists don’t have a true “self”–instead they wear a series of masks meant to dupe others into believing there is something there when there isn’t anything there at all.

So beware of the recovered addict or alcoholic who treats their 12-step program like a religion and uses it as a pedestal to make others feel deficient–you’re almost certainly dealing with a narcissist. And as you might expect, many narcissists are active in churches, especially those that are autocratic, evangelical or fundamentalist in nature, because it allows them an easy way to feel superior even if they haven’t achieved anything notable in life: they’re “saved” and you’re going to hell. Narcissists in 12 step programs use the program’s tenets almost exactly the same way.