Why Women-Only 12-Step Programs Work Better for Some

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As the meeting broke up, Lindsey approached the newcomer, Kara, to encourage her to come back for the next one. She noticed Kara hadn’t spoken during the entire meeting or shared during the discussion. While this was common for newbies, Lindsey wanted to offer some reassurance to Kara.

The response Lindsey received wasn’t what she expected. “I couldn’t focus on anything that was said. All I could think about was how much that guy over there – Frank – reminds me of my ex,” Kara explained.

“Jerry used to…let’s just say he wasn’t good for me. I went to a different group last week, but switched to this one because a man there looked just like my father – and Dad wasn’t any better than Jerry.”

Lindsey’s response changed Kara’s entire outlook on recovery. “Have you thought about finding a women-only group?”

“You mean they have those?!?” Kara felt relief wash over her mind and new hope entered her heart.

Scared by Scars

Kara isn’t alone in her 12-step struggles. Many women trace some part of their addiction struggle to a history of sexual or emotional abuse. Even if the men at the meeting don’t remind them of the men who abused her, it can still be a very uncomfortable situation.

One goal of support groups is to provide a “safe, anonymous place to share feelings, fears and experiences to get over the shame and embarrassment of addiction.” If a woman’s been scarred by men, is a group full of men truly a place that feels safe? If part of her shame is due to being a victim, will she ever feel comfortable sharing anything with a room full of (what she sees as) potential victimizers?

“Men are the reason for some addictions,” says Shelly. “Some women start doing drugs to forget a rape or other abuse. If that’s their story, they’re going to be better off surrounded by women.”

In these cases, women-only 12-step programs are a great source of support. This type of group therapy provides the environment women need to be able to move forward in recovery.

Meetings – Not Mixers

Past abuse isn’t the only factor that can make women-only groups appealing…

“Who needs online dating, when there’s AA?” thought Stacey. She’s been to a dozen different 12-step meetings in the area and they all turned out the same. Even when she showed up in stained sweats with no makeup and messy hair, at least two men asked for her number by the end of the meeting.

On one hand, she has to admit she likes the attention. On the other, she knows she’s weak, vulnerable and could easily get sucked into another unhealthy relationship. Is it inevitable to be the focus of lonely or predatory men? Is there a way to escape this?

Stacey’s experiencing what’s known as “the 13th step” – when someone makes sexual advances toward someone new to recovery. Obviously, if it happens often enough to have earned a nickname, it’s a pretty common occurrence.

Thirteenth steppers prey on “newbies” for their own personal gain. This added complication can cause many women to stumble. They’re never truly able to focus on their sobriety. Their support group is supposed to “provide social connections, which have been proven to help people resist the urge to abuse substances.” But if these “connections” are full of sexual tension and constant harassment or solicitation, this hardly seems to help strengthen recovery.

All too often, the relationships born out of these advances encourage further use, rather than support sobriety. Unfortunately, just because a guy is at a meeting, doesn’t mean he’s really working the steps.

“My boyfriend was the one who introduced me to drugs in the first place,” admits Shelly. “It was what we did together.” When the next guy who comes along has a history of substance abuse and expects the same “quality time” together, it could be easy to slip back into old patterns.

Women-only 12-step programs help those in recovery avoid these 13th step scenarios. This environment removes dating pressures and the threat of potential predators. Free from these entanglements, women can focus solely on their recovery…which is what it’s supposed to be about in the first place.

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