• Zach Spafford

The 12 steps are probably not working for you.

I started attending 12 step meetings in 2007. I went to meetings with guys who had done some really horrible things and were ordered to be there by judges presiding over their cases.


I felt really pedestrian.



I also went to meetings sanctioned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which I am a member.


Those Church sanctioned meetings were full of guys that were pretty similar to me. No one had committed a crime (I don't think) in pursuit of their sexual desires, but none of them seemed able to overcome their pornography use either.


So every week for a number of years I would sit in the meetings, I would say, “My name is Zach, I’m a porn addict, it has been x number of days since my last relapse.”


If you have ever been to these meetings, the people are earnest, the topic is serious, and the goal is the same for everyone.


12 step programs are the most recognized and ubiquitous type of sobriety focused recovery systems in the country. Judges assign people to attend them. Families swear by them.


I found a list here of 32 programs in addition to Alcohol Anonymous. Five of these had the word sex in them.


So why, according to Lance Dodes, MD and the Sober Truth, do these meetings only have a 5% success rate?


Now, granted, the Sober Truth is targeted specifically to Alcoholics Anonymous, but the “12 Step Program” has been taken and morphed to work with narcotics, pornography and food addictions. I don’t have data for those programs, but I think it is safe to say that the data is likely to be similar for similarly structured programs.


For me, I worked the 12 steps as best I could, in concert with my bishop and stake president, and had regular meetings with a counselor. All of the world was pulling for me and I was pulling in the direction I was told I should go.


Once I had been going to meetings for a few years, I thought, I should be able to go longer than I am. I should have more sobriety. I shouldn’t be relapsing like this.


I felt completely alone.


The truth was, that even though I, like hundreds of thousands, even millions of people before me, had gone through the steps, worked each of them to the best of my ability, apologized, asked for forgiveness, shared the program, done it all, I was still doing what addicts call white knuckling it.


I was still living in a place where I was not succeeding to my definition of success. Maybe I wasn’t using as much as I once had, but each time the urge came, I was still bearing through it with all the pain that comes from having a kidney stone. I was always just on the verge of going back.


Back to pornography, back to lying to my wife, back to hiding from my church leaders, back to buffering my life away with my drug of choice so I didn’t have to deal with my feelings.


Some of you might be saying in your minds, “oh, then you did it wrong” or “then you really weren’t sober” or some other version of blaming me for not getting it right because I wasn’t doing it right so I have no right to complain. That’s not an atypical response from those dealing with addiction and advocates of the 12 step program.


In fact, Dr Dodes talks about this in the Sober Truth. He quotes AA’s Big Book saying, “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program…”


Dr. Dodes concluded, as anyone might, that “the program doesn’t fail; you fail.” Emphasis his.


So how could anyone who has gone through a 12 step program ever step forward and say, “um, sorry guys, this just isn’t helping me”?


The good news here is that failure is pretty normal when it comes to 12 step programs.


Really, you have as much chance of succeeding with a 12 step program as you do spontaneously quitting your addictive behavior.


You are not alone.



It took me some time to step back and start figuring it out.


In fact, step back is exactly what I did.


I stopped going to meetings.


I took that time that I was using to go to meetings to step back and observe my behavior. I began observing my thoughts. I began observing my urges. I began looking at my mind the same way I looked at any difficulty that I had dealt with successfully before now.


I observed, hypothesized and created strategies that I tested, failed with, revamped, and tested again.


I got into my own head and started to see how it was working. That‘s what coaches help you do. They help you see how you are working so you can make minor adjustments to improve your performance.


I was self coaching, long before I even knew what a life coach was.


Now, instead of white knuckling through every temptation, every urge, every bikini at the beach, I had learned something completely different.


I had learned how to be completely unaffected by the pathways in my brain that used to light up like Christmas every time I was triggered for the next hit.


By recognizing my feelings, seeing the urges and letting them all just pass by without action I no longer felt compelled by what would have driven me to seek out pornography.


I no longer had the desire.


I had gone through the formal repentance process as outlined in the Church’s 12 step program and now I had changed my mind through changing my thoughts about who I was and who I wanted to be. The result was extraordinary to me.


Years later, my wife began listening to a podcast called Better than Happy, created by my friend Jody Moore.


As she would listen she would hear Jody teach something and come to me and say, “You know how you used to say x when you were working on your porn problem? Jody just taught that on the podcast.”


I was surprised. I thought I was the only one and I thought I had just “figured it out”.


It turns out, Jody was teaching the principles that I knew worked with a vocabulary I had never known existed.


You see, coaching through the model outlined by Brooke Castillo was a perfect match for what I had been doing for years in order to kick pornography out of my head.


I had stopped saying and thinking things like, “Hi, my name is Zach and I’m a porn addict.”


I had stopped saying and thinking, “I can’t overcome this.”


I had stopped saying and thinking, “I am powerless against my addiction.”


I had started choosing to believe that I was not an addict. My brain looked for proof and proved me right.


I started choosing to know that I was going to overcome my pornography use. My brain looked for proof and began acting accordingly.


I started choosing to understand and take back my agency to choose to no longer engage in addictive buffering. My brain liked what I was asking it to do and helped me move in the direction that made both of us feel better.


The atonement, or the healing power of Jesus Christ, became real in my life when I stopped telling myself that I was broken beyond fixing.


It came when I chose to take a step into the darkness, believing that there was solid ground before I knew it was there.


As Jody put it this last week in one of her emails, “Faith is tolerating the not knowing of something because it can’t be proven and deciding to put your trust in it anyway.”


I couldn’t prove that I was ever going to stop using pornography, but I trusted that there was a way forward.


The 12 steps work for some people. The program the Church put together is a masterfully built discussion on the gospel principles of faith, hope, repentance, and the atonement.


What it lacks is a detailed, individualized look inside your own mind at the urges you have and the key strategies and tactics you need to actually kick the habit.


You can be honest without being able to let an urge pass without acting on it.


You can have hope without the willingness or ability to move into the darkness.


You can trust in God and make an inventory without understanding how to see that your thoughts might be keeping you going down the same paths you’ve always gone down to the same disappointing results.


I can help you with that. I’ve walked the path and I know the way back.


The 12 steps are probably not working for you, that’s not your fault. It’s a blind trust that society has placed in a program that has no reason to claim it.


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