The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are incredibly well-known and their reach extends far beyond addiction recovery circles. Even if you know nothing about substance abuse or the pursuit of sobriety, you’re very likely aware of AA and its prolific dozen rules. The mention of a thirteenth step then can be a bit baffling. It is not, as you might initially think, a secret bonus instruction or an unspoken rule among members. In this article, we’ll highlight precisely what the infamous 13th step is, why it’s harmful, and how to avoid it.
What Is The 13th Step?
The twelfth and final step of AA encourages members to help others and contribute towards the organization as others did for them. Unfortunately, some unscrupulous individuals use this as a guise to engage in predatory behavior.
The 13th Step of AA is an unofficial term referring to longer-standing members attempting some sort of romantic involvement with 12 Step newcomers (newcomers are considered those who’ve been sober for less than a year). Under the guise of offering help as a well-established member, these bad eggs known pejoratively as ‘13th-steppers’ take advantage of the vulnerability of those new-to-recovery and treat them as a dating pool.
Having experienced the lows of addiction and addiction recovery themselves, the “old-timers” are perfectly aware that the newbies are likely feeling extremely vulnerable when they first come through AA’s doors. They likely have low self-esteem, a limited support network, and have difficulty setting boundaries. The 13th-steppers may offer to be your sponsor, manipulatively offering words of comfort and a sympathetic ear to individuals often starved for positive social interaction.
Why Romance & Recovery Don’t Mix (At least, not at first)
While it’s nothing new for people in positions of authority to abuse a power dynamic, it’s particularly insidious when it involves those who are new to recovery. Yes, the exploitation itself is obviously problematic but romantic relationships can be highly detrimental to the recovery process. In fact, A.A. strongly discourages members from pursuing these relationships (especially with one another).
Distracting & Time Consuming
The first year of recovery–when one is considered a newcomer–is easily the most important. It’s a time for individuals to focus on themselves and instill better habits and ways of thinking. It is this intense period of re-connecting with oneself that sets the stage for lasting sobriety. Relationships very quickly get in the way of that.
They require time and energy–energy that, for a newcomer, would be much better spent on self-improvement. Dating too early in recovery is a major distraction that brings healing to halt. In the case of a 13th stepper, this relationship is one built on manipulation and will bring few, if any, real benefits to the newcomer.
Dealing With Fallout
The other risk of getting invested in a relationship is the very likely possibility of it ending (and badly). Since 13th steppers typically engage in their twisted behavior for non-authentic reasons, the majority of these predatory relationships are rarely long-term. To a vulnerable person, this breakup could be devastating. At best, the newcomer might no longer feel comfortable attending those particular meetings. At worst, the emotional stress could be enough to trigger a relapse or cause them to abandon recovery entirely.
No Organization Is Perfect
As an organization with no real ruling body, each group has nearly full autonomy to develop their own customs and cultures. Some can lose their way (as is alleged of this Washington-based AA chapter). However, these ill-intentioned individuals don’t make up the majority of Alcoholics Anonymous members.
Trust your instincts when it comes to finding a 12 step group that feels right. You may need to attend several groups before you do (and it’s totally normal!). No matter what, certainly don’t return to group meetings where you don’t feel comfortable, because of 13th steppers or otherwise.