Is Working The 12 Steps When You Have Bipolar Helpful?

July 30, 2013 Alexa Poe

Lately, I feel as if I've hit a roadblock in my recovery. I take my medications regularly, I go to therapy, I exercise, but I've hit a wall that I can't seem to move past (Bipolar Treatment: If I'm Doing Everything Right Why Am I Still Sick?). The other day, I received a book from a good friend of mine: Sane: Mental Illness, Addiction, and the Twelve Steps by Marya Hornbacher, and I started thinking about new things that I could incorporate in my life.

I've always known of the 12 Step concept, but I paired it with substance addiction alone. Until recently, I wasn’t aware that there were 12 Step programs for other disorders outside of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. I had stumbled across a few links online for other things such as Eating Disorders Anonymous and anonymous groups for family members of those struggling with various disorders and addictions, and there was also Emotions Anonymous, All Addicts Anonymous, Bipolar Anonymous, and even programs for those of us in debt.

Many never consider 12 Step programs for bipolar disorder recovery, but should we? Can a 12 Step program really help bipolar disorder? Read this.

Since I receive treatment outside in the community instead of at my university's counseling center, I am unable to participate in their group therapies, and so I figured that these no-cost anonymous groups may be an interesting thing to explore, to see what they’re all about, especially for people trying to cope with self-injury and other self-destructive behaviors.

Common Misconceptions About 12 Step Groups

Going in, I didn’t know much about 12 Step programs other than vague ideas, such as “admitting you’re powerless over your addiction,” or as Emotions Anonymous may say, for example, “powerless over your emotions.” I wasn’t sure that I was willing to believe that entirely, and I’m still not sure I really buy into it. In my mind, I feel as if I am somewhat in control – I am able to take a step back and examine my feelings, to tell myself that what I’m feeling is okay. However, at the same time, I do feel as if I am powerless over the emotions and thoughts sneaking into my mind. I don’t necessarily want them, but I do try my best to get up and get going when I’m depressed and feel as if I’m stuck in bed, so how can I be completely powerless over my emotions?

At some point, I felt as if I needed a little extra in between my therapy sessions, and so I decided that I would accept this first step and tweak it as I believed it to mean.

Another problem I had as I studied more and more, was this talk of a Higher Power. Many people don’t buy into this notion, but it certainly helps many people and is a huge part of 12 Step groups. I later learned that this Higher Power can be perceived as whatever you wish – any god, power, or force, and not necessarily the Christian concept of God. This is what appealed to me most -- the openness of the 12 Steps, and the ability to connect with other people going through the same things, trying to cope day to day.

12 Step Groups In A Nutshell

There are 12 Step groups for virtually every disorder and condition you can imagine, and I have found that working the 12 Steps can be highly beneficial as long as you go into it with an open mind. Read information provided online, take some literature and work your way into speaking up at a meeting. The support you can find at any given time and place is amazing.

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APA Reference
Poe, A. (2013, July 30). Is Working The 12 Steps When You Have Bipolar Helpful?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 15 from

Author: Alexa Poe

June, 18 2023 at 11:49 am

I was referred to a 12 step group by a counselor. It was a big mistake for him to send me to this group. I listened to scandalous behavior stories that I had never heard of before. My counselor died of cancer and, in honor of him, I continued to go to meetings. Eventually, not right away, I started acting out addictive myself. You can learn a lot of bad behavior from the war stories that get shared in groups by individuals who are still sick.
On a more positive note, I certainly learned to listen and empathize with others.
It's a shame my counselor and I never got to talk about his decision to direct me to 12 step groups. My advice: be careful. 12 step groups can be breeding grounds for addiction. Sad to say, but true in my experience.

March, 2 2021 at 11:39 pm

Bipolars who are suffering during the manic phase should avoid all and any group meeting until the episode has past. Most aa or na groups are responsible and follow rules and guidelines. Other support groups under the same name are very relaxed on the rules such no dating ( sleeping around, intimate partnership) with the 1st year attending the group. I’ve witnessed bi polars become swept into these group (usually at their therapist suggestion) and preyed upon by elder men in na support groups. later destroying a family, a marriage, and a long trail of regret and confusion afterwards.
Watch out for 13 steppers.

Mery summers
May, 23 2018 at 2:46 am

I have been in alcoholics anonymous for 30 years. I was diagnosed bipolar a year after. I did what was suggested went to the doctor and got medication to treat my chemical in balance. How ever I was staying clean and sober but my life was unmanageable. My sponsor suggested we try working the steps for bp people. That helped me tremendously. The first step was about me addmiting that i am bipolar and that my life was still unmanageable. The second step gave me hope. The third step is about God. Trusting him. That was a hard one for me because I had pray so hard for God to cure me or show me a better way to deal with my hypermedia .eventually I started using the steps that I knew so well. It worked for me.

June, 19 2024 at 9:47 am

I'm looking for information for my sponsee. She and I are in OA. She is not a newbie but she is struggling how to manage bipolar with a 12-step program.
Can we chat?

January, 17 2018 at 5:59 am

Its one thing to go to aa meetings, its a whole other thing to actually work the steps with a sponsor that will facilitate the proper working of the steps and wont co sign yer bull. The literature makes it clear its simply a program of rigorous honesty, with oneself. One must be WILLING to give the process an honest chance. Positive affirmations come directly from the revelations one can come to by thoroughly working the steps. Even with a legitimate chemical imbalance i find 12 step to be very beneficial to allowing the symptoms it causes to not be made worse by character defects that can be remedied by proper step work. If someone has legitimate chemical imbalances that cause severe mental illness, theres nothing in the aa or na program that says you arent supposed to take drugs as prescribed by a doctor. If one is truly honest with themselves they will know if theyre taking them for the right reasons or not. Surely there are exceptions, but we need to be careful that we dont use phrases like the latter as an excuse to cosign some bs, fear, or weakness, which is in large part what 12 step work aims at resolving. In my opinion, 12 step can only help, opinions may hinder, like thosd youll find in the rooma from thr many talking heads, but if you be patient and talk with enough people youll find thkse that understand the program and work it right and can help others do the same. The only downfall i have seen in my experience with aa, ma, cma ,ha, ca, etc 12 step prpgram, is that anyone is allowed to share, and within the fellowship itself theres a lot of people who just go to meetings and have yet ro work the steps and what they share albeit still valuable tp the prpgram as a whole, can inadvertently co sign others bull. Just depends on the meeting and the people really. I found it very helpful by being in a residential treatment that had 12 step as a requirement, 6mo program. Anyways, lots of factors here, LOTS.

August, 6 2013 at 4:53 am

The idea that everything in A.A. must be followed or else a person faces ruin was a past attitude of A.A. as a whole (if you've ever read the Big Book, it seems to make the point that you are doomed if you don't work the program).
I believe that most A.A. groups have become more modernized and realize that there are many paths to sobriety. However, there are going to be some members that prefer the "old way" of doing things.
There are secular recovery groups, in particular S.O.S (Secular Organizations for Sobriety) which doesn't use the concept of religion in their program.
As well, the concept of a Higher Power can be anything. It can be God, Jesus, Buddha, Allah, even science. Of course there will always be a fundamentally Christian basis, but it's up to those who don't ascribe to Christianity whether or not this prevents them from taking ideas from the meetings to heart.

Angela E. Gambrel
August, 5 2013 at 8:22 am

I've heard of "take what you want, leave the rest." Unfortunately, I have run across some A.A. members who insisted that the entire philosophy must be ascribed to or you are doomed. I wonder if that is A.A. take on it, or just individual members?
Please don't get me wrong; I do feel that there are many valid points in A.A. In particular, I really like the idea of making a fearless moral inventory and then making amends, except when doing so would hurt others.
I do wonder what is available for people who do not believe in God, or those of other faiths such as Judaism, since the Lord's Prayer is recited after every meeting. Do they feel uncomfortable, or do they just accept it as part of A.A.? I mean, I'm okay with it, but then, I am a Christian.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Alexa Poe
August, 5 2013 at 4:42 pm

I think that those who say that the entire philosophy must be adhered to is only the opinion of those members. From the books I've read so far, they all say to "take what you want, leave the rest," and that the Higher Power is of your own choosing.
I've been thinking the same thing about the Lord's Prayer and the Serenity Prayer. I just substitute my own personal Higher Power into the prayers and go from there, but it makes me uncomfortable some times. I'll try to get some opinions from other members soon!
Thank you so much for sharing, and I hope you're well!

July, 31 2013 at 8:30 pm

As a (very new) professional in the addictions field, as well as someone who has bipolar disorder, the Twelve Steps can be useful to some. Like you said, the structure and guidance that is provided by the Twelve Steps can provide both comfort and a healthy level of challenge to someone with a mood disorder.
It really all depends on what the individual needs, and what they feel will help them. Twelve Step groups have helped many people, but they're not right for everyone.
One philosophy within A.A. and other Twelve Step programs is "take what you want, leave the rest" This, of course, is less publicized than other philosophies. I find that in both my professional and personal life, I take what I need from different theories and methods, and leave what doesn't work for me.
It's all about making whatever it is you do work for you.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Alexa Poe
August, 1 2013 at 4:07 am

Hi there! Thank you for sharing this with us! I did not know that about "take what you want, leave the rest." Thank you for sharing that with me. That changes things a bit!
I hope you're well!
-- Alexa

Angela E. Gambrel
July, 30 2013 at 10:03 am

That word sums up why, after years of struggling with anorexia, anxiety, and alcoholism, I do not take part in A.A. or other 12-step programs. I started attending A.A. meetings in November 2011, but I never felt a real connection with the program. Don't get me wrong — I met wonderful people in A.A. I just never felt myself moving forward, and things rang false for me. I kept trying to fit into A.A., finally realizing that A.A. doesn't fit me.
Another problem I had with A.A. is the program's insistence anyone who doesn't follow the 12-Steps is doomed. There are alternatives to A.A. and 12-Step programs, and frankly, A.A.'s rate of success is not that good. I am currently focusing on meditation, walking, and taking part in a program called Women for Sobriety. WFS uses positive affirmations and seeks to re-build the addict's self-esteem, while fostering personal responsibility.
After I decide to leave A.A., I felt this weight lifted off of me. I finally realized it was not me, it was the program.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Alexa Poe
July, 30 2013 at 2:01 pm

Hi there! Thank you for sharing!
Yes, the powerlessness was my first problem. I certainly understand why so many things within the 12 Steps are difficult for a lot of people to accept, and I understand why it's not right for everyone. I'm having second thoughts about it, too, but I feel like it can also be a great tool for someone who needs that structure and outline, such as myself. I've learned that meditation does help as well. Are there are any particular methods you recommend?
Thank you, too, for telling us about WFS! I really appreciate it. I'm glad you've found a program that does work for you, and I hope you're well!
-- Alexa

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

June, 3 2020 at 5:25 pm

The point of working the 12steps going to meetings and doing service is that it’s a holistic programme to get the best from the programme and a strong recovery it’s best to do it all but that would be your choice and you learn to live the principles of the programme it is not a religious programme but as the Big Book was written with some religious background from 1935 it can be seen as a religious programme as god name is used but the word God means different things to different people eg my higher power is the universe some say Group of Drunks it’s an amazing programme if your willing and put plenty of effort in its life changing and has definitely helped me with my mood disorder along with medication 😊

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