It’s a common complaint: Somebody at a 12 Step meeting gave bad advice. Sometimes the complaint comes from family members, as in “My husband was told our marriage might not survive!” Or from an outraged therapist: “He says his sponsor advised him to stop his meds!” Or worse yet, “They told him to stop seeing me!”

Not much point in denying this happens. Not as often as some believe, but still…  It’s contributed to mistrust and even animosity towards AA and NA found in the professional community. Which is not good, because all too often, the suffering addict or alcoholic needs help from both.

We should remember that 12 Step fellowships are ‘forever nonprofessional’, and thus not subject to the same rules and codes of conduct as a physician or counselor. And they operate on a principle of mutual guidance and support. As one member put it: “We get well by helping others like us get well.”

So we can’t really ask someone in AA or NA or Alanon to keep their beliefs to themselves. That’s not how it works. There’s a constant flow of opinion, both in and outside meetings. Some of the advice a newcomer gets is terrific, far superior to what you might hear elsewhere. Some of it is frankly not very good. There’s no quality control on the process.

12 Step literature suggests that sponsors stick with advice on how to work the Steps, rather than stray into realms better left to trained professionals. It’s a good suggestion, but can it be enforced? No.

In practice, many newcomers establish ‘mentoring’ relationships with more than one person. They seek multiple opinions and then ‘triangulate’ the responses the way a businessman might consult several experts before making a business decision. It’s not a bad model, but far from perfect. As the computer geeks say, ‘garbage in, garbage out’. The trick is locate sources for good advice.

And we’ve all met people whose approach to any problem is to spend weeks or months soliciting contradictory opinions from everybody, thoroughly confusing themselves in the process. That’s actually a way to avoid making a decision.

My advice to the clinician who works with a client involved in 12 Step groups: Make it clear that it’s fine to seek advice from multiple sources. Your role is to help your client make good decisions based on the information available.

So before taking action, let’s talk things over, OK?