An Open Letter to 12-Step Members on Touch and Trauma – Jamie Marich, Ph.D., LPCC-S, LICDC-CS, REAT, RMT

I walked into a typical 12-step meeting on a Sunday morning during my tenth year of recovery. The coffee, donuts, literature and 50/50 raffle were setup in the back of the room. At the front stood the podium where the guest speaker would be sharing their experience, strength, and hope. Four long rows of folding tables and clanky metal chairs filled the room. A group of stereotypical “oldtimer” men sat at the table closest to the entrance. Most of them are kind and accept a hello and a handshake. Respecting the fact that not everyone likes to be hugged, it’s long been my protocol at meetings to extend my hand, and then if the person extends or gestures me in for a hug, I oblige. Setting this boundary keeps me safe as well.

But not on this day.

After I extended my hand to one of the oldtimers at the table, he got up from his chair and pulled me in, “Enough with the handshakes, I wanna feel me some boob.”

As he embraced me, I froze.

I wanted to chastise him in disgust for his harassing and wholly inappropriate comment. I wanted to tell him that I was there for my recovery, not to be objectified or have my body used as passing, sexualized comfort. I wanted to tell him—scream it to the whole table—that perverts like him are the reason that women don’t feel safe coming to meetings. No woman should ever be exposed to comments like these or be treated in this manner, like she might be at a bar, at a 12-step meeting.

Yet as is typical in my trauma response, I froze. As I’d been socialized to do, I decided not to make a big deal of it and I took my seat.

While I’ve written about and have spoken to problems around sexual harassment and forced intimacy in other works (most notably by 2012 book Trauma and the Twelve Steps: A Complete Guide to Recovery Enhancement), I feel it’s important to write this piece directly addressing the issue of touch in meetings. I seek to both highlight problems and offer solutions. There are realities of unhealed trauma and how it manifests in the human body and human experience that remain blind spots to many long-term members of recovery fellowships.

Many are well-intentioned, and they are also subjecting fellow program members to harm. While I cannot give a comprehensive course on trauma in a short article, I will focus on how issues around touch can be especially problematic. I conclude the piece by proposing a framework for solutions that many individuals in 12-step groups, or even entire meetings as discussed per group consciousness, can put into effect to create a more hospitable experience for the newcomer and the disenfranchised.

The Problems and Why They Matter

I am fundamentally pro-12 step and pro-12 step meetings, although I’ve long recognized certain meetings as so toxic, I wouldn’t want my clients attending them and I usually steer clear of them myself. Because 12-step meetings run autonomously of one another, some can be quite healthy from a trauma-informed perspective and others have the potential to do more harm than good.

Specific to issues around touch, in addition to the obvious example I spelled out in the opening piece (sexualized touch crossing a stated boundary), other problems exist within meetings. Some members are indoctrinated to say things like, “We hug around here,” when someone goes to offer a handshake (public shaming for not following the norm). In certain meetings people can be labeled as rude, standoffish, or “not working a good program” if they don’t go around and shake everyone’s hand before a meeting.

Another major problem existing in meetings is the tendency in some members to automatically offer physical touch, like a pat or rub on the back, when someone cries. While many folks do this with good intention, receiving this touch can feel like invasive, forced intimacy. Some members with more predatory intentions have been known to downright exploit individuals by offering their brand of comfort in these moments, when they may just want to cop a feel.

For survivors of trauma who are still working on their issues, any unwanted touch can feel claustrophobic, intrusive, or stifling. The limbic, or middle, part of the brain can still be in some degree of panic and the reptilian brain (the brainstem) may be operating in some form of shut down or freeze. It can take a great deal of time and patiently administered, holistic care for these brains most affected by trauma to heal and to recalibrate. During the healing process, or when a person is actively experiencing symptoms connected to trauma, anything that feels like the original wounding (i.e., a trigger) can make the brain feel uncomfortable all over again. So even if you are at a meeting where you generally feel safe and another person hugs you in a way that feels invasive (even if their intentions are pure), the panic button may ignite and you could experience any combination of fight, flight, or freeze responses.

Compounding this basic reality about trauma and the brain are some of the sexual boundary dynamics and implications already presented. Moreover, the public shaming people can receive for not “following the program” (by people with narrow interpretations of what that means) may reactivate old messages like, “I’m defective” or “I don’t belong.” For many trauma survivors, electing not to hug or to shake hands at meetings is a valid choice made to keep themselves safe enough at a meeting to be able to stay and get something out of attending. It’s unfortunate that the exchange for taking this precaution may be public ridicule and shame, perhaps decreasing the chances that a vulnerable person will return.

Putting Solutions into Action

The number one criticism I receive from meeting goers when I share these ideas is a common belief that hugs and handshakes are healing. I often hear, “I was uncomfortable with them once too, and I got over it.” Some folks boldly declare, “Touch is healing,” which is fundamentally problematic because it tells others what they should be feeling—such behavior prohibits full healing from trauma. If adapting to touch and hugs worked for you in your 12-step journey, I’m glad. Please consider that for every person who sticks around 12-step meetings there are scores more who need recovery and don’t receive it. If senior members of fellowships are truly passionate about carrying the message of recovery, we must be willing to examine why people don’t come back (HINT: Feeling retraumatized at meetings is a major reason). We must abandon thinking patterns like, “This is the way we’ve always done it.”

The way we’ve always done it isn’t good enough anymore.

Furthermore, we’ve learned so much more about trauma, it’s impact on people, and how to heal it then anyone knew in 1935.

Reading this article and considering even one of the points within it is a solid step in the direction of solution. If you find yourself scratching your head at all this trauma stuff and it feels like an excuse to you, keep educating yourself about it; you are welcome to start at my complimentary resources website on trauma. I encourage a spirit of investigation prior to contempt as it relates to learning about trauma, just as the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous encourages this approach when educating oneself on alcoholism.

Lastly and most importantly, members of 12-step fellowships can and must foster a culture of accountability. Within groups, we must call each other out with love if we observe members engaging in behaviors that create a less than safe and welcoming environment for people. I would have felt affirmed and more encouraged in my recovery if the other men at that table on that fateful morning when I was asked for boob would have spoken up.

We will change when we speak up and discontinue protecting negligent behavior, especially under the guise of “don’t take anyone else’s inventory.” Fear of not being believed is a huge reason that trauma survivors don’t report offenses to law enforcement or in other arenas, like workplaces where boundaries are often crossed. Spaces that promote recovery and healing simply must do better, even if this means discussing these issues as part of group consciousness meetings or write a boundary/touch guideline into the meetings’ opening statement.

Put a plan into action for making every meeting a place where the vulnerable can feel safer than they do in a bar, out in the streets, or in a dysfunctional family of origin. The saying goes that don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel are the three unwritten rules of the alcoholic home. These rules are a breeding ground for trauma not to receive its proper healing. Hopefully our respective meetings will no longer enforce these same rules.

Jamie Marich

About Jamie Marich

Jamie Marich, Ph.D., LPCC-S, LICDC-CS, REAT, RMT travels internationally speaking on topics related to EMDR therapy, trauma, addiction, expressive arts and mindfulness while maintaining a private practice in her home base of Warren, OH. She is the developer of the Dancing Mindfulness practice and delivered a TEDx talk on trauma in 2015. Jamie is the author of EMDR Made Simple: 4 Approaches for Using EMDR with Every Client (2011), Trauma and the Twelve Steps: A Complete Guide for Recovery Enhancement (2012), Trauma Made Simple: Competencies in Assessment, Treatment, and Working with Survivors, Dancing Mindfulness: A Creative Path to Healing and Transformation (2015). Her latest book (in collaboration with Dr. Stephen Dansiger) is EMDR Therapy and Mindfulness for Trauma Focused Care (Springer Publishing Company, November 2017).
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