Co-Occurring Disorders: Is a 12-Step Group Right For Me?

Woman by the lake considering her weight and body image

Contributor: By Rachael Clauson, MAAT, Eating Disorder Specialist, Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center

As eating disorders continue to exist in comorbidity with other disorders and symptoms, it is important to reflect on what one might need in order to cope with these different struggles. Being human doesn’t mean that our struggles and disorders exist in categories, and neither do our treatment needs or support.

With some openness and willingness to explore the 12-step program, a 12-step group may be helpful in addition to any support system already in place for an individual struggling with co-occurring disorders. Thriving disorders exist in isolation while recovery flourishes in community.

What happens when we are interested in a 12-step group with a specific title or topic, such as Anorexics and Bulimics Anonymous (ABA) or Overeaters Anonymous (OA), yet we have other support needs too, such as an Emotions Anonymous group (EA) for a mood disorder, Narcotics Anonymous (NA) or Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) for a substance abuse disorder, or any other diagnoses or symptoms we need to honor when seeking support? What do we do then?

Finding the Right 12-Step Group

The 12-step program is versatile in that each of the 12 steps can be applied to varying behaviors and/or symptoms currently existing (or that have existed) in that person’s life. In the 12-step language, “addiction” is a word referring to any behavior or personal action that has made life unmanageable and has negatively affected the functioning of an individual’s daily life and/or relationships.

The 12-Step model originated with Alcoholics Anonymous and referred to the addict as an alcoholic and addiction as an alcohol addiction. The more we have come to know and understand the depths and realities of mental illness, the more versatile and broad the word “addict,” “addiction,” and the application of the 12 steps becomes.

Woman readingIt is now acknowledged that addictions reach across all spectrums, whether it’s an addiction to a substance/object or a way of feeling (or not feeling).

This may manifest in a drug/alcohol addiction, process addiction (shopping, gambling), food addiction, eating disorder, mood disorder, and so on.

Ultimately, an addiction serves a function, usually serving as a way to cope with life.

These functions might look like any of the following combinations for an individual struggling with addiction: providing a change in mood, a false sense of relief or control, a way of avoiding conflict or distraction oneself, a way to self soothe or numb out.

With the combinations of functions, comes the combination of diagnoses and treatment needs. This is evidenced by the ongoing growth of the mental health/recovery community uniting in the 12-step meetings as more and more people are reaching out for additional support for not only one presenting disorder, but co-occurring disorders.

Relationship to Your Higher Power

To demonstrate this co-occurring presence in a 12-step group, one might begin with step one, which explores acceptance and admitting that we are powerless over our addiction and life has become unmanageable. This can look like admitting powerlessness over an eating disorder in combination with other presenting disorder symptoms.

In step 5, when one is beginning to admit to their higher power, another human being and themselves the exact nature of their addiction actions, this can look like being honest about what’s happened in the past with all behaviors and disorder symptoms, not just eating disorder behaviors.

Another component to the 12-step community that is important to consider in the co-occurring population is its openness to the varying relationships to a higher power. Each individual is invited to define a higher power that fits their needs and values, whether it is God, nature, the universe, etc.

This is especially helpful in the co-occurring community as individuals with trauma histories and/or PTSD can honor their healing needs with the openness to choose for themselves what higher power feels safe and appropriate for their recovery.

Developing a relationship with a higher power in the 12-step community gives an individual a chance to notice something larger than themselves, even if it’s something unnamed or undefined.

Woman drinking coffeeAs stated before, disorders do not exist in categories within us, but instead exist in layers and layers of our psyche and our being. If you are wondering if you are the only one out there struggling with co-occurring symptoms and disorders, you can rest assured that you are not alone.

It is through open and honest recovery communities, such as 12-step groups, that individuals have already begun sharing their co-occurring experiences and bringing their whole selves to the 12-step community. And when we bring our whole authentic selves to these communities and speak to all the truths we hold inside of us, it is where true healing happens.


Rachel Clauson Image - 2-17-16About the Author: Rachael Clauson, MAAT, is and Eating Disorder Specialist at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center. Her primary responsibilities consist of facilitating group therapy, creating individualized support plans, and providing support and awareness for resident’s continued success in recovery. She received a Bachelor of Science Degree in Drawing and Painting from Northern Michigan University. She also received her Master of Arts in Art Therapy from The School of The Art Institute of Chicago.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on May 3, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on April 30, 2017.
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