Step Away From 13th Stepping
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Step Away From 13th Stepping


This post was originally published on June 30, 2015.

The other day after a meeting, a friend came up to me and told me that I should call a mutual friend who had just been tossed out of the house by his new girlfriend and wasn’t doing so well. “I don’t think he’s going to drink, but he’s all fucked up,” he told me.

The guy, who has double-digit sobriety, had 13th stepped the woman about eight months earlier. She was three weeks sober at the time and bipolar to boot, which, as anyone in recovery will tell you, does not usually make for a Hallmark Channel movie ending. To make matters worse, the woman was his friend’s ex and the wounds were still pretty raw for the broken-up couple when he pounced on her. It was hard for me to work up much sympathy for the guy but I still made a note to call him because he helped me a lot when I was getting sober. Later that night, I saw him with his girlfriend at a meeting—back together again—so everything was apparently cool in paradise. For now, anyway.

Three weeks earlier, I was sitting in an Al-Anon meeting listening to a guy who was new to the program complaining that the alcoholic he had been dating was “crazy” and making his life “very unmanageable”—which I later found out was code for having domestic violence charges filed against him. But I also knew who he was referring to, a woman 20 years his junior whom he had 13th stepped 10 months earlier, before she had even gotten her 90-day chip. And while I could agree that the woman was not all there, I questioned who the crazy one was, given that he was nearly eight years sober when he scooped her up.

And I get it. I know exactly what he was thinking, mostly because I too have a dick that sometimes makes decisions for me. That alcoholic woman had the perfect combination of smokin’ looks and low self-esteem that allows men in AA access to women they wouldn’t ordinarily get anywhere near if the woman had any recovery under her belt.

It’s a pretty enticing combination, even for men with alleged “good sobriety.” I have a friend who jumped on a woman who was six months clean off dope when he was seven years sober. She was stunning, he was willing and, about a month into the relationship, he was completely obsessed with her and on the phone with his sponsor every night trying to figure out why things weren’t working out the way he planned.

“You’re essentially dating a retard,” was his sponsor’s response. “And expecting a normal emotional response from someone who’s barely sober is fucking crazy. So who’s the real retard?”

Are these guys getting what they deserve? Maybe. But the larger point is this: If you’re going to 13th step someone—and you’re not one of those scumbags who eyeball the new halfway-house meat that rolls into the meetings every month to see if they can make an easy score–there’s probably going to be a price to pay for doing it. Especially if you end up getting emotionally involved and are expecting to have a drama-free relationship.

Thirteenth steppers run a gamut. There’s a difference between the reprehensible guys my friend calls “the pedophiles of AA”—the ones whose motto is “get ‘em while they’re shaking”—and those who just use really bad judgment and end up in a relationship with someone who’s got the emotional maturity of a 13-year old.

The 13th steppers I’m talking about are those with a few years under their belt who should know that hitting on newcomers is not particularly good for the newcomer—who is usually there to get sober, not laid—and that most people coming off a bender or out of rehab aren’t playing with a full deck, and probably aren’t good relationship material.

I’m not so naïve to think that every female newcomer who comes to a meeting is like a baby seal waiting to be clubbed by evil pelt hunters. Especially with the courts sending lots of people into AA who don’t want to be there. Some of the women (particularly addicts) are pretty skilled in the art of running game on willing suckers, and there’s more than a few middle-aged suburban guys who’ve had their heads handed to them by street-smart addicts.

I’m also not saying that there aren’t some decent relationships that come out of couplings of people with longer-term sobriety who hook up with newcomers, and I even know some people who are still happily married years later. But this kind of relationship is more likely to be a train wreck. As a friend of mine who married a girl he met while she was in a halfway house (and later went through a horrible divorce while she was in relapse) admitted to me, “I didn’t let her grow up, and we both paid the price.”

Have I ever 13th stepped anyone? Not technically, but you could make the case. I met a woman online who turned out to be a year sober in AA, and we dated briefly and slept together a few times, but she was still pretty damaged from multiple decades of drinking and doing drugs so I stopped seeing her.

If you want to 13th step, that’s your prerogative. Just remember there may be consequences that run a whole lot deeper than gossip.

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About Author

Johnny Plankton is the pseudonym for a freelance business and comedy writer/editor (and recovering alcoholic) who lives in Boston. He is also a grateful member of America’s largest alcohol recovery “cult” as well as Al-Anon.