Is a 12-Step Program Right for You?

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Twelve-step programs have helped thousands of addicts get clean and stay sober, but will these mutual self-help groups work for you? The answer is a deeply personal one, based on your ideas about addiction, spirituality and recovery. In order for any approach to rehab to work effectively, it must resonate with your own beliefs and values.

Principles Behind the 12 Steps

All programs founded on the 12-step principles, from Narcotics Anonymous and Cocaine Anonymous to Gambler’s Anonymous and Sex Addicts Anonymous, have their roots in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). AA got its start in the 1930s, and the principles developed by its founders have evolved into the steps that participants follow today in their search for recovery. These steps revolve around a few core principles:

  • That alcoholism/addiction is both a physical and a spiritual disease that requires surrendering control over the addiction to a higher power of your own choosing;
  • That sharing experiences of addiction, hope for the future, and inner strength helps all who participate in group meetings;
  • That working through the 12 steps with a sponsor (a seasoned member who has completed the steps) can help you overcome the disease of addiction;
  • That the recovering addict should help other suffering addicts get sober in order to maintain his or her own sobriety.

How Effective Is the 12-Step Philosophy?

Opinions and statistics on the effectiveness of AA and other 12-step programs vary widely. According to the journal Substance Use and Misuse, the rate of abstinence and continued participation among 12-step group members may be higher than the rate of abstinence among addicts who participate in a cognitive behavioral program. Unlike AA, which promotes the belief that the addict has no control over his or her addiction, cognitive behavioral therapy takes the approach that addiction is a learned behavior that can be unlearned by modifying destructive thought patterns and behaviors.

A review of clinical studies on the effectiveness of AA published in the Journal of Addictive Diseases revealed that abstinence among alcoholics who attend AA after rehab is about twice as high as the rate of abstinence among those who don’t go to AA, and that participating in AA for longer periods of time resulted in longer periods of abstinence. However, the authors of the review point out that the clinical evidence still doesn’t prove that there’s a strong causal connection between attending AA and staying sober.

In the end, statistics on the effectiveness of the 12-step approach may be less important than your personal response to the AA philosophy as expressed in its meetings, in its 12 steps and 12 traditions, and in its defining text, the Big Book.

Weighing the Pros and Cons

Recovery is a personal journey, and your beliefs about the source of your problem and the right solution to your addiction may not be the same as anyone else’s. Programs like AA, NA and CA have many benefits, including the following:

  • The program provides a strong support system based on attracting new members through example rather than promotion.
  • Membership costs nothing. Small donations are collected at meetings to cover administrative costs, and 12-step literature is sold at meetings or clubs for a reasonable fee.
  • Meetings are available in most communities throughout the US and around the globe. If there’s no local meeting where you live, telephone support, 12-step chat groups and online meetings are available 24 hours a day.
  • The 12-step approach to recovery encourages spiritual and emotional rehabilitation as well as physical abstinence from addictive substances.

The principles set forth in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous aren’t for everyone. Some alcoholics are unwilling to accept the disease philosophy of addiction, which states that the addict has no control over the disorder. Others are uncomfortable with the spiritual dimension of AA and prefer a secular approach. To determine whether a 12-step program is right for you, try attending one or more meetings and reviewing the literature. Meetings are open to any addict or alcoholic who has a desire to stop using or drinking.