Learn / Is 12-Step Recovery Right For You?
You’ve probably heard of the 12 Steps, but what exactly does this approach to recovery entail? The 12 Steps provide a guideline to recovery itself, and the programs supplement treatment. Attending meetings provides you with social support and the means to maintain sobriety after rehab. Many people enjoy these aspects of this approach, and choose to attend 12-Step meetings in rehab and after returning home.
But while popular, 12-Step rehab isn’t for everyone. For one, the 12 Steps are rooted in Christianity, which may not resonate with people of different religious backgrounds or frameworks for understanding the world. And while these groups provide important social support, they’re not the only way to find community. But many people enjoy the spirituality component, as well as the robust social structure these groups provide.
Let’s take a closer look at what 12-Step recovery entails, and what other options exist, as you determine what approach sits best with you.
In 12-Step programs, people follow 12 designated steps to recovery. Members gather regularly as a group to review the Steps, share their stories, and get support for their challenges. These 12-Step meetings1 can be in person (called face-to-face, or F2F), online, or via phone, all around the world. Meetings might take place in a number of places: office buildings, churches, rehab centers—even parks or beaches.
After you finish rehab, you can continue attending meetings with 12-Step groups. Most cities have some kind of 12-Step program. And, they’re offered for conditions ranging from narcotic addiction2 to codependency.3 Membership is open to anyone—the only requirement is a desire to change.
Many people attribute their recovery success to their involvement with the Steps. For one woman, attending Crystal Meth Anonymous (C.M.A.) meetings was crucial to her sobriety:4
“Continuous sobriety proved elusive until I started working the Steps…I have stayed clean and sober for over 12 years. I’m living a life beyond my wildest dreams…Today I’m choosing not to endanger my success, so I will continue to go to meetings, be honest with myself, and work the Steps.”
In fact, numerous studies reveal that involvement in A.A. increases the likelihood that people will stay sober.5 Members take comfort in the structure and social support the community provides, which could contribute to higher rates of abstinence.
Most 12-Step programs follow a similar format. For example, A.A. meetings often open with a “chair” (an A.A. member who leads the meeting) reciting the A.A. Preamble (a short passage about A.A.’s mission).6 They might follow the passage with a moment of silence or a prayer. Newcomers can introduce themselves, which is encouraged but not required. Then, members might read from “The Big Book,”7 which outlines a template for recovery. Depending on the meeting, members might discuss a chosen topic, speak about their journeys, or review a Step. After meetings, people might mingle, meet newcomers and others, and exchange contact information. This format is similar to other 12-Step programs.
And according to Alcoholics Anonymous, the purpose of all A.A. meetings9 is for people to “share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover.” This is the foundation for the 12 Steps.
The idea is that working through these steps will help you heal. But there aren’t necessarily any rules about how you approach them—you can follow them in order, or not. You can come back to different steps whenever you need to—whichever feels most relevant to what you’re going through. And while many of the steps reference “God,” you’re welcome to replace that with a higher power of your own choosing.
While the 12 Steps refer to a higher power—in this case, God—and have roots in Christianity, you don’t have to be Christian to attend meetings. In fact, you don’t need to have any religious background. It is helpful to be open to some degree of spirituality, especially since the goal of the 12th Step is to have a spiritual awakening. The program encourages members to develop a spiritual practice and to incorporate activities like meditation and prayer into their lives.
One woman who attended C.M.A. meetings11 said she found the steps helpful even though she doesn’t believe in God. And while she struggled to come to terms with her spirituality, she eventually settled on beliefs she feels comfortable with. “My spirituality has evolved over the years, wandering from militant atheist to irreligious pantheist and back. This has been my biggest stumbling block with the Steps,” she said. However, once she realized that Step 1 required her to be honest with herself, everything clicked.
“My higher power is the real world.”
She continued, “I have faith that the real world is full of wonder, beauty, and successes.”
While spirituality is an important part of the 12 Steps for many people, the social factor is just as important—if not more.
People receive almost instant social support from 12-Step groups. You’ll be in a room full of people that have similar experiences and goals—and that makes it much easier to feel connected. And meeting other sober people is an essential part of the recovery process. People in A.A. find hope in being around others on the same journey.10 “The people I met thought like me,” said one member. “For the first time in my life, I felt like I wasn’t so crazy.”
Another member reflects: “I remember sitting in the A.A. meeting, and thinking, I’ve finally found a place where I belong.”
Research shows that people who have a good social support system are more likely to stay in addiction treatment longer,12 and less likely to relapse after rehab. Whether that’s friends, family, or friends you make at meetings, it’s important to surround yourself with those who support your journey.
Cutting ties with people who cue you to do things you’re working hard not to is a painful part of the recovery process. But the upside is that it creates more room in your life for relationships that support your well-being and growth. 12-Step groups make it easy to meet people with common goals, and even facilitate deeper connections by encouraging people to find sponsors. Sponsorship can have a profound impact on your success in sobriety—especially as a newcomer.
Most 12-Step organizations connect people with a sponsor.13 A sponsor is a more senior member who supports your recovery journey. They’re available to talk to outside of meetings and can be a real lifeline in times of need. Sponsors also benefit from this relationship. Sharing what they’ve learned provides an opportunity to give back to the A.A. community, while reinforcing their own choice to live a sober life. It’s often helpful to find a sponsor with a similar background or experience, who can relate to you. They can share advice, hold space for what you’re going through, and be a place to turn to when you come up against an inevitable challenge.
One Crystal Meth Anonymous (C.M.A.) member describes how he owes much of his recovery to his sponsor.14 “I often think about how simple this tool is,” he says. “It helped me stay clean and sober that first year, especially in the face of so many challenges and temptations.” For example, soon after getting sober, he received a text from someone inviting him to do drugs again. He immediately thought of his sponsor, and how disappointed he’d be if he accepted. So instead of replying, he blocked the number.
“Everyone thinks their sponsor is the best, but I really believed it,” he said.
“My sponsor demonstrated brotherly love, invested many, many hours, and instilled in me an unshakeable faith that gave me the strength and commitment to rebuild my life. For that, I am forever grateful.”
If you still feel unsure whether or not 12-Step treatment is right for you, asking rehab admissions staff the following questions is a good place to start.
The more you know, the better. This will help prepare you for both rehab and your new life afterwards. But if you make the decision that the 12-Step approach isn’t for you, there are plenty of other options.
Non-12-Step programs are exactly that—any approach that doesn’t follow the 12-Step methodology. This can be anything from experiential to holistic to evidence-based treatment, and so much more. How you choose to go about recovery is entirely up to you.
While non-12-Step approaches can fall into many different categories, some are more commonly seen in treatment:
Non-12 Step programs are usually secular, meaning they don’t follow any particular religious guidelines. However, you can also attend rehab facilities that don’t follow a 12-Step approach but still have a spiritual emphasis. These may cater to specific faiths or be non-religious.
Note that while these are just some treatment approaches available outside of 12-Step, many more exist. Exploring rehabs by treatment approach can be a great way to learn more.
12-Step programs are renowned for their fellowship aspect, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find sober community without one! While you’ll form relationships in rehab, it’s important to have a plan in place for securing a support network beyond it.
And not all support groups for people in recovery follow the 12 steps. Some organizations don’t follow a spiritual model at all, like SMART Recovery15 and LifeRing.16 Similar to 12-Step programs, these groups have meetings in person or online, all over the globe.
Finding ways to have fun without substances is an important part of staying sober. Abstinence without meaning and joy isn’t very motivating! Boredom and loneliness are common in early recovery—and are also known relapse triggers. Getting involved in new hobbies, meet-up groups, and activities can be a great way to avoid feeling idle and make new friends in the process. These can range from picking up an old sport to learning a new skill. Look for adult classes, meet-ups, and community events in your city. Your rehab may even offer to help with this as part of your relapse prevention and aftercare plan.
The 12-Step method may just be what works best for you. Or it may not be your thing, and that’s completely fine. It’s also possible (and common) to combine recovery approaches. For example, you might choose to enroll at a non-12-Step rehab, then attend 12-Step groups to maintain your sobriety after treatment. There are multiple paths to recovery, and facilities that can offer exactly what you’re looking for.
With any approach you choose, remember to be patient with yourself. Healing isn’t always straightforward. You might hit bumps in the road here and there, but it’s important to keep going. Remind yourself why you started your recovery journey, and reach out for help when you need it.
Reviewed by Rajnandini Rathod
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