Many people who are not living in recovery have asked me: “Do addiction support groups really work to overcome alcoholism or drug problems?”
My answer is, of course, “sort of.”
Recovery is complex. Many deny this, but recovery is complicated. No way around it. Addiction is complex, messy, and screws up every part of the addict’s life. Recovery is necessarily complex as well. Just accept this and move on.
With that said, recovery groups such as AA and NA can certainly help, and there are obviously millions of people attending these meetings worldwide. But I think people’s question is more narrow than that, what they are really asking is “Are 12 step meetings the ultimate solution for recovery? Are they the true key to getting and staying clean and sober?”
My answer to that is no. No they are not the ultimate solution for recovery. To label them as such is dangerous, in my opinion, and misleading to the newcomer.
Now hear me out for a moment, I am not bashing 12 step meetings. All I am doing is saying that they do not deserve to be on quite such high of a pedestal.
12 step meetings work for a lot of people, don’t get me wrong. But you have to realize that they fail for the vast majority of people who attend them. The recidivism rate is something like 95 percent over the course of a year, as published by Alcoholics Anonymous themselves. (Figure C-1, pdf warning). That data is straight from the horse’s mouth, based on over 30 years worth of data. So most people do not even stay in the program, much less experience success in the program. The vast majority leave entirely, never to return (the ones who do return are figured into the data already).
Now obviously there are also people who find success in AA and NA. These are what we refer to as the “winners” in the program. They stick and stay. They teach others how to recover. They maintain long term sobriety. But you have to realize that these “winners” represent less than 5 percent of everyone who has ever walked into a 12 step meeting, and more likely, they represent less than 1 percent.
So do AA and NA groups work to beat addiction? Sure. But be realistic. They only work for a very small percentage of people.
I would also point out that the “winners” in AA and NA are not winners because they follow the 12 step program perfectly, but due to other qualities that they have.
Specifically, I believe that the “winners” in 12 step programs:
* are geared towards personal growth, both in and out of the 12 step program.
* are motivated to push themselves to grow.
* are passionate about living life sober, both in and out of 12 step programs.
* are doing things to enhance their recovery beyond the program, usually things involving holistic growth.
So this is not to discount the 12 step program, but I think it is dangerous to give it too much credit, especially when it is clearly not a magic bullet when you step back and look at the raw numbers. Furthermore, my analysis in watching hundreds of different people recover from addiction (as well as working in a rehab full time and watching thousands fail) is that the personal growth that we achieve in our everyday lives is far more important than the support (or even dependency) that can form from the ritual of daily meetings. No, those who make it in recovery are the people who are really pushing themselves to grow, not the ones who are just making meetings every day and claiming to work the steps.