The 12 step program of Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous is not for everyone.
On the other hand, if the program seems to work well for you, then by all means, embrace it.
Many addiction treatment programs focus heavily on the 12 step model, while others may use an alternative approach. Many alternative approaches are Christian based or religious programs.
What does the 12 step program do well, and where does it fall short?
Let’s take an in-depth look.
The universal default and widespread recovery solution
Whether you agree with it or not, the 12 step program is basically the default for recovery in most parts of the world. AA and NA meetings have popped up all over the place, and most people have one near them. There are other recovery solutions out there, but none of them are nearly as widespread or readily available as 12 step meetings are.
For example, there are other support groups for addiction that do not rely on the 12 step model, but trying to find one is at least ten times harder than finding a 12 step based meeting. Because AA and NA have become so widespread, it is generally just easier to “go with that as a solution” rather than trying to reinvent the wheel.
Other programs that seek to replace the 12 step program in which there are actually meetings or group discussions are fairly redundant. Having a different approach to recovery or a different program than that of the 12 step model is really just a technicality. Again, these niche groups that seek to replace AA or NA are simply trying to reinvent the wheel. The reason that 12 step programs work (for some people) is not due to the magic of the 12 steps, but instead to the social support that you get from the fellowship. Trying to recreate a fellowship using another program is probably going to be wasted effort. If you are seeking social support in your recovery or a fellowship of others who are on the recovery journey, you would be absolutely foolish to ignore the 12 step programs of AA and NA.
I am not saying that the 12 step program is right for everyone, or even that you should seek out the meetings at all. What I am saying is that it should be your go-to solution IF you are seeking social support in recovery. It is already there, the meetings already exist in large quantities, the fellowship is already there and awaits newcomers with open arms, so do not try to reinvent the wheel or find any sort of alternative social support in recovery. AA and NA are well established and are the default solution. If it is social support or fellowship that you feel you need, then use these programs to get it.
Now, because the 12 step program has sort of become the default solution for our world, I highly recommend that every addict and alcoholic who is new to recovery to try it out and give it fair chance. Again, this is not me pushing for you to embrace AA or NA. This is simple me saying “look, they are the default solution, meetings are everywhere, there is a ton of free support available to you if you need it, so take advantage of that and see if it works for you or helps you at all.” It is crazy not too, simply because the meetings are so universal, widespread, and well established.
Again, I am not pushing the 12 step model on anyone, as I myself do not rely on it at all in my recovery these days (and have not for almost a decade). But the program still has a lot of value to offer the newcomer, mostly in the form of massive support, and I think anyone in early recovery owes it to themselves to at least check it out. Keep in mind that some people rely on social support more than others in order to stay clean and sober.
There are a few things that the 12 step program do right, and also a few pitfalls to watch out for.
The huge focus on surrender and the importance of that for early recovery
If there is one thing that AA does correctly, it is the emphasis on surrender. They really push the concept that complete and total surrender is necessary in order to make the transition from active addiction into recovery. I tend to agree with this idea because I could clearly see how a LACK of surrender was what was keeping me stuck in my active addiction.
There were a few times in my past where I had attempted to get clean and sober, but I had not surrendered fully to my disease. This meant that I was very clearly hanging on to some part of my addiction. For example, when I first tried to get sober I did not want to stop using other drugs, and I had made up my mind that alcohol was my real problem and I just needed to stop drinking. You can imagine how well this worked out–it was a complete disaster of course and anyone who hangs on to one drug is destined to go back to using any and all drugs, including their drug of choice. Every seasoned addict and alcoholic knows this, but someone who is young and inexperienced with addiction (like I was) will not necessarily realize this right off the bat. In other words, the naive newcomer may believe that they can use one drug in order to self medicate while avoiding their drug of choice.
This is a clear example of someone who has not fully surrendered to their disease. They are still hanging on to the need to self medicate, in some form or another. Therefore their entire recovery effort is doomed to fail because they have a reservation, they are not willing to “let go absolutely.”
This is one of the things that the 12 step program really hammers on and “gets right.” They focus heavily on the idea that the addict must surrender FULLY to their disease, and they must let go of everything, every part of their old life, and really transform and step into a new way of living. As they say in the AA literature, “half measures availed us nothing.” This is true no matter what approach you use for recovery, or what type of program you are working. It is a universal truth about overcoming addiction. If you don’t make a 100 percent effort, you are going to relapse–whether you are working a 12 step program or doing something else entirely.
The value of self assessment
Another thing that the 12 step program “gets right” is in the area of self assessment. This is not to say that if you hang out at AA or NA meetings all the time that this magical property will somehow rub off on you. Instead, it is going to take a serious effort and a lot of work. Support from the meetings will constantly remind you that self assessment is important and helpful, but you will get precious little direction on how to actually implement it directly in your own life. This is not a criticism of AA, it simply points to the personal nature of growth and development in recovery.
It is easy to show up at meetings every day and “talk the talk.” Those who are actually “walking the walk,” however, are the ones who leave the meetings and actually put the program into real practice in their lives. One area in doing so is in self assessment–examining our lives and finding areas for growth and improvement, then taking serious action on making real changes.
This is not easy to do and most people will not do it, including many who frequent the 12 step meetings. Some may do it once in their recovery journey but then fail to really embrace the idea of continuous self assessment as a means of making personal growth as they move forward in their life. In other words, they might examine their life early in recovery but then they fail to really push themselves to make growth later on. As such, many in recovery stagnate with their growth and just sort of coast through recovery, showing up at meetings and basically using them as therapy. This is not really the best use of the meetings or what they were designed for anyway, so the programs have–to an extent–morphed into a “modern day 12 step recovery program” where people keep coming to meetings in the long term and sort of use them as daily therapy, like you would with group therapy discussions. Instead the meetings should focus on a more acute recovery process as outlined by the steps, and the role of personal growth and self assessment should be much more personal. The idea of talking about your day and dealing with everyday stress is complete garbage and really should be left out of meetings altogether.
So what I am saying is that there is a right way and a wrong way for self assessment to work in 12 step recovery. It is largely a personal journey and therefore requires a personal, individual effort outside of the meetings. The basic 12 step literature walks you through much of this process, and the steps address this directly. For example, what are my character flaws and how can I work on fixing them? The steps also have you look at past behavior and forces you to dig deeper to find the internal motivations and character flaws that problems were based on.
Actually doing this work, the process of digging into your own behaviors and your own past is where the real value comes from. Pushing yourself to make positive changes based on what you find is beneficial to your recovery.
Most people will never do this at a deep enough level to get real benefit from it–it is just too uncomfortable and difficult to really look at oneself, to truly examine oneself, and admit to the flaws and attempt to make changes. The 12 step program attempts to guide the addict through this process of self assessment and growth, and for those who actually do the work, the rewards are certainly worth it.
Giving back and paying it forward – key concepts in ongoing recovery
Another concept in 12 step recovery is that of “giving back that which was freely given to us.” Again, such a universal principle will help anyone who is trying to recover and overcome addiction, whether they are in a 12 step program or not.
This concept is most readily identified by the twelfth step, which speaks of “carrying the message to others.” In other words, once you have found success in recovery, you should actively carry this message of hope and success to other struggling addicts and alcoholics in order to try to help them.
There is more than one reason to do this. One is simply because it is the right thing to do. Two is because you would naturally want to help your fellow man to overcome his addiction, just like you did, and get another shot at a happy and content life. Three is because of the huge impact that addiction has on families and society at large–when you help one addict to recover, it affects many people who associate with that addict on a regular basis. The impact of saving one addict can branch out and affect hundreds or thousands of lives.
But perhaps the most important reason that we should try to help others to recover is because it is the best possible form of relapse prevention. Ideally, relapse prevention (and all of recovery in general) can be summarized in three simple ideas:
1) Abstinence from drugs and alcohol.
2) Personal growth.
3) Working with others/helping others.
If you look at the 12 step program you will notice that step one is basically “abstinence” and step twelve is basically “working with others” and all the steps in between are essentially “personal growth.” All three of those ideas are clearly represented in the 12 step program, and all three of them are necessary for anyone to stay clean and sober and to find a new life in recovery.
Anyone who attempts to live this new life of recovery–not just those in the 12 step program, but everyone–will basically have to embrace all three of these ideas in some form. You have to maintain abstinence from drugs and alcohol. You have to push yourself to make personal growth. And if you really want to insure continuous, long term recovery then you will also find a way to give back, to help others in the way that you were helped out of your addiction.
This does not necessarily have to be in 12 step channels. There is more than one way to help others in recovery. But those who fail to do so are going to have a much tougher road in recovery than those who are working with other addicts and alcoholics on a regular basis.
It sort of goes back to the idea of “how do you best learn something?” You learn something best and most thoroughly when you teach it to others. This is why giving back and working with struggling addicts is so powerful in recovery–because it helps you to learn more than anything else could.
There is also the idea that recovery is a process, and really it is a process of continuous reinvention. The recovering alcoholic is continuously reinventing themselves in recovery. If they stop doing this for too long then they eventually relapse. Thus, they have to keep pushing themselves to grow and to change in order to remain healthy. Working with others in recovery is a great way to do this, to prompt this “continuous reinvention of self.”
The 12 step program “gets this right.” Working with others in recovery is a major part of the program, and it is highly valuable.
Again, you can find other ways to do this outside of 12 step recovery, and do not necessarily have to “give back” in AA or NA. Those programs do make it easier to find people and connect though.
The threat of complacency and dependency on 12 step meetings
So the 12 step programs definitely have a lot going for them in that they are universal, they are darn near everywhere, and they are a huge source of social support in recovery. They stress the ideas of surrender, self assessment, and of giving back to others. In short, they are a full recovery program and a full recovery solution. That said, the program does work for everyone, and there are some drawbacks of course.
One of the biggest criticisms is one that I already mentioned–it is the tendency to become complacent in the program.
This is not necessarily a criticism of AA or NA, but rather it is just one of the major dangers of recovery in general–anyone who has overcome an addiction is susceptible to this problem–not just those in AA or NA.
Having said that, though, the problem does seem to be prevalent in the 12 step fellowships, and the evolution of 12 step meetings seems to have a part to play in this.
Complacency can sneak in to nearly anyone’s recovery, and it has become quite common among those who attend daily meetings.
Part of the problem is that meetings used to be scarce and now they are prevalent and widespread. So in the days of Bill Wilson and Doctor Bob, they might only have one meeting a week in a given town. That meeting would be tightly focused around the primary purpose of helping alcoholics. There was no time to stray off topic much, because they had very few meetings and usually an immediate problem showed up–like a newcomer who wanted to get sober and go through the steps. Meetings were focused on the primary purpose, and the movement was still small so very few meetings existed. They had to be focused.
Today, in major cities, it is possible to attend a dozen meetings in a single day, and become witness to a massive LACK of focus on the primary purpose. With so many meetings and so much recovery, why stay focused on the narrow primary purpose? This “thinning of the message” is one of the problems that leads to complacency. People get used to attending meetings every single day of their lives, and so they start to use the meeting as therapy.
Once the person in recovery gets used to the therapeutic aspect of daily meetings, they have less incentive to “do the work” outside of the meetings and pursue personal growth, self assessment, and even working with other struggling addicts. All of that falls by the wayside because it is just easier to show up every single day to their meeting and get their daily dose of therapy. This is not how meetings are supposed to work and being lulled into this sense of complacency is not helping anyone.
Perhaps it would be better if meetings became scarce again, so that they could become more tightly focused on the more immediate issues of recovery. If you are in a meeting and people are sitting around discussing their first world problems, then you are seeing a room full of complacency in action. These people should actually be told “you are not allowed to attend 12 step meetings for one full year from this day forward.” That would at least snap them out of their stupor: “How will I stay sober without my meetings? Heavens!” Maybe you should do a little work and get back to what the program is really about. Forget the meetings for a year and dig into the steps and start doing the work to make real personal growth.
Dependency on meetings is just one of the bigger problems I have seen crop up in the program, if not the biggest. People who rely on meetings to keep them sober are not really working a good program of recovery–they have just become dependent on meetings for their continued sobriety. Instead they should be doing the work and pushing themselves to make personal growth.
If the 12 step program empowers you, embrace it and live it!
The 12 step program has its good points and its bad points, but I would encourage every newcomer to try it out.
If the program works for you, then embrace it, live it, and use it as a tool to push yourself to make real growth in your life.
If the program is not working for you then find your own path. You are responsible to recover. The principles of recovery are universal, you can use them and apply them outside of any programs.
1) Abstinence – this is your highest truth. Do not put drugs or alcohol into your body.
2) Personal growth – use self assessment and keep pushing yourself to make positive changes.
3) Give back – find a way to help others in recovery.