12-step programs are support groups for those recovering from addiction, including but not limited to drug and alcohol addiction.
The first 12-step program ever created was Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which was established in the 1930s. 12-step programs have since grown into one of the most popular and widely adopted methods of recovering from alcoholism, as well as recovery from drug abuse and other addictive behaviors.
What kinds of 12-step programs are there?
There are over 200 different kinds of 12-step groups globally. The most well-known include:
- Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
- Narcotics Anonymous (NA)
- Gamblers Anonymous
- Overeaters Anonymous
- Sex & Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA)
In addition to 12-step programs for recovering alcohol and drug addicts, there are a number of 12-step groups for the loved ones of addicts and recovering addicts. The establishment of such groups was in part due to an acknowledgement of addiction as a disease that is frequently enabled by family systems:
- Al-Anon – for family members and friends of alcoholics
- Nar-Anon – for family members and friends of drug addicts
- Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA) – many of those in addict relationships struggle with codependence
How does a 12-step program work?
12-step groups are free of charge and available in almost every community. Meetings can be held anywhere, but usually occur in places like churches, schools, or community centers — locations that are safe and easily accessible.
As summarized by the American Psychological Association (APA), the 12-step process involves the following:
- Admitting that you are powerless over your addiction to drugs, alcohol, or other compulsion
- Acknowledging that a higher power can give you strength
- Looking at your past mistakes, often with the help of a sponsor (an experienced member of the 12-step group)
- Making amends for mistakes whenever possible and responsible
- Learning a new way of behaving to live a new life
- Giving back by helping others who suffer from the same addiction, whether alcoholism, drug addiction, or behavioral compulsion
New members in 12-step programs are encouraged to establish a relationship with a sponsor, which is a more experienced person in recovery. Sponsors must have achieved and sustained sobriety for at least 5 years, and frequently help guide a new member in working through the 12 steps. The bond formed between sponsor and sponsee is often a close one, with sponsors often becoming important pillars of support in a sponsee's life. According to Narcotics Anonymous:
"Sponsors share their experience, strength, and hope with their sponsees ... A sponsor's role is not that of a legal adviser, a banker, a parent, a marriage counselor, or a social worker. Nor is a sponsor a therapist offering some sort of professional advice. A sponsor is simply another addict in recovery who is willing to share his or her journey through the Twelve Steps."
How often do people go to 12-step meetings?
There is no hard and fast rule when it comes to meeting attendance. Most people attend meetings at least twice a week at first, especially as they're establishing new patterns.
Some suggest that it's a good idea to time meeting attendance with days when substance abuse was the most common. For example, if you used to drink alcohol every Friday at 8 o'clock, then according to your body clock, your strongest urges to drink will be on Friday evenings. That's the best time to be at an AA meeting.
What are the advantages of 12-step groups?
There are a number of advantages to participating in a 12-step program. First, they're widely available. 12-step meetings are free and universal; they exist in almost every community, and they're open to all.
Second, they're a tried and tested way of recovering from addiction. When combined with other support systems (including drug and alcohol rehab when applicable, as well as therapy), they can be very effective. Millions of people around the world have gone through and continue to use 12-step programs to achieve and maintain sobriety.
Third, attending 12-step meetings is a chance to meet and connect with others going through the same thing. Drug and alcohol addiction can be isolating, and research is clear that feeling connected to others is an essential part of rehabilitation, recovery, and sobriety. Loneliness and isolation are very common triggers when it comes to drug and alcohol addiction as well as other kinds of addictions, and 12-step meetings help limit both. Meetings also a non-judgmental and safe space to share, because everyone there is in the same position.
Fourth, making connections others who've been through the same thing can be both illuminating and useful. For example, a common fear for some recovering alcohol and drug addicts is that their life will be less exciting if they stop using. But often people at 12-step meetings report that their lives are actually fuller, richer, and more exciting now that they've stopped using. This is an invaluable part of the process, and is often only available by seeing real people who've been through it.
Finally, 12-step meetings inspire hope. Interacting with people who've achieved sobriety is extremely encouraging, since it points to what's possible. Seeing other people who've recovered from drug and alcohol addiction helps you develop confidence that you can, too.
For many, 12-step groups are a source of safety, hope, guidance, dignity, and community. As one recovering addict put it, "There are few places in the world where you'll find more honesty, courage, and support than in a 12-step meeting".
As with much of the process of recovery, including rehab and therapy, the more actively a person participates in a 12-step program, the better their outcome will be. In the case of 12-step programs, joining a community of other recovering addicts is a positive step, since it indicates a willingness to both receive and give help to others. Such action not only builds self-confidence and self-esteem, but creates a sense of trust, belonging, and love.
Recovery is about more than just stopping drug or alcohol addiction. It's about a new start, a brighter future, and a happier life.