When talking about recovery from drugs and alcohol abuse, the phrase “12-Step support groups” is used a lot. Because you only ever hear them in the context of treatment and rehabilitation, there’s a lot of misconception and mystery over what these groups are, what happens in these groups, what their goals are, and how they help in recovery in general. While confidentiality and privacy are key to the proper functioning of a support group, there should be no secrecy about their activities or roles. If you’ve ever wondered what exactly these groups are and what they do, read on.
What Are 12-Step Support Groups?
Also known as 12-Step programs, these support groups are intended to provide recovering addicts with structure, direction, and solidarity as they make their way through life with their newfound sobriety.
Broadly speaking, the basic foundation of 12-Step programs is to get the addict to acknowledge that they are not strong enough to overcome their weaknesses on their own, and that they get the strength to do so from a higher power. Participants examine the mistakes they’ve made as a result of their addiction(s) and make amends for those mistakes, learning to live out their lives with the fresh perspective of sobriety and helping others who are making their own journey through the process of recovery.
Twelve-step programs have a number of goals. One of the main ones is to encourage individuals to make a sincere accounting of themselves. The steps are designed to serve as a basis for self-change, and a recovering addict cannot make necessary and meaningful life changes if he or she cannot acknowledge that they have a problem to a group of similar-minded people, with similar experiences, who are in similar places on their journey – hence the strong focus on accepting personal weakness, accepting the guidance of a higher power (or a higher sense of self), taking responsibility for mistakes and wrongs committed in the past, etc. Psychology Today explains that 12-Step support groups provides shelter for addicts who have to adjust to a new life – one where their drug use or compulsive behavior is not a part of their everyday existence.
What Does ‘Higher Power’ Mean?
Something that may not be very well known about 12-Step support groups is that they are based on an almost spiritual concept of surrender – if not to a supreme being or personal god, then to the ego to the subconscious, or the power of the group. This philosophy is based on the ideas of Carl Jung, who influenced Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. In profiling the use of the 12-Step program in recovery, PsychCentral relates that Jung told Wilson that recovery must be spiritual in nature, to overcome the overwhelming power of an alcohol addiction. Indeed, a number of the 12 Steps make overt references to God’s presence, forgiveness and transformative power:
- [We] came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- [We] made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
- [We] sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
Some 12-Step groups have come up with alternate wordings in their creeds, for the benefit of secular or non-Christian addicts.
For example, AA Agnostica’s version of the 12 Steps fit their non-religious philosophies better, substituting the action of reflection for prayer, and any concept of God with a more general idea of morality and personal power.
Similarly, other recovery groups based on the 12 Steps put forward by Alcoholics Anonymous replace all mentions of alcohol with the appropriate substance of abuse. Narcotics Anonymous swaps out alcohol with “addiction,” as does Cocaine Anonymous with “cocaine and all other mind-altering substances”
Even beyond the purview of substance abuse are other harmful addictions, such as Gamblers Anonymous using appropriate verbiage in their 12 Steps (“gambling,” “compulsive gamblers,” etc.), and Overeaters Anonymous requiring its members to acknowledge their “powerlessness over food.”
Why 12 Steps?
Each movement through the program is designed to break down one facet of the addiction spectrum. For example, accepting the inability to overcome the addiction on one’s own fosters a greater sense of trust in the group and the higher power, but it also prevents the recovering addict from thinking that they can go it alone. Addiction can be a very lonely experience, driving away friends, family, and even other addicts. If a former addict is tempted to start using again, it is much easier to resist the temptation with the help and support of other people who have been in their shoes than it is to attempt to do so on their own. Hence, acknowledging that you are not strong enough to deal with the problem on your own is a way of getting you to accept the help that is on offer and not run the risk of trying to do it on your own.
After acceptance comes surrender. Surrendering to a higher power (or a higher sense of self) is intended to replace the void that the former addict thought they could fill with drugs, alcohol or other compulsive behaviors (such as gambling, overeating, etc.). While it is merely nominal to accept the inability to solve problems on your own, actually turning your recovery over to someone – God, a sponsor, or a therapist – is the first active step of the 12 Steps. Giving up control puts confidence in a tried-and-true process, not in your own fallible hands.
The program also encourages awareness: awareness of the self (knowing your weaknesses and seeing them as stepping stones to improve yourself, not to bury them with drinking, drug abuse or compulsive behavior); awareness of the support offered by other members of the group, a therapist, or a sponsor; awareness of the damage caused by the addiction or compulsive behavior; and awareness of a better way of thinking, acting, and living. This could mean being aware of the power to decline invitations to drink or use drugs again, or being aware of the unwelcome temptations that certain people and places pose now that you are sober.
This is in contrast to the blindness of an addiction, where you are oblivious or uncaring of the harmful effects of your substance abuse or compulsive behavior. The awareness factor of the 12-Step program looks to make you realize that what you do – positive and negative – affects other people.
If you have harmed people in the past as a result of your habits, the program asks you to take inventory of who you are and what you’ve done, and how you can make up for the damage you’ve done. There’s a reason the creed of the 12-Step program calls this a “searching and fearless” inventory, because you will have to identify patterns of broken and flawed emotions and behavior in your life. Simply put, what were you doing wrong? What were the mistakes you kept making? And why did you do those wrong things? Why did you keep making those mistakes? For example, this might mean realizing, acknowledging, and confronting childhood abuse as the reason behind an addict’s abusive behavior towards others and his abusive behavior toward himself.
After taking this inventory comes one of the most challenging parts of the 12-Step program – admitting wrongdoing. The actual text of the relevant step is “Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” Regardless of your belief (or lack thereof) in God, the action of declaring what you’ve done wrong – especially to those whom you have wronged – repairs your self-esteem, which is very important after the rock bottom you may have had to hit to make it to therapy. This is by no means an easy or instant step of the program, but it is the bedrock of settling accounts from your previous life of addiction and wiping the slate clean so you can start living sober.
This step also establishes (or reinforces) the idea of empathy for others. No longer is the addict isolated by their substance abuse or compulsive behavior; taking stock of the things they have done wrong, the people they have hurt, and the relationships they have damaged teaches the value of humility and compassion – traits not associated with addiction, but strongly associated with a clean and healthy lifestyle.
Different Types of 12-Step Programs
For every type of addiction and compulsive behavior, there are at least two or three 12-Step support groups. Take alcoholism, for example: AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) is the obvious leader of the pack, but you can also find ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics), and Al-Anon/Alateen (for friends and family members of alcoholics who may not realize that they have a drinking problem).
Then there’s the larger umbrella of drug addiction, for which you have groups like Narcotics Anonymous, Marijuana Anonymous, and Cocaine Anonymous, among many others. Like Al-Anon/Alateen, there are groups for friends and family members of addicts who refuse to seek treatment, called Co-Anon and Nar-Anon.
Gambling addiction is a real problem, and support programs exist to help people overcome the temptation to gamble and to help them make amends for all the wrong they did while addicted: Gamblers Anonymous is the largest of the groups, while OLGA (Online Gamblers Anonymous) caters to the more recent trend of digital problem gambling.
There are 12-Step support groups for psychiatric disorders (like Depressed Anonymous and Neurotics Anonymous), eating disorders (Anorexic and Bulimic Anonymous, Compulsive Eaters Anonymous, etc.), and many, many more.
In all, there are over 54 different types of 12-Step programs, for almost every conceivable form of addiction and behavioral disorder.
Can 12-Step Support Groups Help You?
While there is occasionally some opposition to 12-Step programs – with their spiritual elements, admissions of powerlessness, and sometimes dogmatic adherence to their creed – they have worked an undeniable amount of good for people who want to turn their lives around. PsychCentral writes of a study done by the Center for Addiction Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Butler Center for Research at Hazelden that determined that 12-Step programs provide “local, accessible and cost-affordable” recovery resources for people (300 young adults, in the case of the study) where access to such assistance is rare.
Taking the first step toward recovery and sobriety is a big step, but you don’t have to do it alone. Please call us to find out how we can help connect you with the right treatment program and the right 12-Step support group for you.
David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.