Once considered heresy in rehab circles, it’s now OK to say, “AA just isn’t for me.”
A wealth of scientific research, both longstanding and emerging, offers examples of why Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-Step groups may not be an effective path to sobriety for everyone.
Seeking professional help from licensed providers should be first and foremost when deciding to get sober. It has long been established that those who do drop out of AA, for whatever reason, often do so because they aren’t getting the kind of professional help they need in a supportive environment. (1)
Some people do not find AA to be a proper fit by notion of the first step – admitting “powerlessness” over their addiction. Some people firmly believe they must become empowered to make true change in their lives, and admitting powerlessness is therefore contradictory to getting better.
Others have difficulty with the idea of giving up their lives to a “higher power,” which often is steeped in the Christian tradition at 12-Step meetings in the US. This can be off-putting not only to atheists and agnostics but also other minority religious groups.
Still others may need medication to get past their addictions or to treat mental illnesses, which often go hand in hand in a dual diagnosis situation. In some 12-Step groups, medical treatment is frowned upon despite the advances in medical science.
AA didn’t establish a stronghold in the business of addiction and recovery for nothing. It has worked for millions and millions of people. That in and of itself is a reason why so many people turn to the program to try it at least once.
But if you decide it’s not for you, especially after a sincere effort, a medical professional may agree that you should seek other forms of supportive therapy. Here are some alternatives to 12-Step groups, the alternative philosophies and where you can find more information.
SMART Recovery (Self-Management and Recovery Training)
Established in 1994 by Tom Horvath, SMART Recovery is a four-point program for abstinence from drugs and alcohol. Those points include ideas and techniques that focus on building and maintaining motivation, coping with urges, managing thoughts, feelings and behaviors, and living a balanced life.
“We support individuals who want an active and direct approach to change,” Horvath explains in a video on the SMART Recovery website. “We call our approach self-empowering. We teach ourselves to be self-reliant. You already know what you need to do. We show you ways how to do it.” (2)
In addition, SMART Recovery “is science-based and evolves as the science evolves,” Horvath says. “We support the appropriate use of psychiatric and addiction medications. Whether to believe in a god or a higher power, or whether addiction is a disease, the question is left up to you, and not part of our program.”
SMART Recovery has meetings in about a thousand cities worldwide. For those who live in areas where meetings are not nearby, SMART Recovery offers online meetings as well as a message board and 24-hour chat.
SOS (Secular Organizations for Sobriety)
SOS, which also has been called “Save Ourselves” by some of its members, lists its general principles on its website. Those include:
- SOS is not a spin-off of any religious or secular group. There is no hidden agenda, as SOS is concerned with achieving and maintaining sobriety (abstinence).
- Although sobriety is an individual responsibility, life does not have to be faced alone. The support of other alcoholics and addicts is a vital adjunct to recovery. In SOS, members share experiences, insights, information, strength and encouragement in friendly, honest, anonymous and supportive group meetings.
- SOS encourages the scientific study of addiction in all its aspects. SOS does not limit its outlook to one area of knowledge or theory of addiction.
“Most recovery programs support the notion that a support group is needed, or at least recommended,” says William Kaiser, PhD, on the SOS website. “I believe that it is. I think the challenge for a secular person is to find a group that fits with his and her world view or philosophy of life. If that means attending AA meetings and just attending and keeping your mouth shut but just to be there for the fellowship, that I can understand. But it’s sort of a lonely existence.”
SOS meetings may be difficult to find in some parts of the country.
Women for Sobriety
Founded in 1976, Women for Sobriety supports women seeking sobriety through a program centered on 13 principles toward positive thinking, personal responsibility and embracing a better future instead of rehashing past mistakes.
Women for Sobriety is based on its “New Life” program, which consists of 13 statements that adherents are encouraged to be recite each morning upon waking. The statements include things like, “I have a life-threatening problem that once had me. I now take charge of my life and my disease. I accept the responsibility.” Or, “Negative thoughts destroy only myself. My first conscious sober act must be to remove negativity from my life.” And, “The past is gone forever. No longer shall I be victimized by the past. I am a new person.”
While AA works well for the people it works for, many people – women in particular – have come forward about being harassed, stalked and otherwise threatened “in the rooms” of AA. Some have sought alternative forms of recovery after sharing such stories, which have often received widespread attention.
People interested in learning where Women for Sobriety Groups meet should contact their headquarters; that information is on their website (4). Women for Sobriety also offers online message boards and chats.
LifeRing was founded in 2001 and has meetings nationwide, but mostly in the West. There also are online meetings.
“There are as many ways to live free of drugs and alcohol as there are stories of successful sober people,” LifeRing explains on its website (5). “Many LifeRing members attend other kinds of meetings or recovery programs, and we honor those decisions. Some have had negative experiences in attempting to find help elsewhere, but most people soon find that LifeRing’s emphasis on the positive, practical, present-day can turn anger and despair into hope and resolve. LifeRing respectfully embraces what works for each individual.”
What If None of These Groups Meet Where I Live?
Whether a person likes AA or not, its greatest strength lies in its numbers: It’s everywhere. That’s why many addiction experts will suggest support from AA is better than no support at all. But again, some of these groups do offer online meetings and forums.
Other people may turn to self-help books for tips on staying sober. Many people used AA to get sober but then phased out. They may not like attending meetings but still review the Big Book and work the steps, for example.
There is no shortage of self-help books out there. One widely acclaimed book is called Mindful Recovery: A Spiritual Path to Healing from Addiction by Thomas and Beverly Bien. In a review on its back flap, Lama Surya Das, author of the bestselling book Awakening the Buddha Within, writes, “This wise book provides practical exercises that will help us to develop conscious awareness and inner understanding, and the ways and means to free us from unsatisfying habits, addictions and unconscious behavior patterns.”
Another review, written by Dr. Joseph Volpicelli, offers, “Anyone interested in finding a kind, spiritual guide to recovery that focuses on flexibility rather than the ‘one true way’ will benefit from this enjoyable and helpful book.”
Volpicelli is the author of Recovery Options: The Complete Guide, another book worth checking out.
1. Kelly, John et al. (2003, April). Dropout from 12-step self-help groups: Prevalence, Predictors, and Counteracting Treatment Influences. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. 24(3). 241-250. Retrieved Dec. 19, 2015, from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0740547203000217
2. SMART Recovery. Website. www.smartrecovery.org.
3. Secular Organizations for Sobriety. Website. www.sossobriety.org
4. Women for Sobriety. Website. www.womenforsobriety.org5. LifeRing Secular Recovery. www.lifering.org.
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.
Reviewed by: Kim Chin and Marian Newton