At drug addiction support groups, addicts at all stages of recovery get together to discuss their experiences, coping strategies and personal sources of hope. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS) promotes mutual support groups as essential components of the recovery process. Based on clinical research, the USDHHS reports that active participation in a support group can significantly increase your chances of staying clean. Support groups exist to help addicts get the information and assistance they need to maintain physical health and emotional wellness.
*The Importance of Support Groups After Treatment
Research published in the journal Substance Use & Misuse notes that self-help groups play a critical role in maintaining long-term sobriety. In the Pathways Project, a study of former drug users, study leader Alexandre B. Laudet, Ph.D. found that:
- The average drug addiction treatment program in the US lasts only three months.
- The majority of treatment programs do not offer “step-down” recovery support after discharge.
- In a group of addicts who remained clean for three years, continuous participation in a 12-step support group was the one factor that the participants had in common.
- Fifteen percent of participants in the Pathways Project cited social support as a key factor in maintaining sobriety.
Types of Support Groups
In many treatment programs, participation in group therapy starts from the very beginning. In the early stages of recovery, you’ll meet with other recovering substance users at an outpatient treatment center or at an inpatient rehab facility. After you’re discharged from a treatment program, you can continue to make support groups part of your life by attending meetings in the community. Many former addicts participate in one or more support groups throughout their lives to prevent relapse and continue to grow in recovery. Both spiritually based and secular programs are available in most communities to help addicts get clean and reach their full potential.
Many groups offer both closed and open meetings. Closed meetings are accessible only to people who have a desire to stop using drugs or alcohol. Open meetings are accessible to friends, family members and the general public.
Support groups also provide a lifeline for the partners, spouses, children and friends of chemically dependent people. Chemical dependence can have devastating effects on the lives of those who care about you. Self-help groups can offer strength, understanding and coping skills to those who’ve been harmed by a loved one’s addiction.
Twelve-step groups like Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Cocaine Anonymous (CA), Chemically Dependent Anonymous (CDA) and Crystal Meth Anonymous (CMA) are based on a series of 12 steps that help you advance in your emotional and spiritual development. All 12-step groups are founded on the original principles established by Alcoholics Anonymous. Although the program has evolved since the early days, many of its core elements remain the same, according to the USDHHS:
- Addicts are encouraged to assume responsibility for their own recovery.
- Participants rely on support from a higher power of their choosing.
- Participants attend group meetings, at which they share their personal experiences in order to give others strength and hope.
- Each member is encouraged to work the 12 steps with a sponsor who has already completed the steps.
- As part of the growth process, recovering addicts provide service to the community and help newcomers who are seeking treatment.
- There is no cost for participation, and 12-step groups are committed to remaining non-profit.
Twelve-step support groups are available throughout the world. Membership is free, although many participants make small donations of $1 to $2 at each meeting to cover the costs of room rental and coffee. But for some people, the program’s focus on alcoholism as a physical and spiritual disease is a serious drawback.
SMART Recovery’s 4-point program has been applied to a wide range of addictions, from drug addiction to alcoholism to gambling. Face-to-face meetings take place worldwide, and online support groups and message boards are also available. SMART Recovery views chemical dependence as a learned behavior that can be modified through four basic cognitive tools, or points:
- Learning to build and maintain personal motivation
- Coping with urges to seek or use the substance in question
- Managing thoughts, feelings and behaviors that may contribute to chemical dependence
- Learning how to lead a balanced life
SMART recovery is a self-empowering support program that teaches its participants how to deal with addiction to any substance. There is no charge to attend SMART Recovery meetings, and many free courses and tools are available online.
Secular Organization for Sobriety/Save Our Selves (SOS)
SOS offers a secular alternative for addicts and alcoholics who want to separate their recovery from any spiritual or religious source. The guiding principles of SOS are based on the belief that recovery from addiction is the individual’s responsibility and that sobriety must be the number one priority in a recovering addict’s life. Other top priorities of SOS members include:
- Communicating feelings, experience and knowledge clearly and honestly
- Choosing non-destructive, rational approaches to leading sober, healthy lives
- Maintaining the anonymity of members and keeping the content of meetings private
- Remaining open to a variety of theories about the nature of chemical dependence
SOS meetings are autonomous, meaning that these support groups do not follow a standardized format. Meetings are available in every state and in several countries. SOS membership is free. This non-profit group is sponsored by the Council for Secular Humanism.
Finding a Good Support Group
Finding a self-help program that meets your needs can be challenging. In the early stages of your recovery, you might be resistant to the idea of self-help support groups. Some recovering addicts are reluctant to share their feelings and experiences in an open forum. Others are concerned about maintaining their anonymity. For many addicts and alcoholics, finding a program that fits their personal ideology is the biggest hurdle. Ask yourself the following questions as you’re searching for the right group:
- Are there meetings in my community? Twelve-step meetings are available in many US communities and throughout the world. Some of the less prominent groups may not be as widely available. Ask your addiction treatment counselor or doctor for a list of support groups in your area. Help with transportation to group meetings may also be available.
- Are meetings held frequently and in different formats? The National Institute on Drug Abuse lists accessibility as one of the principles of effective addiction treatment. If you can’t find a face-to-face meeting when you need one, you should have the option to join a support group online or to talk with a representative of the program on the phone.
- Do the principles of the group reflect my personal beliefs? Self-help programs hold different beliefs on the causes of addiction and the most effective methods of recovery. Twelve-step groups hold the belief that addiction is a progressive disease of the body and spirit, and that recovery must be both physical and spiritual. Secular groups like SMART Recovery believe that addiction is a learned behavior that can be changed by modifying your thoughts, feelings and behaviors outside of a religious context.
- Does the program protect its members’ anonymity? Anonymity is a big concern for recovering addicts and alcoholics. People with chemical dependencies come from all walks of life, and many of them have jobs, families and public identities that they want to protect. Anonymity is one of the underlying principles of 12-step programs and groups like SOS.
- Is there a fee for membership in the group? Membership in the major non-profit self-help programs is free. Donations may be requested, but most programs have no fees or dues.
*Finding Support in Rural Communities
In major urban areas, self-help group meetings are available throughout the day and late into the night. Buses, subways and trains offer transportation to those who can’t or don’t drive. But what do you do if you need help in a remote rural community and you don’t have a car? In a report on rural drug abuse, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) profiles an innovative program in Iowa that provides support to recovering drug users in their rural homes. Here are a few other suggestions for those who live in isolated areas:
- Contact a national hotline for drug and alcohol rehabilitation, like the National Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Information Center.
- Look for online meetings offered by programs like Narcotics Anonymous and SMART Recovery.
- Call the national number of Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous to ask them about how you can connect with someone in your area.
- Talk with your pastor, family doctor, a teacher, a social worker or someone else you trust about how you can get help. In many rural communities, social services organizations provide access to treatment resources.
- Call an addiction helpline to get answers to your questions and connection to the help you need.
How Do I Know I’m in the Right Place?
Ask yourself whether the group feels comfortable to you. Do you feel motivated, inspired and informed when you leave a meeting? Are the group members welcoming and supportive without being overbearing? If you feel pressured to adopt a belief system that doesn’t resonate with your own values, the program probably isn’t right for you. If you have the opportunity, try more than one group or meeting to get the help you need to lead the life you want.