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12-Step Recovery Programs

There’s no question that addiction can be isolating. Your recovery may be the most important thing in your life, and yet, you may not feel comfortable truly opening up with your friends and family members. Will your friends understand you when you talk about wanting a drink? Will your wife think you’re crazy if a bad day makes you want to take drugs more than anything else in the world? Bottling up all of those thoughts may not be a great idea, as the urge to use may just grow and grow. That’s why support groups can be so important. In these groups, you can talk about your thoughts and feelings, without worrying about what others will say, and you can meet other people who are struggling with the very same issues you’re struggling with. You might even meet people who have conquered their addictions, and their stories may truly be inspiring.

While there are many different types of addiction support groups available, Alcoholics Anonymous and other groups that use a 12-step model are the most common. Read on to find out a little more about these groups. You may find that they will provide you with the support you’ll need to beat back your addiction.

A History Lesson

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there are more than 100,000 Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) groups across the globe, and there are many more spin-off groups that use the same model to deal with other addictions. Today, it might seem almost impossible to think of a world without AA and other addiction support groups but, in the 1930s, nothing like this existed. It took the work of two men in Akron, Ohio to make support groups for addiction a reality.

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These two men, which Alcoholics Anonymous World Services refers to as “Bill W.” and “Bob S.,” had the first formal AA meeting in 1935. One man was sober, while the other man was not. The two shared their stories of addiction and recovery, and they agreed to help one another to stay sober and resist temptation. Soon, both were sober and then both stayed sober. As the word got out that the two had successfully controlled their addictions, other alcoholics started asking if they could come to the meetings, too. Soon, people in other towns started asking if they could hold their own AA meetings.

While it might have been possible for Bill and Bob to support one another indefinitely, though simple friendship and talking, it would have been difficult for them to form tight friendships with 100 people. There just isn’t enough time in the day to support so many friends. So as the meetings got larger, the two tried to figure out what made the meetings helpful, and they wrote those ideas down so other people could learn from them. These ideas were distilled into 12 steps, and this has been the basis for thousands of meetings held since that time.

The 12 Steps Summarized

  1. I admit that I can’t control my addiction, and life has become hard as a result.
  2. I believe that a higher power can help me.
  3. I’ve decided to ask that higher power for help.
  4. I’ve looked over my life and I’ve made an honest assessment of the mistakes I’ve made.
  5. I’ve admitted those mistakes to a higher power, as well as another person.
  6. I’m ready to ask the higher power to help prevent me from making those mistakes again.
  7. I’ve asked the higher power to do so.
  8. I’ve made a list of all of the people I’ve hurt, and I’ve figured out how I can make amends.
  9. I’ve made amends when I can.
  10. I’ve committed to searching myself and making amends on a regular basis.
  11. I’ve made a commitment to lifelong prayer, hoping to move closer to a higher power.
  12. I’ve agreed to help others, and spread the word.

Source: 12Step.org

How Meetings Work

Most 12-step meetings are held in public places like churches, schools or community centers. In some big cities, meetings might be held at multiple times, including very early in the morning or very late at night. Describing the meetings can be a bit tricky, as each meeting can be slightly different depending on who is holding the meeting and whom it is designed to help, but in general meetings tend to include:

  • An opening prayer, or a reading of the 12 steps
  • A sharing period, where members of the audience can talk about their addictions and the effects of those addictions
  • A discussion of one aspect of the 12 steps or a guest speaker
  • A closing prayer, or a reading of the 12 steps

While the structure of the meeting might be similar, the people who attend the meetings might vary quite a bit. In fact, this might be part of the appeal of the 12-step model. If support groups are designed to connect you with people who are just like you, allowing you to relate, tightly structured 12-step groups might meet those needs exactly. There are meetings for veterans, meetings for women, meetings for teens and meetings for gay/lesbian addicts. In addition, some meetings are “open,” meaning that people who are sober, and people who are just thinking about sobriety, can both attend. Other meetings are “closed,” meaning that only the sober can attend.

With so many options available, it can seem hard to make a choice. Don’t let the stress bring you down. Your doctor might have suggestions on meetings you might like. Or, you can go to a few meetings and look for a community you like and feel comfortable with. Since there are no fees, and no registration is required, there’s no penalty in shopping around for the right meeting.

Different Models

The AA 12-step model has been expanded for all sorts of addictions, including:

  • Gambling
  • Narcotics
  • Cocaine
  • Crystal meth
  • Heroin
  • Methadone

Getting Started

Using the 12 steps means more than going to meetings and listening to people talk. To get the most benefit from these programs, you’ll need to think about and work through those steps. In order to do that, you might need a little help from a sponsor. The steps were written in the 1930s, and they don’t read like a checklist or a how-to manual. In fact, some people find them really confusing. Sponsors have been in the program for quite some time, and they’ve studied the steps in meetings and on their own. They can guide you and help you understand how the steps work in your own life.

According to 12Step.org, the best way to find a sponsor is to find a meeting that you like and then talk to the person who seems to be holding or running the meetings. Open yourself up a bit, and let this person know that you’re new to the program and you’re looking for a sponsor. You may have many different people who are willing to sponsor you, or you might just meet someone around the coffee pot who is willing to sponsor you. As your recovery strengthens and grows, you might even feel strong enough to sponsor someone else one day.

Questions to Ask Your Sponsor

Most people say that they “just knew” when they found the right sponsor. The person seemed like an open and honest friend, and they felt comfortable talking. That doesn’t mean you can’t ask questions in order to make the right choice. These are good icebreakers to use:

  1. How long have you been in recovery?
  2. What substances did you use?
  3. Have you sponsored other people before?
  4. Will you have time to work with me?
  5. How often do you go to meetings?
  6. Are you willing to talk with me before or after meetings?

Why Meetings Work

It’s a basic fact that going to meetings, working the steps and meeting with a sponsor can help you in your recovery. Even though the meetings might sound unscientific and personal, they really do seem to work in helping people recover. A study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment suggests that they work best when you start attending meetings before you’re done with formal addiction therapy, but even if you’re using them long after your addiction treatment is done, they can still be helpful. The meetings remind you that you really can beat addiction. You’ll be surrounded by other people who are controlling their own addictions. And, you’ll have access to a community that is ready to support you and help you when times are tough. If a craving calls to you, just look for the nearest meeting. If you’re tempted to drink, you can call your sponsor. The support groups can work like a touch-up session for your addiction recovery, helping you to stay strong and resist temptation.

People who live in rural areas may find it difficult to go to face-to-face meetings. They may not even have any meetings available in their communities. If you’re in such an area, consider joining an online support group. Some organizations hold meetings via web cam, allowing you to listen to stories and participate in formal meetings. Other organizations allow you to post messages or participate in online chats with other people in recovery. While this might not provide you with all of the benefits of a face-to-face meeting, it can be a lifeline for you when there are simply no meetings nearby that you can go to.

A Few Criticisms

There are some people who resist the 12-step model. Sometimes, they do so on religious grounds. While AA and other 12-step groups claim that they aren’t affiliated with any church, the steps do include many references to a higher power or to God. Some people resist this idea, and they’d rather not attend meetings where prayers and supplications are a matter of course. In addition, the 12-step model does suggest that addicts admit that they can’t control their addiction. Some people don’t like the idea that they are in a battle they’ll never be able to win. Instead, they’d like to focus on their own power and their own capabilities. They may also chafe under the 12-step model.

There is good news here. Many groups have been formed that can provide support for addiction recovery without the 12 steps. Some of these groups are designed for people who don’t like religion in their addiction therapy. Other groups are designed to improve self-reliance. These groups might provide many of the same benefits as AA and 12-step groups, without providing the same sorts of restrictions.

Other Options

If you’re not sure 12-step groups are for you, consider these other addiction self-help groups:

  • SMART Recovery
  • Women for Sobriety

  • LifeRing Secular Recovery
  • Save Our Selves

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