Twelve-step programs are groups or organizations that meet to offer mutual support to their members as they recover from substance use disorders, behavioral addictions, or various compulsions.
They have their roots in Alcoholics Anonymous, a fellowship organization that began in the 1930s. Its goal was to help those who wished to stop drinking. “Work the steps” is a common refrain among active members. They study and practice the 12 steps at its core — admitting powerlessness over their addiction, seeking help from a higher power, and providing guidance to others facing the same struggles.
Today there are thousands of groups around the world, dedicated to helping people quit alcohol, cocaine, narcotics, overeating, gambling, and more. They’re not a treatment in themselves, but make a good complement to the recovery process. They accomplish that by helping members focus on achieving sobriety and by being composed of peers sharing the same or similar goals.
What Are the Steps?
There are many variations of the 12 Steps. The language will shift slightly to suit a group’s focus, whether it’s trying to break free of alcoholism or of narcotics, or some other addiction. (For reference, here is AA’s full list of 12 steps.)
The 12 Steps, condensed, are as follows:
- Admitting powerlessness over one’s addiction.
- Believing a higher power could heal and restore.
- Trusting in a higher power to guide one’s life and will.
- Taking a personal moral inventory.
- Admitting one’s wrongs to God, oneself, and another person
- Being ready to have God remove character defects
- Asking God to take away shortcomings
- Making a list of wronged people to make amends to
- Making amends to people harmed (unless doing so would be harmful)
- Continue taking personal inventory, and admitting to wrongs
- Used prayer and meditation to better connect with God
- Carrying the message of healing to others in need, and practicing what one preaches
Some people prefer a more secular approach, so non-faith-based groups have sprung up in the wake of AA and other fellowships. The language for many self-help groups has shifted from mentions of God and instead appealing to a Higher Power. That has made the groups more inclusive of other faiths and belief systems.
Benefits of 12-Step Programs
AA is estimated to have approximately 2 million members worldwide, meeting in nearly every nation on the globe. It’s hard to know for certain, though, since the program is anonymous, giving its members the opportunity to heal cloaked in privacy.
The program has flourished for nearly a century, but it also has evolved to suit modern needs. It offers a number of benefits, including:
- Meetings (for AA and its many offshoots) are held daily all around the globe, both in-person and online. If a person needs a meeting, especially online, something can usually be found quickly.
- Meetings are also frequently held at addiction rehab centers, often a key part of the recovery program. (Secular alternatives are often available, too.)
- The steps are fairly universal, with slight tweaks made for more secular touches, or for a specific addiction.
- The 12 steps can serve as stepping stones or guideposts of progress. For some individuals that can be both appealing and motivating.
- Many people swear by the principles, which have helped many people move on to healthier, sober lives.
- They offer a sense of community, with people sharing similar struggles and successes.
- Meetings offer a bit of needed or desired structure.
Some downsides exist, however, but those are mostly due to personal preference. One meeting’s group dynamic may prove extremely motivational while another’s does nothing for the individual seeking help. It may take a few tries to find the right so-called chemistry.
Other issues include:
- Some may prefer something less faith-based and more science-backed, and those options are available. (SMART Recovery is one such alternative.)
- The volunteer aspect can make it easier for some to backslide. That can make it easier to skip a meeting on a bad or busy day.
- Some may prefer more professional help as opposed to peer governance. (Neither way is wrong; it’s up to the individual and what works for them.)
There are 12-step options that don’t mention faith at all, or ones that focus on specific groups, like women only, for the LGBTQ community, and many more.