Many of us have heard of the 12-step program when it comes to addiction recovery, even if we have not had to encounter or experience addiction in daily life. This is often what is shown in shows or movies when someone is apologizing to everyone they may have hurt during their addiction, on their journey to recovery, or during a relapse. However, one program can’t possibly work for everyone, which is why many individuals end up relapsing. For educational purposes, this article will start by covering the details of the 12-step program, but it is important to know that recovering from addiction is not one-size-fits-all, and what may work for some may not work for others. Alternatives to the 12-step program will also be covered in this article later on.
12-step programs are often held with a group of several people, so having others who are going through similar situations is a big factor in this form of recovery. According to the American Addiction Centers, “12-step programs are powerful peer support groups that help people recover from substance use disorders, behavioral addictions, and sometimes other co-occurring mental health conditions” . The keyword here is “support.” This program is meant to help you feel supported, by mentors and peers, and to help you realize that you aren’t in it by yourself. You have a team behind you, rooting for your successful recovery. The traditional 12-step program we’re going over in this article, the one created by Alcoholics Anonymous, does have a focus on finding a higher power, whatever that may mean to you, but for those who aren’t comfortable being so spiritual, there are other alternative programs out there that may be a better fit for you.
Well, what are the actual 12 steps? Here’s the list :
1. Admitting powerlessness over the addiction
2. Believing that a higher power (in whatever form) can help
3. Deciding to turn control over to the higher power
4. Taking a personal inventory
5. Admitting to the higher power, oneself, and other people the wrongs done
6. Being ready to have the higher power correct any shortcomings in one’s character
7. Asking the higher power to remove those shortcomings
8. Making a list of wrongs done to others and being willing to make amends for those wrongs
9. Contacting those who have been hurt, unless doing so would harm the person
10. Continuing to take personal inventory and admitting when one is wrong
11. Seeking enlightenment and connection with the higher power via prayer and meditation
12. Carrying the message of the 12 Steps to others in need
After reading through these 12 steps, it’s very clear how focused the program is on relying on a higher power. However, there is also an emphasis on holding yourself accountable for your actions, as mentioned in steps 4, 8, 9, and 10. All of these steps focus on taking accountability and making sure you acknowledge any wrongdoings, past and present, to make sure you keep holding yourself accountable for the hurt you may have caused others. Taking ownership of your past actions, acknowledging they were wrong, and making the moves to reach out to those you’ve wronged are integral parts of this program.
So, what does partaking in a 12-step program look like? Truthfully, it looks different for everyone. “Many 12-step sponsors encourage sponsees and newcomers in AA and other 12-step programs to attend 90 meetings in 90 days, or at least one meeting a day for three months,” but everyone will get through each step differently, so forcing yourself to complete the program in a certain amount of time may not be beneficial to your recovery as a whole . Fully understanding and achieving each step is more important than how fast you get through the program.
Remember, recovery is not linear; try not to compare yourselves to your peers, and just focus on all the victories you make within your own journey. If you’re surrounded by the right people in your support system/peer group, they’ll celebrate your victories with you, too.
Now, onto the alternative programs for those who think the 12-step program might not be right for them.
SMART Recovery and moderation management are both great alternatives to the 12-step program.
Founded in 1994, “SMART Recovery is a group-based, volunteer-led recovery model offering support meetings, skill learning, and scientifically based treatments to help participants overcome addiction” . This program provides online and in-person meetings for those who are seeking recovery from both substance-based and behavioral-based addictions . “SMART recovery was built around a 4-point program around recovery through self-empowerment and evidence-based practices” . This 4-point program includes :
Building and maintaining the motivation to change.
Coping with urges to use.
Managing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in an effective way without addictive behaviors.
Living a balanced, positive, and healthy life.
Unlike the 12-step program, SMART Recovery puts an emphasis on self-empowerment rather than the notion that one should rely on a higher power to recover from addiction. This is a great alternative recovery program for those who would like to take a non-spiritual approach to their recovery journey.
Moderation management is geared toward those who aren’t addicted to alcohol, but who find themselves having trouble with using it. “Alcohol moderation management is a form of harm reduction for those struggling with the consequences of alcohol use and who do not have an alcohol use disorder” . This practice may help those who have the potential to become addicted to alcohol learn how to consume it responsibly, or even help those individuals stop drinking completely. “Instead of forcing someone into abstinence or a treatment program, or shaming them for their alcohol use, moderation programs tackle alcohol abuse from a different angle. They let the person reflect on their behavior and come up with their own system” . This program, similar to the SMART Recovery program, emphasizes self-control and self-management rather than placing that responsibility onto a higher power, as is done in the 12-step program. Here are some steps moderation management includes to help those in the process of reducing their alcohol consumption or quitting alcohol use altogether :
Start keeping a diary to record drinking behaviors and habits.
Observe moderate drinkers as they control how much they drink and choose when to stop.
Create a list of all the times consuming alcohol has caused an issue in your life.
Take a conscious step away from alcohol for 30 days, or slowly work up to being sober for 30 days if doing the full 30 right away seems overwhelming.
Learn skills to avoid drinking during those 30 days.
Create your own set of rules to establish boundaries with yourself and your relationship with alcohol.
Try drinking in moderation after your 30 days of abstinence.
If you find yourself over-drinking after step 7, don’t be too hard on yourself. Try to check in with yourself and analyze what may have caused you to over-drink and find ways to avoid or cope with that cause.
As we can see with all these different methods of recovery from drug/alcohol misuse, one program couldn’t possibly fit every individual’s needs. The 12-step program may work for those who believe a higher power could help them with their recovery, and the alternative programs presented could work for those who would rather not focus on a spirituality-based program and more on a program that emphasizes power within one’s self. That being said, even these three programs might not be the right fit for everyone. It’s important to know if you relapse during recovery, you haven’t failed; the program may not have been the right fit for your specific journey.
1. 12 Step Programs: 12 Steps to Recovery for Addiction. American Addiction Centers. (2022, October 21).
2. Smart Recovery for Substance Abuse Treatment. American Addiction Centers. (2023, January 9).
3. Alcohol Moderation Management: Programs & Steps to Control Drinking. American Addiction Centers. (2022, September 14).
Author: Lauryn Agron
Editor: Kayjah Taylor
Health scientist: Chantelle Moore