12 Step Programs
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The idea behind 12-step support groups is really quite simple. The people who attend these meetings all have one major thing in common: They’d like to stop abusing drugs and/or alcohol, and they know they can’t do that alone. In order to get the help they need, they join up with other people who are also in recovery and they all attend meetings together. Here, they support one another, and learn from one another, as they attempt to rebuild their lives and find a new focus that doesn’t include substance abuse. The most instantly recognizable form of a 12-step group is Alcoholics Anonymous, but there are many, many other meeting types available for the person in need of help. See related: Sober Living Support.
Working the Steps
In order to understand how a 12-step group works and what the groups are designed to do, it pays to spend time focusing on what the 12 steps are and how they are designed to help someone overcome an addiction. People who join a 12-step group are expected to understand all of these steps, and furthermore, they are expected to work hard to master each and every step and apply the steps in their own lives.
According to 12Step.org, the 12 steps are commonly described in the following way:
- Step 1: Admit that the addiction is strong, and that the addict is powerless to overcome it alone.
- Step 2: Believe that a power greater than the individual could assist with the problem.
- Step 3: Make a decision to turn life over to a higher power.
- Step 4: Make an inventory of the self.
- Step 5: Admit to the higher power and one other person the details of past mistakes and offenses.
- Step 6: Become ready to remove those defects of character.
- Step 7: Ask the higher power for help.
- Step 8: Make a list of everyone the addiction has harmed.
- Step 9: Make amends to those people, when possible.
- Step 10: Continue to take inventory and admit wrongdoing.
- Step 11: Pray or meditate to understand the will of the higher power.
- Step 12: Practice the principles and talk about them to other addicts.
For people who are members of 12-step groups, these steps become a sort of touchstone or foundation for behavior. People study the steps, debate about what the steps really mean and try to deepen their understanding of their own addictions through the conscientious study of all of the steps.
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Types of Meetings
All 12-step groups may have the same text at the center, but the groups may behave in completely different ways. Some groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous, focus on alcohol addiction. Other groups, such as Narcotics Anonymous, focus on other drugs. Some groups focus on addictions to behaviors such as gambling or overeating. Still other groups focus on the needs of family members who are living with someone who abuses substances. The format can be tweaked and modified to meet the needs of all of these groups.
In addition, 12-step groups can be distinguished by the way in which the meeting is held. Common meeting types include:
- Discussion meetings in which people share three-minute stories of their own addictions
- Study meetings in which people study the Big Book, which is the original text written by the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous
- Step study meetings in which people study one or several of the 12 steps
- Speaker meetings, in which just one person is asked to share a longer story of addiction and recovery
Typical Meeting Format
Each meeting is different, and the way the meeting runs is often heavily dependent on the wants and needs of people who attend that meeting on a regular basis. Alcoholics Anonymous and other organizations don’t mandate that the meetings run in a certain way. But, groups such as the Intercounty Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous do provide suggested meeting formats. According to these suggestions, meetings begin with a prayer or a moment of silence, and an official then reminds participants that the meetings aren’t affiliated with any political organization, religion or institution. Then, the groups tackle their chosen activity. Some engage in discussions, some perform study groups and others listen to speakers. Then, the group has another prayer or moment of silence, and the meeting is adjourned.
Attendance at 12-step meetings is really only the beginning of affiliating with the group. As people attend meetings, they’re encouraged to meet other members and share phone numbers and email addresses. Members may meet before meetings, or share coffee after meetings are complete. Participants may even join up in formal sponsorships, where a more experienced member helps a new member to understand the format and become stronger in recovery. These friendships can be truly powerful.
Many meetings also provide participants with “commitment” opportunities, or chances to volunteer in the community. People who are having a difficult time in recovery are often asked to take on more of these assignments, so they can remember the benefits of their sobriety and recommit themselves to the idea of sobriety.
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Attending just one 12-step meeting will not help people to overcome their addictions. It’s not a magic bullet that can cure addiction with one single shot. Instead, in order for 12-step groups to truly be effective, members need to make an effort to attend multiple meetings, each and every week. Going to repeat meetings in this way is associated with higher rates of success. For example, a study in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse found that weekly or more frequent attendance in meetings was associated with abstinence, but less-than-weekly attendance was not. People must go to these meetings often for the changes to take hold.
In addition, 12-step meetings are not considered a substitute for addiction care. While it’s true that some programs encourage people to attend 12-step meetings once their formal inpatient programs have ended, most programs also encourage people to continue their therapy on an outpatient basis. The two therapies seem to work together, and strengthen one another. A study in the journal Substance Abuse Treatment reiterates this fact. The researchers found that people who participated in both drug treatment and 12-step programs had higher rates of abstinence than people who only participated in one program or the other. The two therapies work best when they’re used together.
While 12-step meetings have traditionally been used with adults, they can also be effective therapies for adolescents. In a study outlined on Medline Plus, researchers found that about one-third of teen substance abusers were still attending 12-step meetings a year after they were released from addiction treatment programs. Teens who attended more meetings and who were in contact with a sponsor had better outcomes than teens who did not attend frequent meetings or pair with a sponsor. For teens, just like adults, attending regular meetings and taking advantage of all aspects of the program is key.
It is true that some people who attend meetings week after week relapse to drug and alcohol use. Some people relapse more than once. This doesn’t mean, however, that the meetings aren’t effective in helping people overcome their addictions. It does mean that addiction is a chronic disease, and relapse is a factor that can come to the front for anyone, no matter how long that person has been in recovery. People who do relapse may find additional support in their 12-step groups, as their peers may help them to start anew and recommit themselves to sobriety once more. People who relapse without this sort of support may allow the relapse to deepen and strengthen until the addiction comes back at full strength.
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Finding a Meeting
Local newspapers often provide listings of 12-step meetings held in the area. Addiction counselors and addiction treatment facilities might also keep listings of meetings held in the community. In major metropolitan areas, there may be hundreds of meetings held each and every day, and choosing the right meeting can seem difficult. In essence, it’s a personal decision and it is a decision that an addict might need to examine multiple times. For example, at the beginning of the recovery process, an addict might feel comfortable in a meeting full of other new addicts who are all studying the Big Book together. Later, that same addict might prefer to switch to a women’s only group that includes a significant amount of time spent sharing personal stories. Switching between meetings is completely acceptable, and some people develop a set of five or six meetings they enjoy, and they alternate their attendance accordingly.
Finding the right meeting can be intimidating, and newcomers sometimes worry that they’ll be shunned or avoided the first time they walk into a meeting full of people they don’t know. It’s a reasonable fear, but it’s usually not a fear based in reality. The 12 steps encourage members to welcome newcomers and help them see the value of sobriety. As a result, most people who attend meetings are open, honest and quite friendly. In fact, many meetings have a welcoming atmosphere that makes joining easy, and new members aren’t required to do more than state their names.
At Axis, we use the 12-step model to assist our clients as they begin the recovery process. We believe it provides a firm foundation for our clients to build upon when they’re ready to return home and rejoin their families. If you’d like to talk more about 12-step programs, or any of the other services we provide at Axis, please contact us. Our toll-free hotline is open 24 hours per day.
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