Do 12-Step Programs Really Work?

Many struggling with substance abuse ask our NJ drug addition experts if the 12-step program is an effective way to change their lives for the better.

Addiction is a disease that affects millions of people – if not directly, then indirectly as the family and friends of those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Most of those addicts don’t want to live the way they are; rather they want to be free of addiction and all the negative consequences that it entails. But how do they do that? Learn to live a new way, free of their addiction?

Some attempt to go it alone, attempting to get clean and sober with their own willpower and without professional help. Others attend treatment facilities for addiction, either inpatient or outpatient, to begin their recovery. Still others turn to 12-step programs to try to break free of their addiction.

What Is a 12-Step Program?

Twelve-step programs are programs that are designed to help people recover from various types of addictions. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was the first 12-step program, founded in the 1930s by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith. The AA program has been adapted to help other addictions including Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, and many more.

The basic 12-step model operates under the premise that people can help one another attain and sustain abstinence from the substance or behavior to which they are addicted. This is done through meetings where they share their experience, strength, and hope with each other and offer support.

There are no requirements for membership in 12-step programs, except that the individual has a desire to stop using, drinking, or practicing harmful behaviors. Meetings are free and there are no leaders, no therapists or other medical professionals, and no accountability for attendance.

Members are encouraged, but not required, to work through the twelve steps of the program with a sponsor (someone with more sobriety who has been through the steps themselves). Only first names are used, so member can remain anonymous if they choose to, and it is forbidden to talk about other members outside of the rooms.

What Are the 12 Steps?

The original 12 steps, written for AA, are as follows:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol–that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

In some cases, for fellowships other than AA, the steps have been modified to emphasize the important principles of the program but with the gender-based or religious language removed.

The Pros and Cons of 12-Step Programs

Like any type of treatment or program, there are advantages and disadvantages associated with 12-step programs. Let’s take a look at the benefits first:

  • Cost – 12-step program are free, although they are self-supporting so member can make small donations to cover the cost of coffee if they want to.
  • Sponsorship – One of the only program models that uses sponsorship as a recovery tool.
  • Structured meetings – The meetings are on time and structured to a tee.
  • Accessibility – There are meetings available at all times of the day, in different areas (including internationally), and with different formats, so there is a lot of support available.
  • Fellowship – There is a strong sense of community in 12-step programs, there is usually very little judgment, and most members are helpful and supportive.

Now, let’s look at the drawbacks:

  • No accountability – Because 12-step programs are anonymous, there is no accountability for not attending.
  • Some attendees are court-ordered – Many courts require defendants of drug and alcohol related offenses to attend 12-step meetings, so they are not always there for the right reasons and they may distract other members from getting what they need out of the meetings.
  • No therapy – There is no therapy, psychiatric care, or medical professionals in 12-step programs.
  • Religious undertones – For those who are not open to religion or spirituality, the religious undertones of some 12-step programs may be off-putting.

Does the 12-Step Model Work?

Because 12-step programs are anonymous and there is no record-keeping of meetings and members, it’s hard to answer this question. Just how many people are able to get and stay clean using 12-step programs would be a guess, at best. However, the prominence of these programs and the stories of success from those in recovery suggest that it is effective.

Probably the most effective way to make good use of 12-step programs is to use them in conjunction with other recovery options. Nearly three-quarters of alcohol and drug addiction treatment facilities incorporate the 12-steps into their addiction treatment plans, so when patients complete treatment, it’s likely that they are already familiar with 12-step programs making it easy to continue with them in the future.

At the very least, 12-step programs provide members with support and encouragement from others who are battling addiction successfully, and it puts them near others who understand what they are going through.

If you are considering beginning a 12-step program, give it a try. Keep in mind, that effective and successful treatment for addiction is unique to each individual. While these programs don’t work for everyone, NJ drug addition experts say they do work for many, so why not see if you’re in the latter group by contacting us now.

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