Addiction recovery is no simple feat. While getting sober can be tough, it’s the continuity of sobriety that poses the real challenge. When an individual attends a detox that is followed by inpatient/outpatient treatment, continued sobriety in a controlled environment is easier to manage before returning to reality and the outside world.

These controlled environments offer a place of comfort, a place of serenity that allows you to manage triggers.

But once people in recovery return to their lives, they find that not much around them has changed except themselves. The purpose of treatment is to gain tools and apply those principles to triggers and temptations they will face.

While the best facilities offer alumni programs that help in creating tasks geared toward the presence of others who are sober, there are still moments where one can feel alone and fall right back into their old habits.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), an estimated 40-60 percent of those who obtain sobriety will relapse. It notes that while addiction is a treatable disorder, there is no cure.

Relapse does not mean addiction treatment has failed, and it is often noted that relapse is a part of recovery. The important thing to remember is that while relapse is prevalent in the sober community, what really matters is recognizing it as a step and taking the next step back into treatment.

The 12-step program is a type of addiction treatment method that has created a path toward sobriety over the course of its 83 years of existence. There are people from all backgrounds that are the beneficiaries of Alcoholics Anonymous. It preaches the idea of spirituality and self-awareness to grow from within and abstaining from drugs and alcohol. This methodology has a proven track record of sobriety with millions of people to back it up.

While it may be a phrase that you’ve heard muttered by someone in the program or by a character on a television show, it is still a concept where the benefits are misunderstood. Below we will go in-depth about how the 12-step program works, and how it’s used for success.

What Are 12-Step Programs?

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 members can remain anonymous if they choose to, and it is forbidden to talk about other members outside of the rooms.

The 12-step program is a group of different self-help programs, and its intended purpose is to seek recovery from the different addictions and addiction disorders. It uses a set of carefully placed steps that are, in essence, a manual for members to practice cessation of use of drugs and alcohol.

The main objective upon completion of this program is to no longer engage in substance use, but it’s a common misconception that this is the sole purpose of the 12-step program. The reason behind this is teaching lessons of spiritual ideas and experience as a result of personal growth.

Accepting one as who they are through spiritual growth and admitting they are powerless over so much. This realization allows for true growth.

Addiction is not just a disease of the mind and body; the use of drugs/alcohol also affects the spirit. When the person begins to take on a set of different spiritual principles and starts becoming reliant on the overwhelming support network of recovering drug/alcohol users, it allows for the change of self-destructive behaviors.

The only way to achieve this and accomplish something great is admitting there is an actual problem that needs to change. Upon the acceptance of powerlessness to drugs, alcohol, and destructive behaviors, the next step is to allow a higher power to take control of your life. Once this has taken place, it is possible to move on and accept help and guidance from the higher power and other members.

Self-reflection in this process is also key, and you’ll start becoming aware of flaws and mistakes that took place during drug or alcohol use. Honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness are the three key steps to success in the 12-step program.

The 12-steps program possesses the options of being used on your own, or as continued treatment of those who have successfully completed drug rehab or alcohol rehab. As mentioned earlier in the article, it’s the continuity of sobriety that is the most difficult, and this allows for the long-term recovery of overcoming triggers.

The History of 12-Step Therapy

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) can be traced back to a religious group previously known as the “Oxford Group.” They were a movement that was popular in the United States and Europe in the early 20th century. Members of this group would practice a formula of self-improvement. They did this by performing self-inventory, admitting wrongs, making amends, prayer, and meditation. It was achieved by carrying this message to others and has continued until today. The message was simple, but it was letting go and accepting that could prove to be more difficult.

During the beginning of the 1930s, a man from Rhode Island named Rowland H. visited a Swiss psychoanalyst by the name of Carl Jung in search of treatment for his chronic alcoholism. Jung’s determination was that Rowland’s case was medically hopeless and that his only hope was to seek spirituality for change. With this, he was directed to the Oxford Group.

Later on, Rowland is noted to have introduced a man named Edwin (Ebby) T. Thatcher to the group. The men and several others who were introduced rejoiced in their success of finally obtaining the ability to stop drinking because of the Oxford Group principles.

A man named Bill Wilson also was suffering in the grips of a devastating alcohol addiction.

Wilson was enjoying success as a stockbroker on Wall Street, but his career had been cut short at just 39 years of age because of his inability to quit drinking. He learned that his problem was hopeless, progressive, and irreversible. This is when his old schoolmate from Vermont and former drinking buddy Ebby, had sought out Wilson to carry the message of hope.

Naturally, at first, Wilson was a bit apprehensive of Ebby’s transformational story and the claims of the Oxford Group, but after another stint in the hospital in 1934 for treatment, Wilson gave in and underwent a powerful spiritual experience unlike any he had before. His depression and despair had been lifted, and he felt free. Wilson finally stopped drinking and made it his life’s mission to spread the message that gave him another chance at life, and thus, the roots of Alcoholics Anonymous had been planted.

After this formation of AA, the group’s popularity began to grow. There are AA groups that meet globally, and while no official record is kept of the active members, there is an estimation of 2 million active members worldwide and another 118,000 groups. The 12-step therapy model has been applied to several forms of addiction, starting with Narcotics Anonymous in 1953. Thanks to this message, there are groups today that range from crystal meth addiction to overeating, and will continue on strong for many years to come.

How 12-Step Programs Work

The 12 steps process is based on working through each step, going over each with a peer, and spreading positivity to help others achieve their goals.

While there are several different elements in this program, the main focus is to guide recovering substance users through the process of accepting responsibility for failing, taking help from others, and giving it in return.

The Steps

Twelve-step therapy works by taking members by the hand and walking them through each of the steps. Throughout this process, someone will be attached to your hip to demonstrate how the process works. Additionally, they will provide help and support along your path. While every step is formulated to meet a specific goal, they can be broken up into sections of overarching goals.

The first portion is intended to increase awareness that addiction is entirely out of your control. You will need help, outside of one’s own willpower, in the hope of overcoming this disease.

By removing self-centered and self-reliant thinking, it allows you to accept the idea that God, or a power greater than oneself, can restore your sobriety and nurture spiritual growth.

The next set of steps is intended to promote self-examination through what is known as moral inventory. The point of this is not to lower self-esteem, or dwell on mistakes, but rather to help diagnose shortcomings and root out what you may need to make amends for.

This will be followed by making amends for all the wrongs done to people in the past as a consequence of using. While others may not be as receptive to your message, it’s important to accept what has been done and what cannot be changed. It may be a step to insert into your life, but the potential outcomes will make it a very spiritually rewarding process.

The last steps are never really complete as it’s an ongoing process, but they are committed to helping others as others have helped you. The following is the original verbiage from the 12-steps as applied to AA:

  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 all 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.


While the steps are what gives the program its name, meetings are what make the 12-step program. Wilson’s belief was that fellow recovering alcoholics were vital to the success of other recovering alcoholics. Meetings are where members come together and relay their challenges, rejoice in their achievements, share stories, and discuss shortcomings. The sole purpose of meetings is to be welcoming and free of judgment while inspiring confidence in each other. These meetings are open to anyone wanting to attend, including family members.


A sponsor is an active member of AA that helps other members successfully fulfill their roles in Alcoholics Anonymous. They help by reaching goals and working through more of the steps on their spiritual journey. Sponsors are experienced members who have either completed the steps or have displayed significant progress through the steps. Upon entering the program, you will have the option to choose your sponsor, but if you’re undecided, you will be directed to a sponsor that is a seemingly good fit.

Once chosen, it’s not someone who is locked in, and you can change sponsors at any time. Sponsors will give advice on how to cope with cravings, be readily available to answer texts or calls throughout a given week, give life advice, and be a guide through sobriety.

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 programs are free, although they are self-supporting so members can make small donations to cover the cost of coffee if they want to.
  • Sponsorship – One of the only program models that use 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. Determining how many people are able to get and stay clean using 12-step programs would be, at best, a guess. 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 places them close to others who understand what they are going through.

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