What If a 12-Steps Program Doesn’t Work?

by | Last updated Oct 13, 2022 | Published on Oct 5, 2022 | 12 Steps | 0 comments


The “12-Steps Program” is based on literature initially published by Alcoholics Anonymous to help people quit alcohol. While they’re not considered official treatment, attending 12-Step meetings can significantly impact the quest for long-term recovery. However, for some people, 12-Step programs don’t seem to work. Let’s explore why they might not work for you and what alternatives you could explore.

Why Don’t 12-Step Programs Always Work?

Since 12-Step programs are peer-supported groups, no evidence indicates they don’t work. On the contrary, patients in addiction recovery are encouraged to participate in peer support meetings throughout and after treatment. Nonetheless, support groups that follow the 12-Steps methodology might not work as well as other alternatives for some people. Here are some reasons why that might happen.

1. You don’t have the same religious or spiritual beliefs

Because of the emphasis on spirituality, the 12-Steps may resonate the most with people who already have strong spiritual or religious beliefs before seeking treatment. On the other hand, people with little or no spiritual or religious beliefs may find it hard or unfulfilling to follow the Steps. While the script talks about connecting to a “higher one,” most meetings focus on a “God,” which might feel alienating for those without the same religious beliefs.  

2. You don’t feel safe or comfortable in meetings

There are Alcoholic Anonymous meetings worldwide, in all cities and neighborhoods. If you are attending meetings in a place with a bad reputation for being unsafe, you’ll likely be on edge during the sessions. This prevents you from making the most out of them, even if you are otherwise engaged.

Additionally, people from minority racial groups, women in otherwise all-male groups, and people from the LGBTQ+ community may feel unwelcome depending on the neighborhood and the group dynamics.

3. You may feel pressured to share intimate details with others

Many group leaders encourage the members to interact, potentially getting into conversations about addiction, triggers, personal lives, and other private topics that may be too vulnerable for you to share with people you don’t know that well. 

Even if you choose not to share your personal experiences, exposure to these triggers can cause you to relapse. Also, if you also struggle with social anxiety, it can be extra challenging for you to open up.

4. You may feel judged for using medication to assist your recovery

Some support groups shun the use of medications to help recover from addiction. Medication-assisted treatment is standard for opioid addictions. And other medicines can make long-term alcohol addiction recovery sustainable for some people, particularly those with mental illness. In this case, you may feel judged or rejected if the group consensus is generally against medication use, which can hinder your recovery.

5. You might be ignoring underlying issues

At least 50% of people who suffer from a substance use disorder also experience mental health issues. If you’re only discussing your addiction, you might ignore underlying problems such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorders – all commonly associated with alcohol addiction. 

6. You don’t like the structure of the meetings

Each AA meeting follows its unique format. Some follow a strict format to study the 12-Steps, while others have a more flexible structure encouraging members’ participation. Try different meetings to find the format that resonates with you.

Alternatives to 12-Step Programs

Not all peer-support programs follow the same format. Over time, other group settings started to provide alternative arrangements to the 12-Steps methodology. The most popular ones include the following:

  • Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART)
  • Women for Sobriety
  • Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS)
  • LifeRing Secular Recovery
  • Moderation Management

Seeking Treatment for Alcohol Addiction

In addition to 12-Step programs, some people might need comprehensive treatment at a rehab facility. Some of those include:

  • Inpatient or residential treatment: Inpatient rehab involves staying at a rehab facility for several days, or even weeks or months, where care is available to you at all times. It provides a higher level of support and structure but also the highest investment of time by people struggling with addiction.

Outpatient treatment: This type of treatment is less intensive than inpatient rehab. However, these programs require a commitment by the individual to attend the rehab facility for treatment while living independently. Because of this, outpatient programs are often recommended for people who have completed either medical detox or an inpatient rehab program.

Partial hospitalization programs: Also less intensive than inpatient programs but slightly more intensive than outpatient programs. People in this program spend the night in the facility’s premises and engage in daily activities but can spend more time outside the premises during the evenings and weekends. These programs often start with detoxification and continue with a focus on behavioral therapies.

Recovery Is Still Possible

Everyone has a unique journey to recovery, which may include various treatments. The fact that the 12-Steps haven’t worked the way you expected doesn’t mean your trip is over, and you’ll be unable to recover.

Getting sober is as much about getting to understand your addiction as it is about understanding yourself and the methods that work best for your individual needs.

Other programs operate on similar principles without requiring a belief in God or recognition of a higher power. If the 12-Steps aren’t working for you, seek help from addiction professionals to learn about other treatment programs.

Written by: Nick B.

Nicholas B. is the Corporate Director of Admissions for our substance abuse and behavioral health company. Nick’s mission is to provide quality care to every person that reaches out regarding substance abuse or behavioral health questions. Knowledge of an ever-changing industry, compassion when dealing with people, and compliance in every decision are the forces that drive his personal and professional growth.

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