What’s the Difference between a 12-Step Program and a Non-12-Step Program?

12 Step and Non-12 Step program

There are a lot of programs out there to choose from once a family sets out on the search for a drug and alcohol treatment center for a loved one. There are so many options that it can be immediately overwhelming, especially if this is the first time a family has had to do this. What is usually noticed is a mind-boggling number of different programs available that subscribe to what is called the “12-Step philosophy.” Some programs are different variations of this, but at the core, is the 12-Step belief system that’s been around for over 80 years.

Officially 12-Step meetings are not a form of treatment at all, but a form of self-help. However, programs which use the 12-Step philosophy provide programs which facilitate the 12-Step experience. It is expected that once the individual leaves treatment they will continue to go to 12-Step meetings for the rest of their lives.

What Is a 12-Step Program?

The 12 Steps were created as part of the core program for Alcoholics Anonymous, a group created in 1939 by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith to help people suffering from alcoholism. AA’s philosophies and methods were later picked up by other addiction recovery groups, increasing the methodology’s popularity.

Part of working a 12-Step program involves admitting one’s own powerlessness over their condition in life, understanding the addict or alcoholic is permanently diseased via genetics, there is no “cure” for the disease, and one must get through life one day at a time in order to live a happy and sober life. Part of the 12-Step program also involves sponsorship, where one member of the group, usually an alcoholic or addict also in recovery, supports the newcomer in working the steps and staying clean and sober. The idea is that one addict or alcoholic helps another by supporting each other through their sobriety and holding each other accountable for staying on the right path.

When involved in AA or any other 12-Step group, going to regular meetings is part of the program. During these meetings members have a chance to go over their experiences getting clean, studying the various steps, and sharing their stories in order to inspire hope in others. Part of these meetings also includes introducing oneself by one’s first name only, followed by an admission of being an alcoholic or addict. This is done by newcomers as well as those who have been sober for years.

“Families and addicts need to know that there is another way to get clean if 12-Step isn’t working for them.”

When a person is trying to first get clean and handle their addiction, the first thing they ordinarily hear about are programs which use the 12-Steps. However, these programs do not work for everyone, perhaps not even most people. As a result, families, and addicts need to know that there is another way to get clean if 12-Step isn’t working for them.

Non-12-Step approaches prioritize getting to the root of a person’s problem. Rather than saying the addict has an incurable disease that they’re powerless over, non-12-Step approaches believe that drug abuse is merely a solution to a problem. At some point, an addict experimented with drugs, got high, and realized that the euphoric effects of the drug could be used to solve some life problem they have. They keep using and eventually, the addiction gets so out-of-control that the addict loses the ability to deal with life at all, and drugs become their only means of coping.

Young man smiling.

Non-12-Step approaches put the responsibility for the addict’s condition in life back on the addict. These programs put addicts back in control of their lives by helping them get through the things they can’t confront or handle and they are taught how to be drug-free contributing members of society. Finally, non-12-Step programs do not think a person is an addict for life. Addiction is looked on as a temporary condition that can be handled with the right steps. Once an addict has handled both the physical and mental/emotional sides of their addiction, they cease to be an addict and can live a normal life.

That’s where hope comes in. Many people who have failed 12-Step programs over and over again begin to lose hope that they’ll ever be able to get clean. 12-Step doesn’t work for everyone, but some people do find success and sobriety through it. Unfortunately, there’s no program out there that can be 100% successful for everyone who tries it. Ultimately, if the person recovers and makes it, it will be because they found something that works for them, and they use and apply the tools and knowledge they gained to continue to live a drug-free life.

If you or your loved one has previously failed 12-Step treatment or even if this is the person’s first attempt, remember to look at all the options.

Updated 21 August 2019

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