Addiction and Recovery Information for Individuals, Families and Health Professionals

12 Step Groups

There are few places in the world where you'll find more honesty, courage, and support than in a 12 step meeting. It's one of the most amazing experiences you can have. 12 step groups are not what you see on television or in the movies.

12 step groups are an important resource of recovery for two reasons. First, they're effective. Millions of people have recovered through them. Second, they're free and universally available. Almost every country, every city, every cruise ship has a 12 step group. There are many other kinds of recovery supports, including doctors, therapists, addiction counselors, and treatment programs. But how they work is obvious. How 12 step groups work is not as well understood.

How 12 Step Groups Work

You can decide if have an addiction. You can go to a 12 step meeting and hear other people's stories and decide if there are any similarities between their stories and yours. You can overcome some of your denial about addiction. You see that addiction can affect anybody. Good people, with good jobs, good families, and a sense of humor, can have an addiction. You may know that intellectually, but you need to believe it. Everybody likes to think that they're special. But addiction is one of those times when it's comforting to know that you're not alone.

You meet people who are going through the same thing. The idea behind 12 step groups is that you feel stronger when you belong to a group of people who are doing the same thing. Everybody's first reaction to addiction is to deal with it on their own. Addiction is an isolating disease. 12 step groups give you the chance to reach out and ask for help.

You believe that recovery is possible. You see that other people have recovered from addiction, and you develop confidence that you can change your life. The people who recovered didn't do anything special. They just followed the few simple principles of 12 step groups. If you follow those principles, you can recover too.

You learn other people's recovery techniques. 12 step meetings are a resource. You can ask other people who've been in the same boat you're in how they handled certain situations. You can ask them if what you're going through is normal. Some days you'll have an overwhelming urge to use, and it's good to know that other people have gone through the same thing and how they dealt with it. One of the fears many people have is that their life will be smaller or less interesting without drugs or alcohol. 12 step groups give you a chance to meet people's whose live are just as interesting and in many cases bigger and more fun now that they've stopped using.

You won't be judged. Most addicts have difficulty sharing their emotions, partly because they're afraid nobody will understand them, and partly because they're afraid that they'll be criticized. So they bottle everything up inside, which makes them want to use even more. The people at a 12 step group won't judge you because they've have heard it all before. They've done it all before. They know that you're not crazy because of the things you do when you're using. You're addicted.

You're reminded of the consequences of using. I can promise you that this will happen. After you've been clean and sober for 6 months or 12 months (it usually happens around those times), you'll feel stronger than you've felt in years. That's when the voice of your addiction will tell you that you can control your use this time. This time will be different. This time you'll know what to do. 12 step meetings give you the chance to hear the stories of the people who've just come into the program, or the stories of the people who've relapsed and just come back. They will all tell you the same thing. They all felt they could control their use.

If you could control your use, you would have done it by now. Addiction is a disease like heart disease or diabetes. You would never think that your heart disease is gone once you started to feel better, and that you could eat anything or not exercise without suffering more heart disease. 12 step meetings remind you of that idea.

You have a safe place to go. 12 step meetings are a safe harbor when you want to be out of harm's way. If you've had a bad day you can go to a meeting and spend a couple of hours knowing that you won't be able to use. By the end of the meeting you'll almost certainly feel better and more motivated for recovery.

12 step groups are a source of hope, strength, safety, and guidance. (Reference: www.AddictionsAndRecovery.org)

What 12 Step Groups Do Not Do

They do not define you as weak or powerless. Instead they encourage you to take control of your life by recognizing your addiction and overcoming it.

They are not based on shame and labeling yourself in a negative way. Instead they encourage you to take responsibility for your life and to realize that you can stop your addiction. 12 step groups encourage you to recognize that an addiction is a medical disease and that you are powerless to change your genetic make up and the way that you respond to alcohol. But they also encourage you to realize that you have the power to change other parts of your life so that you don't relapse in the future.

12 step groups encourage you to take a look at your life and see how you got into trouble in the past so that you don't fall into the same traps in the future. 12 step groups encourage you to ask for help, whereas your addiction encourages you to avoid help.

Finding the Right Group

Every group is different. Some groups you'll like, but some groups you won't. They each have their own personality and their own mix of people. Finding the right group is important because when you do find the right group recovery becomes a lot easier.

Don't keep on going to a group that you don't like just because it's convenient or close by. If you do that, eventually you'll convince yourself that you don't need to go to meetings. You'll tell yourself, "They're real addicts. I'm not like them." The beauty of 12 step groups is that there are so many to choose from, it's not hard to find at least one group that you can connect with.

There is a simple technique for finding the right group. All the meetings in your area are listed on the internet. (Find Treatment and Support Resources.) They're also published in a booklet that you can get free at most meetings. Go to your first meeting, and pick up one of those booklets.

Then find someone who you have something in common with. Ask them what other meetings they like. It’s a common question, so don’t feel embarrassed to ask it. Then go to one of those meetings, and do exactly the same thing. Find somebody else, and ask them what other meetings they like. Do that a few times, and you will quickly zero in on meetings that work for you.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Group

Become active. The magic of recovery happens when you actively participate and share at meetings. Recovery doesn't happen when you just sit passively and listen to other people. You recover when you're honest – nakedly honest, and share what's going on inside.

There are two types of 12 step meetings. There are open meetings (also called speaker meetings), and closed meetings (also called discussion meetings). In speaker meetings, someone stands up and tells their story of addiction and recovery. You sit back and listen, and you're not expected to say anything. The beauty of speaker meetings is that they're a non-threatening way to get started because you don't have to do any work. The downside is that you don't get to do any work.

To become active, you have to gradually focus more on discussion meetings. That's where you get to talk about your recovery and what's going on inside. But don't worry. You don't have to say anything if you don't want to. You can pass. And it's normal in the beginning to go a few times and just observe the process.

Be committed. Join a group and go to it regularly. How often should you go to meetings? There is no one answer. Everyone has different needs. Most people go to meetings at least twice a week in the beginning. Some people like to go to meetings everyday to deal with their urges for using. I think going once a week is a little too thin, because if you miss a meeting then you have to wait two weeks between meetings, which in the beginning is too long to deal with your urges on your own.

Go to meetings on the days that you used the most. Your body has an internal clock, and if you used every Friday at 6 o'clock, then that's when you'll have the strongest urges to use, and that's when it's best to be at a meeting.

Once you've been in recovery for five years your chances of relapse are greatly reduced, and you may be able to cut back on meetings. There is no one approach for everyone after five years. You should go to meetings at least once a month, and many people need to go more often. After five years, you probably won't learn many new things at meetings. The main reason to continue to go is to remind yourself of where you've been and how quickly you can get back there if you start using again. You also go to meetings to help others and to give back.

Use the help that other people offer you. 12 step groups are a generous and giving environment. People will offer to help you in many ways. They'll offer to meet you for coffee, talk about your problems, or give you their phone number in case you want talk any time day or night. They've been through it before, and they know that recovery is hard work. In the beginning you may be overwhelmed by their generosity. But it is sincere.

Your tendency will be to not accept their help. You'll think that you don't want to be a bother, or that your problems aren't that important. But they’re offering to help you because they want to help, and because they know that by helping you they're also helping themselves. When they listen to your stories, they're reminded of where they've been and what they need to do to remain clean and sober.

12 step groups are not like the rest of the world. When someone says "give me a call" in the outside world, maybe they mean it, maybe they don't. In 12 step groups they mean it because they've been there. Therefore take advantage of the help they're offering.

Get a sponsor and do step work. A sponsor is your own personal coach or teacher to help you through recovery. There are three levels of support in 12 step groups.

The first level is people who are general supports. They will offer to go out for coffee, give you a lift to a meeting, or give you their phone number. You can't have enough friends like that.

The next level of support is a temporary sponsor. They're someone who you would like to spend time with talking about recovery. They can be a sounding board. They can help you understand the format of meetings. They can call you and motivate you to go to meetings. They can also act as an early warning system to help you recognize if you're in denial, or if you're in the early stages of emotional relapse. You can have more than one temporary sponsor.

The final level of support is a sponsor. Once you've been in recovery for a while and you've checked out some of the meetings you'll want to find a regular sponsor. They are a teacher to help you learn the 12 steps. The next two sections deal with finding a sponsor and doing step work.

Finding a Sponsor

A sponsor is someone who you would like as a teacher to guide you through recovery and the 12 steps. They don't necessarily have to be someone who you would like to hang out with as a friend. By choosing a sponsor you're also implicitly saying that you like the form of their recovery and their serenity. In 12 step groups it's said that "you like what your sponsor has." In this case, "has" refers to what they have in recovery, not what they have materially.

A sponsor should preferably have at least 5 years of recovery. They need that time to develop enough perspective on recovery. Finally, a sponsor should be someone for whom you have absolutely no romantic feelings. That usually means someone of the same sex.

There's one question you should ask your potential sponsor. "Tell me what you do with your sponsees?" It's an open-ended question that doesn't put either of you in an awkward position. Too many people just ask "Would you be my sponsor?" That's a hard question to ask. Most people have trouble asking for help so they postpone finding a sponsor. Make getting a sponsor as easy as possible by reducing the obstacles.

The answer that you're looking for is something like, "We get together once a week. I give them home work, and we go through the 12 steps." The answer you're not looking for is, "We get together once a week. We go out for coffee, and you can tell me how your week has been." They might be a great friend, but they won't necessarily guide you through the 12 steps. (Reference: www.AddictionsAndRecovery.org)

The 12 Steps

The 12 steps is a huge topic that deserves more attention than I can give it here. But I'd like to make a few comments.

The 12 steps are not about stopping using. Only the first step is about stopping drugs or alcohol. The remaining eleven steps are about how to create a new life where it's easier to not use. They're about how to be happier in life.

The principles of the 12 steps are the principles of life. If you work at the 12 steps, they will help you identify the traits that make you unhappy, let go of those traits, and learn something better in their place. The 12 steps are a model for self-change.

You don't have to be addicted to benefit from the 12 steps. The world would be a better place if we all followed them. But when other people don't follow the principles of the 12 steps, they end up being unhappy. When addicts don't follow the principles of the 12 steps, they end up using to escape their unhappiness.

Last Modified: March 1, 2014

Learn about 12 step groups (AA, NA, CA, Women for Sobriety) and how they work. Learn about Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Cocaine Anonymous. Learn about AA 12 step recovery program. Discover how a 12 step program, finding supports, and a sponsor help with recovery. Addiction Recovery Guide and relapse prevention of addiction information is provided. The content is provided by Dr. Steven M. Melemis addiction medicine specialist.