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The elevator doesn't work for alcohol recovery: Taking 12 steps on 12/12

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Many self-help groups employ the 12 steps originated in the book, Alcoholics Anonymous, 74 years ago. The group named after the book, AA, remains the most successful organization in handling the disease of alcoholism today. The only membership requirement: A desire to stop drinking.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in 2008 reported an annual average of five million people 12 and older attended a group self-help meeting in the prior 12 months. One third also went for one-to-one counseling or group therapy. Because 12-step groups are so widespread, most one-to-one counseling and group therapy is based on the 12-steps and those counselors encourage participating in 12-step group self-help to boost sobriety. In fact, the National Treatment Center Study Summary Report from the University of Georgia found 90 percent of 450 treatment centers are based on the 12 steps, while 10 percent rely on “Behavior Therapy.”

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) seems to endorse the 12-step approach in group therapy as well. In 2008, it found Behavioral Therapy less successful than 12-step methods. “Individuals in 12-step oriented therapy have increased subsequent Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) participation and it is the AA involvement that leads to better outcomes by buffering the effects of social pressures to drink. AA exposes a person to a network of people who have a goal of sobriety and support one another in achieving that goal.”

Group therapy requires signing up and showing up. Group self-help like AA requires only showing up. One thing to note though, if it is confidentiality you seek, one-to-one counseling is the only route 100 percent confidential. Anonymous is not a synonym for confidential. Ask yourself, though, does recovery really need to be confidential? Far too many get ticklish about talking “publicly” about their shame and other stressors. The alternative is not talking. And that leads to relapse. A twelve-step meeting is not the town newspaper. Even if it was, some alcoholics’ under-the-influence feats were more public than anything they’d say in a group self-help meeting ever would be.

These are safe venues in which to communicate. They consist of people who share the exact same struggles. Talking things out among them is cathartic. You don’t need to talk about every confession you have. You don’t get style points for deeper traumas. You do get style points for creating a climate of trust by putting on the table the things that are giving you challenges in sobriety. Alcoholics risk reaching out because they need a new label, a new place to belong, and there is safety among others who are also trying to shed old labels and stressors. If You’re Not Normal is the three-word death sentence to recovery, Me Too is the two-word pardon alcoholics get at 12-step meetings.

Even if an alcoholic does not ever buy into the 12 steps as a design for living, they are suggested, not required, for membership. “The only requirement is a desire to stop drinking,” the literature says. Twelve-step meetings are places to be among others who feel the same, wore the same masks, suffer the same struggles and have a desire to communicate rather than drink over them. “The most desperate need of mankind today is not a new vaccine for any disease or a new religion or a new way of life,” wrote Taylor Caldwell in the novel The Listener. “His real need, his most terrible need, is for someone to listen to him, not as a patient but as a human soul.”

Everyone, no matter how gifted, healthy or wealthy, encounters an issue that baffles them or breaks the spirit. Twelve-step groups are where alcoholics can communicate the baffling and the spirit-breaking. What all are trying to do together is acquire back self-esteem.

There are alternatives to 12-step groups, such as Women for Sobriety (WFS) and Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART), however none have the track record of success AA boasts, and none are as widely available. Other 12-step groups are available for a number of addictions, from gambling to narcotics to overeating.

The Higher Power thing is tough for some people to swallow. Some people stay away from 12-step meetings because they don’t see themselves in the people around the tables or hear their stories told in the tragic stories of others. That is the point in going: To make sure you’re communicating what is stressing you before you go back to the drinking and become those tragic stories.

From a strictly medical standpoint, alcoholism is remarkably easy to arrest. It’s a lot less complicated than arresting cancer or diabetes. Abandon the bottle long enough and detox and biological functioning returns to something close to normal in a few weeks or months. From that point on, it is a matter of not going backward. That’s the drawback to having a disease that can be arrested but not cured: While it is under control it’s all too easy to forget what life was like when it wasn’t. Twelve-step groups remind alcoholics what it was like. Without the stigma.

One of the most treasured AA stories in print says, “Above all, AA taught me how to handle sobriety. I have learned how to relate to people… deal with disappointments and problems that once would have sent me right to the bottle. How do we do it? By sharing at meetings.”

-- Adapted from the recovery book, Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud.

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