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6 Reasons the 12 Steps of AA Isn’t Right for You

Alcoholics Anonymous has over two million active members — half of which reside in the U.S. Since its inception in 1935, AA has helped millions of people quit drinking, achieve sobriety, and improve their lives after overcoming alcohol addiction. But despite the program’s apparent success and popularity, the 12 steps of AA aren’t necessarily the best course of alcohol treatment for everyone, and may not work for you as expected.

Thinking about attending AA meetings to overcome problems with alcohol dependence and addiction? Here’s how AA really works, along with six reasons this program may not be right for you.

What is Alcoholics Anonymous?

AA is an international fellowship of men and women who struggle with alcohol abuse, and who have a desire to quit drinking and become sober. AA welcomes anyone who has a drinking problem, or who thinks they might have a drinking problem. Members attend meetings on a daily or weekly basis to talk about their experiences related to alcohol use, and to share stories and tips with one another surrounding sobriety and healthy living.

AA was originally founded in 1935 by a stockbroker named Bill Wilson and a surgeon named Dr. Bob Smith — both of whom suffered from alcohol addiction and had tried to become sober several times in the past. Wilson and Smith had previously belonged to the Oxford Group — a non-denominational Christian fellowship comprised of non-alcoholic members that recognized and emphasized a set of universal spiritual values in daily living. It was the influence of these spiritual values that inspired Wilson and Smith to start AA.

At the time AA was created, alcohol addiction had not yet been recognized or acknowledged as a chronic brain disease. Unable to grasp or understand addiction from a scientific standpoint, Wilson and Smith viewed overcoming addiction as a religious experience that could be achieved under guidance from a “higher power.” In 1939 the AA Fellowship published its textbook called Alcoholics Anonymous — also known as the Big Book — which explains the group’s philosophy and methods and outlines the 12 steps of AA that require members to admit they need help from a higher power in order to recover from alcohol addiction.

AA’s primary purpose is to help alcohol addicts stay sober for life. Today, there are more than two million active members in over 114,000 AA groups in more than 170 countries around the world.

Six Reasons Why AA Isn’t Right For You

AA is so widely known that many assume this treatment is the best option and go-to remedy for alcohol addiction. But if your goal is to truly overcome alcohol addiction once and for all, more treatments than AA are usually needed to help you stay sober.

Here are six reasons you should reconsider going to AA:

1. AA Has a Low Success Rate

Since many AA members wish to remain anonymous, data is mostly inconclusive surrounding whether AA is successful at helping alcohol addicts stay sober. A 2007 survey on AA relapse rates revealed that 31% of members only stayed sober for less than one year.

Other studies say 40% of AA members stop attending meetings during their first year.

Lance Dodes, M.D., psychiatrist and author of The Sober Truth, says a large body of evidence suggests that the success rate of AA is far lower than most people expect at between 5 and 10%.

There are several reasons AA is thought to have a low success rate. Dr. Lance Dodes says AA’s success rate is low because the organization is more like a brotherhood than a treatment, and that the program usually only helps people change their behavior temporarily. But Dodes’ statement may ring true since many addiction treatment centers combine AA with cognitive-behavioral therapy and other therapies aimed at helping you heal from deeply rooted core issues that may be driving your addiction. In most cases, several therapies are needed to help you overcome alcohol addiction as a whole — not just AA by itself.

2. AA Has Religious and Spiritual Undertones

12 steps of aa

If you’re not religious or spiritual, the 12 steps of AA could be ineffective.

Of the 12 steps of AA, there are seven steps that refer to prayer or a higher power such as God. The Lord’s Prayer and Serenity Prayer are recited at most AA meetings, and the ultimate goal of sobriety as outlined in the final step is being able to experience a spiritual awakening. While AA’s religious and spiritual undertones may work well and resonate strongly with some, this may not work for everyone — especially those who lack a religious background or who practice and recognize atheism, agnosticism, and other views and beliefs.

Individuals with varying spiritual beliefs may not understand or feel comfortable with the 12 steps of AA, which are based on the Christian views of the Oxford Group. Many new chapters of AA around the U.S. have modified the program to make it more appealing to non-religious members by removing religious undertones. However, these groups remain few and far between, and aren’t always available in smaller cities and rural areas of the U.S.

3. AA Preaches Abstinence

Addiction has a relapse rate of between 40 and 60% — meaning it’s completely normal and expected for many recovering addicts to relapse and go back to drinking at least once. But AA preaches that abstinence is the only way to recover from alcohol addiction and that those who do not recover are “unfortunates,” and simply born that way. The significance of abstinence is outlined in chapter five of the Big Book, which also says that men and women who do not recover from addiction are incapable of being honest with themselves.

Many argue that these statements are negative, disheartening, and discouraging, and do not take into account the scientific evidence backing up relapse rates. Some people need more than just fellowship to recover from addiction, and to lower the risk for relapse. For instance, medication-assisted treatment for alcohol dependence using disulfiram can motivate patients to stay sober since the drug produces painful adverse effects when used with alcohol.

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4. AA is Only One Path to Recovery

AA offers a singular path to recovery in the form of lifelong abstinence from alcohol and encourages its members to surrender and accept that they are powerless over alcohol. But AA was founded in the 1930s before scientific advancements made it possible for doctors to learn more about the human brain, and how its structure and function can change after being exposed to alcohol abuse.

Alcohol detox is always the first stage of treatment and helps patients overcome physical dependence on alcohol while receiving professional medical care during withdrawal. Following detox, you can receive other therapies in addition to AA that will help you address the root cause of alcohol addiction — whether it stem from chronic stress, depression, PTSD, or negative influences at home or in nearby communities. If you’ve been dependent on alcohol for many years, AA alone may not be enough to help you battle physical and psychological cravings and other underlying problems.

5. AA Takes Place in Local Communities

Your environment is one of the leading causes and risk factors of addiction. People are more likely to suffer from addiction if they spend time in environments where drinking is encouraged, praised, and part of everyday living. For instance, studies show that nearly one-half of children who grow up with alcoholic parents are also likely to become addicts themselves since they’re taught from an early age that drinking is the norm.

AA groups and meetings are available in nearly every city across the U.S., but some in recovery may not have the option to attend meetings away from homes and communities that may be influencing their addiction. If you spend lots of time in environments surrounded by triggers and negative influences, AA won’t be enough to keep you sober if you lack the education and skills needed to recognize and overcome triggers. Relapsing is more common among those who remain in unhealthy environments while they work toward overcoming addiction.

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6. AA Doesn’t Offer Detox

AA meetings are support groups and do not offer professional detox or medical services to those who need help withdrawing from alcohol. If you go to AA without visiting a drug detox center first, you face the risk of experiencing complications associated with alcohol withdrawal, such as seizures and a severe form of withdrawal called delirium tremens. Heavy, long-term drinkers face the risk for death when attempting to withdraw from alcohol on their own without professional help.

AA may be able to teach you methods and tricks for staying sober, and connect you with new friends and like-minded individuals who share your compassion for the fight against addiction. But AA does not help you overcome alcohol dependence, and won’t lower your risk for serious health complications. AA is often used as a complementary therapy in addition to detox and cognitive-behavioral therapy.

The Benefits of 12 Step Programs for Addiction Recovery

So does AA work? Yes — the 12 steps of AA have worked for many people, but aren’t for everyone, and should not be used as a one-size-fits-all approach to treating alcohol addiction. Every person who wants to stop drinking must find their own unique treatment path and solution that works best for them, and not for their friends, neighbors, and fellow AA members.

A recent report from the U.S. Surgeon General says 12-step support groups like AA can promote a person’s recovery from alcohol addiction by strengthening their social network and improving their ability to cope with triggers and risky situations involving alcohol. Research also shows that AA may have the ability to reduce depression, cravings, and impulsive behavior, and may be effective at motivating some individuals to recover from alcohol abuse.

Other benefits of joining a 12-step program for addiction recovery:

  • AA is free and can be attended by anyone who wants to recover from a drinking problem.
  • AA meetings are available around the world so you can join meetings nearly anywhere when you feel the urge to drink.
  • AA introduces you to new sober friends who won’t influence you to drink.
  • AA provides you with a sponsor you can turn to for support when you feel tempted to drink.
  • AA offers you a safe haven in which you can freely open up about your experiences with alcohol.
  • AA exposes you to new methods for avoiding relapse and staying sober.

If your true goal is to ultimately achieve sobriety, there are other long-term recovery programs that can properly educate you about relapse and triggers, and about how alcohol and addiction affect the brain.

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Alternative Programs for Long-Term Recovery

The safest, most effective way to achieve long-term recovery is to join a 90-day treatment program at a drug detox center since studies find that 90-day programs offer the highest recovery success rates. Look for a drug detox center that offers alcohol detox, therapy, and aftercare programs aimed at helping you stay sober in the weeks, months, and years after overcoming addiction. Detox aftercare is vital for patients suffering from PAWS, and who need ongoing care for depression, anxiety, and other symptoms after quitting drinking.

Aftercare, also known as extended care programs, can help you build your social support network in the early days after treatment, and educate you on strategies you can use to avoid drinking and stay sober. Relapse prevention training, group therapy, and 12-step programs like AA are made available in outpatient settings so you can stay on track with sobriety indefinitely. Aftercare programs exist because alcohol relapse is highly common and normal. Plus, continuing to seek help allows you to become stronger, and teaches you how to overcome the same trigger the next time you’re faced with a situation involving alcohol.

If you’re looking for programs similar to AA, ask your doctors and counselors at rehab for recommendations on alternative therapies that can enhance your recovery. Faces and Voices for Recovery, SMART Recovery, Women for Sobriety, and LifeRing Secular Recovery are all alternatives to AA that can offer you the support you need to stay clean and develop healthier lifestyle habits.

If you or someone you love needs help fighting alcohol addiction, call our 24/7 confidential helpline at 800-996-6135(Who Answers?) to learn more about your treatment options. We’ll help you find a drug detox center ready to help you get clean and successfully overcome alcohol dependence.

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