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12-Step Programs

Since the humble beginnings of Alcoholics Anonymous, 12-step programs have given millions of recovering alcoholics and addicts a foundation upon which to build a clean and sober future. Each program draws inspiration from the original 12 Steps to find their unique model as a way of providing help.

The 12 Steps of Recovery

  1. We admitted we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand God.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for the knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

What are 12-Step Programs?

Even if far removed from the world of substance abuse and recovery, you likely know about the 12 Steps. People from all over name-drop the 12 Steps, and the idea has inflated way beyond its origins.

Authored by Bill W., now a legendary figure, the 12 Steps exist as a set of guidelines for beating drug or alcohol addiction – an instruction manual for those who have lost their way. They are the backbone of Alcoholics Anonymous and its many descendants.

All 12-step programs, which are free or very low cost, aim to help people seeking a way to break free from destructive behaviors that threaten to destroy their lives through substance abuse. Individuals meet others in similar situations, and together they attend regular meetings where they learn and work the 12 Steps of recovery.


In meetings, group members share stories about their past and talk about their current lives, being honest and frank about their successes and failures and where they are on the path to recovery. They discuss and work through the 12 steps of recovery, rebuilding their lives with a foundation of trust, honesty and support.

Through the substance abuse 12 step process, countless people afflicted by addiction found a way to rediscover a normal, sane way of living. This includes people who found freedom from:

Renewed spiritual faith often plays a role in success stories. God – or a Higher Power – plays a significant role in the 12 Steps, just as He did for Bill W. Many 12-step programs follow the same 12 steps, but some groups follow steps that are slightly different from the original 12-step program. Examples of 12-step programs include:

In present day medicine, some people dispute the ideology of step programs, just as others revere it. But it’s hard to deny the program’s influence.

The original 12-step program, or a close derivative of it, provides a path to recovery for countless people struggling with substance abuse. At this rate, the program will likely outlive most of its counterparts as the go-to resource for addiction treatment.

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Origin and History of the 12 Steps

Bill Wilson drafted the handbook for Alcoholics Anonymous, a program he helped get off the ground in the late 1930s. In the years leading up to it, Bill W. – which is how he is remembered – dealt with serious bouts of depression and alcoholism. Bill turned to drinking after his parents divorced and left him, leaving his grandparents to raise him.

Bill Wilson drafted the handbook for Alcoholics Anonymous, a program he helped get off the ground in the late 1930s.

He found some financial success as a stock speculator but burned through his savings on drink after drink. After marrying a wealthy older woman he met as a teen, he soon bankrupted her and her family as well. Each time Bill attempted sobriety, he relapsed in grand fashion. It was only after hitting this rock bottom – penniless and hopeless – that he checked into a recovery group at a Christian organization called the Oxford Group.

At the Oxford Group, Bill attended confessional meetings and learned principles of religious faith as a means of self-betterment. While undergoing the treatment, he had a spiritual experience that gave him a new lease on life. He left the treatment as a sober individual. Before long, he felt the need to pass this experience along in the hope of pulling fellow alcoholics out of their addiction. He soon rededicated his life to helping others dealing with problems like his.

Bill published Alcoholics Anonymous, or “The Big Book,” in 1939. The handbook spells out the nonjudgmental, spiritually-minded philosophy that got Bill sober. In the years after, Bill – along with friend and doctor Robert Smith – founded the club of the same name. Alcoholics Anonymous, or AA, provided a meeting place for addicts in need of a way out. Word spread around the globe, and branches of AA popped up in city after city. And the 12 Steps, the defining principles of the group, were embraced as the Commandments in this revolutionary movement.

People Discussing a Topic at a Meeting

Spirituality’s Influence

Bill W. made it clear his faith in God played a central role in his recovery, helped guide him in getting AA off the ground, and helped in writing the Big Book. Most versions of the 12 Steps make mention of God or a Higher Power and assert the importance of faith in recovery. Initial copies of the 12 Steps contain even more references to God, but Bill W. made several edits over time.

As the program’s influence spread, allusions to religion divided many groups. While Alcoholics Anonymous and several other groups continue to posit the importance of God in conquering addiction, secular versions of the 12 Steps have become widely used as well, which reference the main ideas of the program minus the religious language.

Growth of Programs

As of 2010, 54 fellowships used some variation of a 12-step program to help people manage their illness.

After they were published, the 12 Steps steadily trickled around the globe and grew into a central idea for support groups big and small. As of 2010, 54 fellowships used some variation of a 12-step program to help people manage their illness. That includes everything from gambling to schizophrenia to eating disorders. It remains the focal point of Alcoholics Anonymous and two off-shoots, Al-Anon (for family members of alcoholics) and Adult Children of Alcoholics (for people who grew up in an alcoholic or dysfunctional home), and also its closest relative, Narcotics Anonymous.

The influence of the 12-step program shows no signs of slowing.

How and Why 12-Step Programs Work

Cost and availability are both primary explanations for the effectiveness of these programs. People battling a substance addiction can’t spare the fees for treatment facilities or pricey prescriptions. So they turn to a substance abuse 12-step program. They comply with the process and develop the willpower to conquer their dependency.

Empty Meeting Room

People dealing with the consequences of substance abuse often need a place to turn. Places like AA provide a welcoming environment, an established network of friendly faces, and a simple, proven instruction guide on how to correct the problem that got them there.


Most people who work a 12-step program attend group meetings. Nearly 9 percent of Americans attend an AA meeting at some point. Active meeting attendees show up at one or more meetings a week, and those who find themselves newly sober go to a meeting a day – and sometimes even more.

Nearly 9 percent of Americans attend an AA meeting at some point.

People in recovery introduce themselves to the group, and may choose to share the story of what brings them there and report their ongoing conflicts or success stories. You may be familiar with the routine: “Hi, my name is (first name only), and I’m an alcoholic. My last drink was . . . .”

Meetings are intensely personal. They’re also confidential and anonymous, hence the informal introductions. Attendees are discouraged from talking about another person’s story with anyone outside the group, and it’s considered a violation of the AA code to identify to an outsider a fellow member of the group.

Groups usually encourage new members to attend at least six meetings in a row before deciding if the 12 Steps will work in their lives. After a few meetings attendees develop a bond with the other regulars. Some group members form invaluable friendships this way.

Groups usually encourage new members to attend at least six meetings in a row before deciding if the 12 Steps will work in their lives.

Together, members hold one another accountable for putting their best foot forward and finding ways to stay active without resorting to substances. Attending these meetings on a regular basis oftentimes keeps addicts focused and gives them something to look forward to in place of feeding their addiction.

Working the Steps

In their most basic form, the 12 Steps provide a template for putting your problem into perspective and restructuring your life, to get your priorities straight and weed the habit out of your routine. The first step presents the toughest challenge for many people immersed in addiction: accepting that you have a problem.

Working the steps depends on the variation of the 12 Steps to which your program subscribes. Whether or not a Higher Power plays a role changes the steps dramatically, and some groups deem certain steps more important than others. Whichever group you attend, you will quickly learn their definition of the 12 Steps and trust that they’ve been tried and tested over the life of the program.


A typical 12-step model includes the call for a sponsor. This is another individual in the group that becomes your accountability partner, as well as a role model of sorts. Sponsors are often seasoned attendees of the group, who can channel their newfound strength and the lessons they’ve learned to help a newer member work through the toughest stages of recovery.

Men Talking on a Couch

Once established, this relationship adds new life to recovery, giving addicts an individual to confide in, and report to with their status along the trail to sobriety. People who work with a sponsor typically experience less psychological distress and, in the case of AA, report fewer drinking episodes after a five-year follow-up.

The bond that recovering addicts create with a sponsor can be a special one. It’s not out of the ordinary for individuals to keep in touch with their sponsor for years and to be inspired to serve as a sponsor as a way of paying the act forward.

Complement to Treatment

About 90 percent of rehab facilities utilize some variation of the 12 Steps in conjunction with scientific approaches.

Trained professionals in the substance-abuse recovery field may steer away from recommending a 12-step program as a substitute for time spent at an alcohol and drug treatment center. But as a supplement in the complete recovery process, a majority of doctors would agree on the benefits of the philosophy.

About 90 percent of rehab facilities utilize some variation of the 12 Steps in conjunction with scientific approaches.

About 90 percent of rehab facilities utilize some variation of the 12 Steps in conjunction with scientific approaches. Once rehab patients go home, attendance at group meetings is encouraged to complement the treatment and keep sobriety as an active goal. Many people attend 12-step meetings for years following rehab treatment.

100 Page Guide To Sobriety

  • Quick Tips for Sobriety
  • Relapse Prevention Plan
  • Accessing Resources
pages from the sobriety ebook

12-Step Critics

Not everyone sings the praises of the 12 Steps. A slew of critics have dissected the 12-step approach over the years and contested its legitimacy.

Some common arguments from critics are:

Moreover, the success rate of the 12 Steps pales in comparison to the failure rate.

The reason that the 5-to-10 percent of people do well in AA actually doesn’t have much to do with the 12 Steps themselves, it has to do with the camaraderie. But most people can’t deal with their addiction which is deeply driven by just being in a brotherhood.

Dr. Lance Dodes, a psychiatrist who spent over 20 years studying addiction.

Following the AA model, having a sip of beer at any point in your recovery sends you back to square one.

“If you fail in AA, it’s you that’s failed,” Dodes said. “People leave feeling much more depressed and discouraged and worse about themselves.”

Based on his research, people stop drinking on their own at about the same rate as they get better in Alcoholics Anonymous.

For every critic of 12-step programs, though, another success story comes out of them. It’s important for you to do your own research and draw your own conclusions about the 12 Steps – or anything related to substance abuse, for that matter – before making the move to join a program.

Getting Involved

We are more connected than ever, and the Internet allows anyone to view the 12 Steps in their many incarnations and chat with an online community of like-minded people. You can find a list of the most well-known 12-step groups, along with links to their websites, at

Speaker at 12 Step Meeting

Attending in-person meetings, though, remains the best way to reap the benefits of a recovery group. You can learn more about these meetings, including the meeting times and the locations nearest to you, by checking out a specific group’s website or calling a group representative.

If you think one of your friends or loved ones may benefit from a 12-step program, pass along any helpful information and encourage them to look into it.

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