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How To Find A True Non-12-Step Program

The Saint Jude Retreats, America's Non 12 Step Program Since 1989

How To Find A True Non-12-Step ProgramThe fact that "non-12-step" has become a buzzword says a lot about the addiction treatment industry. People are unhappy; they've sent their loved ones off to 12-step based rehabs too many times, only to see them come back worse than before the treatment. Then, they get upset (rightly so) and hop on the internet looking for something different: a non-12-step program. But how do you know whether you're getting a true non-12-step solution to a substance use problem, or just being swindled by someone cashing in on your frustration with an ineffective model?

Unfortunately, it's a jungle out there, and while you may be fed up with meetings and sponsors and being badgered into believing in a higher power, you mustn't get caught up in these specifics or concrete elements of 12-step programs, alone. It's the principles that matter. While many treatment programs have now dubbed themselves as non-12-step, you'll probably find that their claim holds little weight because the philosophies of the twelve steps are nearly impossible to separate from today's treatment methods. Don't just jump at the first program you see that claims to be non-12-step. Investigate, and hold them to a high standard on this - you've already wasted too much precious time and money on counterproductive programs. You can start by identifying the essential defining characteristics of 12-step programs which are harmful and have led you to specifically look for a non-12-step program

Here is a list of the essential characteristics of 12-step programs which people find unhelpful, offensive, or even harmful. We'll look at each one in detail and determine their opposites so that you may understand how to find a true non-12-step program.

  • Twelve-step programs teach people to be powerless over drugs and alcohol.
  • Twelve-step programs apply intense pressure to become religious, or fit your spiritual beliefs to theirs.
  • The 12-step program consumes your time and your life.
  • Twelve-step members and practitioners are disrespectful, confrontational, and controlling. Now, let's go into detail:

12-Step Problem #1: Powerlessness

The first step of any 12-step program is to "admit that you are powerless" over drugs and/or alcohol. In the context of 12-step programs, powerlessness means that volition alone, or choice, has no direct affect on the behavior in question. This naturally turns people off because it doesn't make sense on so many levels. First of all, your job in helping someone is to facilitate their movement toward a positive choice to change. When you beat it into somebody's head that they can't control themselves, then you've taken any and all choices off the table! How do you make a choice to stop using substances when you have no power to carry out that choice? Yet, they still ask you to choose to stay sober "one day at a time..." This aspect of the program reveals many contradictions and is impossible for any intelligent person to follow. Furthermore, this claim of powerlessness can't be substantiated. It may be tough and uncomfortable to choose to stop using substances, but it's clearly not impossible, people do it every day. There is no mechanism by which powerlessness can be soundly explained or proven.

What's more likely is that the idea of powerlessness creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Twelve-step programs tell people they're powerless; they believe it; and, they proceed to behave as if they can't control themselves. The experience of families who've seen their loved ones descend deeper and deeper into addiction with every new attempt at treatment bears this theory out.

Now, for argument's sake, let's say that a program calls themselves non-12-step; they disown the 12 steps; they never ask any of their patients to attend a single AA or NA meeting, and they never speak a single word about powerlessness. All of this is meaningless if they also teach that addiction is a compulsion driven by a disease. The disease model of addiction is conceptually equivalent to powerlessness. The whole justification for treatment is the idea that the disease hijacks the addict's free will and forces someone to use substances regardless of any choices they wish to make. "Disease" implies powerlessness - that is, the force of will alone cannot stop the progression of a disease; an outside tool or force such as some sort of medication or surgery is needed to stop a real disease. Left to your own devices, you're essentially powerless over disease. There are no choices which directly stop a tumor from growing, whereas you can directly choose to stop drinking or drugging. The only struggle is in finding a way to stick to the choice in the long-term.

Non-12-Step Solution to the Powerlessness Trap

A true non-12-step program will never tell anyone that they're powerless over their own behavior. Their goal will be much the opposite - they'll seek to empower their clients, often by demonstrating success, reminding them of their strengths, teaching them how to make bold choices, and offering them attractive options to choose instead of excessive drug and alcohol use. While the 12-step program destroys people's confidence in their own ability to make better choices, the true non-12-step program builds and strengthens self-efficacy and sets people on a path toward full responsibility for their choices.

Furthermore, a true non-12-step program will never seek to convince their clients that they have an incurable disease. Such theories are unproven, and ultimately help no one. In fact, an important study found that belief in the disease theory of addiction was strongly associated with relapse. That is, when researchers tried to predict which of their test subjects would resume their drinking habits, they found that the stronger someone believed that their substance use was caused by a disease, the more likely that person was to relapse. This was such an important factor that it allowed the researchers to predict with 85% accuracy who would relapse! (1)

A true non-12-step program sees the dangers and the parallels between the disease concept and powerlessness. They avoid using and, in fact, denounce any concept which misleads the client into believing that they can't directly choose to change. A true non-12-step program empowers people; it does not cut them down.

12-Step Problem #2: Mysticism and Religious Indoctrination

Religious and/or spiritual beliefs are an extremely personal matter. Accordingly, most of us don't like it when somebody tries to sway us from our chosen views in this area or impose their beliefs on us. Yet this is what 12-Step programs do every day. For all of their talk about members being able to choose their own higher power, 12 steppers really aren't as open-minded as they portray themselves. They say you can call your "higher power" whatever you want, and it can be whatever you want - but ultimately, no matter what it is, it needs to have the same powers and behave the exact same way as the Christian God of AA. So there really is no choice of a higher power, it's the Christian AA God or nothing. If you're an atheist or agnostic, things only get worse as they use methods of psychological abuse to try to force you into thinking their way. Ultimately, people see through these tactics, and the whole experience leaves a bad taste.

Many people find spirituality and religion extremely helpful in their quest to change a substance use habit, but the bottom line is that your drug and alcohol choices are not dependent on holding a specific spiritual belief. Twelve-step programs are so extreme in their insistence on a spiritual path to recovery that their members will quickly tell you that you'll never escape addiction and that you'll die unless you accept their spiritual beliefs. In fact, 7 of the 12 steps make references to spirituality, a higher power, or God in some way. For non-believers, this makes these programs impracticable and intolerable. For believers, the pseudo-spiritual nonsense, and proselytizing know-it-alls bring things to a point which is downright insulting. This is a major reason why people end up looking for a non-12-step program.

Unfortunately, many so-called non-12-step programs don't shed this problem at all. They often cite "spiritual growth" as a key component of recovery. They also use philosophies based in mysticism or mythology. Some are wholly religious programs - and if that is what caused you or your loved one problems with past treatment programs, then such programs simply aren't an option.

Moreover, many programs that define themselves as an alternative to, or non-12-step, are notoriously full of mystical new age treatments, such as energy healing or Reiki. You've sought treatment for answers to a problem that you can touch and feel and implement now - you're not looking for a new religion, faith healing, or mysticism.

Non-12-step solution to Mysticism and Religious Indoctrination

A true non-12-step program simply won't make an issue of spirituality; that is, they'll never tell you that you must believe in any form of spirituality in order to sober up. They'll leave your spiritual beliefs up to you. They won't ask you to leave your success up to faith. Instead, they'll give you tools that you can use to start changing your behavior and making better choices. It's not easy to find such programs, but for many, finding a real alternative to the dogma of AA is of the utmost importance.

A true non-12-step program must also avoid new age nonsense. Believe it or not, there are now programs which give people doses of hallucinogenic drugs such as ibogaine or ketamine in order to induce a spiritual experience. And there are far too many programs that include crystals, aura readings, energy healers, and Reiki practitioners. While none of these things are explicitly recommended in official 12-step literature, they represent the same concept as AA's basic message that you can only hope for an incomprehensible miracle to solve your problem. A true non-12-step program needn't denounce or discourage these things, but nor should it include them.

When you investigate something billed as a non-12-step program, look at their list of employees or practitioners and you might be amazed at what you find. We looked at the staff list of one program where some of the core ideas are very non-12-step, but unfortunately they employed several energy healers, equine and animal therapists, herbal medicine practitioners, and hypnotherapists. These things may lead people astray just like 12-step programs' reliance on a higher power. And for those who are skeptical, the inclusion of such practices will quickly destroy any credibility the program could have earned in their mind.

12-Step Problem #3: The Program Consumes Your Life

Many people struggle in 12-step programs because they're convinced that they need to go to meetings every day in order to stay sober. If you don't wish to go to so many meetings, then the other 12 step members will start whispering about you, assume that you must be using substances, spread rumors, and often tell you outright that you're not going to enough meetings and you will relapse and die if you don't get more involved. This can be an intense and even scary amount of pressure.

Beyond that, when you get a sponsor, he'll make you get involved in after-meeting activities spending every night at the coffee shop with other AA's. You'll be told to get a home group meeting where you have to show up early every week and make coffee, and then stay late afterwards to clean up. Some sponsors may also command you to call them every day. They'll give you prayers to read in the morning and at bedtime. And eventually, you'll be told that it's time to start sponsoring others in the program, spend your time with them, and run around doing 12-step work which includes driving people around and helping them get their lives together - it may even include being sent on missions to talk a dangerously intoxicated person into come to a meeting. Indeed, 12-step programs don't allow you to move on with your life â€" and as time goes on, it consumes more and more of your precious time.

What's worse is that it can sneak up on people, and before they know it, they've alienated their entire family and friends, and they now have only fellow 12-steppers as a social circle. Thus, the situation compounds itself and becomes nearly inescapable; AA consumes your life.

Some people recognize this is the case early on. They see all the demands of the program and they know it isn't for them. Others don't. They get drawn in; spend every day of their lives essentially focused on the past - that they once had a drinking or drug problem. They now spend every day reliving it through others, talking about it at meetings or to sponsees. They identify as an alcoholic or addict every day, and their social circle only reinforces the horrible notions of powerlessness and other faulty ideas of AA. Everything about this situation causes stagnation, and eventually sends people backwards as they explode into active substance abuse again.

Some programs may not direct you to 12-step meetings, so it seems that the 12-step danger has been eliminated. Unfortunately, this just isn't so. Many non-12 step programs may convince you to get into long-term outpatient treatment which is essentially the same as 12-step meetings, or worse. You spend every day sitting in a group therapy sessions with a bunch of people who have substance use problems and who can't stop talking about how much they want to use drugs. This is essentially a 12-step meeting, the only difference being that it's led by a professional therapist or counselor - it's anything but non-12-step. In these group therapy sessions they also teach that you're a perpetually recovering addict/alcoholic, and they instruct you to be on guard for "relapse triggers." So, even if you don't go to 12-step meetings, your mind is still consumed in the same way. You spend every day thinking about how to avoid relapse triggers, and you actually expend effort to try to not get high or drunk that day. In any case - you're still living "one day at a time," instead of planning for your future successes. Or, they may refer you to an alternative support group that isn't necessarily a 12-step program, and in fact might be quite different - yet you come to depend on it as some sort of medicine to keep you sober. Consider that a non-12-step program may not make you dependent on 12-step dogma, it very likely has meeting requirements and rhetoric of its own.

There are so many ways the treatment world consumes your life, and all of it inevitably leads to failure. Then when you fail, you head back to treatment and they convince you to stay in their programs for ever-increasing lengths of time - 6 months, a year, 18 months. It's almost at the point where treatment providers think it would be ideal if you could just live in a treatment facility for the rest of your life. How can they call themselves non-12-step when they're still selling you the 12-step lifestyle?

Non-12-Step Solution to a Life Consuming Program

You don't enter a 12-step treatment program because you want to gain a miserable life consuming pattern of behavior - you go there to get rid of that. So, a true non-12-step program should free you from such burdens. It should empower you to make changes and move on with your life. A real non-12-step approach should simplify the process of changing your habits rather than teaching you to believe they're a fundamental part of you, which can't be changed and which you must spend the rest of your life managing.

To be truly non-12-step a program must give people their lives back, not give them a lifelong burden. The non-12-step way provides freedom to change, be future oriented, and build a life which is actually more enjoyable than substance use. This is often achieved by helping people to revamp their careers, schooling, relationships, or family life - not by keeping them focused on "recovery." The true non-12-step solution is to help people grow and make positive changes, and send them on their way to live an exciting life. This directly contradicts the programs which stunt growth and strike lifelong fear of relapse into people.

The recovery lifestyle sold by more traditional programs and by many who call themselves non-12-step simply sucks - it's a burden, it's unnatural, it steamrolls your dreams and keeps you in chains. In fact, it's often worse than a life of addiction - which is why so many people go back to substance use.

12 Step Problem #4: Confrontation and Control

The hypocrisy is actually quite disgusting when disease proponents brow-beat you into believing that addiction is a disease and lecturer that those who think it's a choice are heartless, morally judgmental, and just want to punish addicts by tossing them into jail. Yet, in the next breath these same disease proponents will tell you how the addict is arrogant and needs to be humbled!

Disease proponents can't wait to get people into rehabs and strip them of communication with the outside world. They put ridiculous limits on what personal possessions the addict may have during their rehabilitation. And, often they determine when you must go to sleep and when you must wake up. Some even decide which TV shows you may watch in your free time and what music you can listen to! They make patients perform chores such as mopping and cleaning bathrooms, and then decide who they may or may not talk to within the facility. This is standard practice in nearly all treatment centers. Physically, treatment professionals seek total control; they call it humbling, but we know it's really punishment.

What's worse than that is the mind control. They do everything they can to break down people's egos. They do this by refusing to acknowledge that anyone with a substance use problem may have had any redeeming qualities before they entered a 12-step program. Anything you tell addiction counselors about your life gets turned around as an example of your selfishness, or fear or arrogance - they convince you that you're full of character defects. Then they go on to portray you as the cause of every problem you've ever encountered in life, and of course, if you'd just let them control your life for a while, then everything would turn around. These are the same tactics cults use to gain members. Most famously, they use trite slogans to cut you down at every turn, such as when they tell someone new to the 12-step groups to "take the cotton out of your ears and stick it in your mouth." or "your best thinking got you here." A non-12-step program would never endorse the idea that the best thinking their clients are capable of is the kind that leads to rampant and destructive substance use! That's downright insulting.

And then there's the confrontation. This is involved in everything I mentioned so far, but it's also explicitly included as a part of treatment. As a policy, treatment providers set out to "confront denial" with every new client. This basically means that they predetermine you to be a liar, and badger you to tell the "real" truth about everything. Many people, while being totally honest yet being confronted for denial have simply made up insane story-lines about what awful people they've been. This is simply to get these overbearing counselors and treatment center employees off their backs.

All that I have reported is commonplace in 12-step treatment. The message is basically this: shut up, take your punishment, and do what I tell you to do or you'll die. What's worse is that they may often manipulate family members with this sort of mind control. Twelve-step programs regularly advise friends and family members how to push their loved ones to the brink of destruction. One extremely visible and famous 12-step advocate has recently recommended that some families plant drugs on their children and call the police so that they can force them into alcohol rehab! This tactic is used to induce what's known as a rock bottom point. If this isn't an attempt to control, I don't know what is, and it's a dangerous one, at that.

Furthermore, once you're in the clutches of a 12-step program and a sponsor you'll be told who to associate with and where you can go. Your people, places, and things will need to be changed, and they'll make sure to keep not-so-gently advising you of that.

Non-12-Step Solution to Confrontation and Control

To really have integrity as a non-12-step program, all of the above must be avoided. Accordingly, a non-12-step program will not set people's goals for them; it will not tell them who they may associate with; nor will it tell them where they may go. In fact, a non-12-step program does not even tell someone that they should be sober or that they need to choose abstinence. While the program may feel strongly that these are good recommendations, any such advice, even in the friendliest manner, is still an attempt to control, and strips the substance user of the opportunity to exercise control over their own life. Even the choice to abstain or moderate at any level must be up to the client - because if anyone else makes those choices for them, the substance user is less likely to stick to those choices, and they'll never get any experience at making different choices. Then, when counselors (or other professionals) aren't around to keep directing their life, choices and action; i.e. controlling them, they'll be lost.

If you want to find a non-12-step program, find a place that allows clients a decent level of freedom. Find someplace that doesn't seek to deprive clients of simple comforts. Find somewhere that doesn't demand that you live a certain way, or die. Find a place that respects their clients and sees great potential and ability in everyone. Find a place that doesn't treat their clients like animals, and you will have found a true non-12-step program. A non-12-step program knows that every client is capable of change and that if given the opportunity in a supportive environment, each client will come up with a far better life plan for themselves than anything prescribed by a helping figure. A non-12-step program respects their clients and gives them the freedom to think for themselves, without imposing predetermined goals and restrictions on the client's own life plans.

Many programs claim to be non-12-step, but they employ control and confrontation at every turn. This approach is unavoidable when you believe that you are better than your clients, that you know more about them than they know about themselves, and when you see them as incapable of change and/or driven to substance use by a disease or some equivalent such as nutritional deficiencies, toxins, or a chemical imbalance. If you're investigating a non-12-step program, try to get someone on the phone and see if they've got a confrontational or controlling tone; pay attention to whether or not they assume to know everything about you or your loved one, and ask plenty of questions about how they view addiction and how they interact with their clients. Ask them what the treatment actually consists of, and if you're lucky enough to get an answer, judge for yourself whether you think it's controlling and confrontational.


We've covered both the specifics and the broader principles of what defines both 12-step and non-12-step programs. There are many fake non-12-step programs out there with little substantive difference from conventional programs. If you keep this stuff in mind, then you'll be able to avoid getting ripped off or worse.

If you investigate and hold all treatment to the high standards we've presented here, you'll find that The St. Jude Retreats are the epitome of non-12-step programs, and that St. Jude Retreats really does offer something totally different. You won't find the powerlessness or disease concepts used in any form at the St. Jude Retreats. We know that no one is powerless over drugs and alcohol, and we've eagerly researched the disease model looking for some proof that it's true. We haven't found any evidence to support it. We've continuously taught our students that addiction is a choice, and we've always believed in their ability to change. We empower students with straightforward strategies and tools they can apply to change their habits, and it's paid off, as St. Jude Retreats have achieved the highest success rate in the industry.

St. Jude Retreats is truly non 12-step because it doesn't impose any religious or spiritual beliefs on its students. Why argue with people over such things - just to try to be right? St. Jude Retreats doesn't judge its student's spiritual views â€" it respects their views, and encourages them to follow what they know to be true in their hearts. Furthermore, St. Jude Retreats does not distract its students with new age nonsense, and it most certainly does not try to trick them into some sort of placebo-effected change. Again, St. Jude Retreats provides the tools, support, and positivity to change and build an entirely new lifestyle.

St. Jude's is not seeking lifelong customers. We want someone to stay for 6 - 10 weeks, have an enjoyable and uplifting experience, and then move on with their life. We've offered longer term options in the past, and found that they were unnecessary, and that at the most, some people may benefit from an extra four weeks. Guests leave St. Jude Retreats not with a meeting list, but instead with self-generated plans on how to start living the life of their dreams Problems are then left where they should be, in the past. St. Jude Retreats frees substance users from an imaginary, incurable, lifelong disease - this is the essence of a non-12-step approach.

The creators of the St. Jude Program dislike the confrontational nature and control models of the 12-step orthodoxy, so much so that they created a whole new approach to helping people: The Freedom Model. It's the exact opposite of confrontation and control - instead of judging, demanding, and commanding, St. Jude's provides a constructive atmosphere in which to think, and they give them the freedom to think for themselves without fear of judgment, psychological abuse, or confrontation of any kind. Substance users become aware that they've been creating their own lifestyle all along, and they find direction from within to grow and create the life that they truly want. St. Jude's never prescribes a lifestyle or goal of any kind, because they want each guest to freely choose for themselves.

St. Jude Retreats provides no treatment, just Cognitive Behavioral Learning. It makes a difference, because in the controlling treatment model, doctors, counselors and sponsors are placed in higher status, all knowing roles, over the client. In treatment, the client is a diseased patient, powerless to control their behavior, and in need of an expert to control them. In the Cognitive Behavioral Learning model clients are students, not patients, and their (CBL) instructors are equals â€" (CBL) instructors don't pretend to have any special insight into their student's lives. (CBL) instructors pass along tools and techniques, not a life plan or judgment of any kind. (CBL) instructors don't treat; they educate. There is a difference, and that, more than anything, makes the St. Jude Retreats a true non-12-step, non-treatment solution for substance use problems.

By: Steven Slate

(1) William R. Miller, Verner S. Westerberg, Richard J. Harris and J. Scott Tonigan, What Predicts Relapse? Prospective Testing of Antecedent Models. Addiction (1996) 91 (Supplement) S155-S171

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