12 Step programs are the foundation of the addiction treatment industry in the United States. Unfortunately, addiction treatment isn’t successful. At least 65% of alcoholics relapse within a year following treatment, and for other drugs, such as opioids, the relapse rate is over 90%. In the long-run, the eventual rates of recovery for people who’ve been treated for addiction are no better than for those who’ve never received any help, and some ways outcomes are worse. Unfortunately, most of the treatment system’s failures can be traced back to the influence of 12 step programs. Here are 12 reasons that explain why treatment fails, and why 12 step programs should be avoided.
The famous first step of Alcoholics Anonymous – “admitting” you are powerless over drugs and alcohol, is a destructive step that actually creates feelings of powerlessness. This isn’t just hearsay. Direct observation and controlled research demonstrate shows that people’s drinking and drug use becomes more erratic once they get involved in 12 Step programs.
For those who manage to sober up while in AA or NA, they often develop the fear that without meetings and other 12 Step activities, they will fall apart and relapse. This is reinforced by slogans such as “meeting makers make it” and tales of people who stopped going to meetings and experienced extreme relapses. Moreover, members are often told to avoid parties where alcohol is served or else they may be triggered to use substances again. This seems logical enough, but it is also applied to family events such as holiday celebrations, weddings, and the like. The 12 Step member is encouraged to make other 12 Step members their new social circle and family. They’re told to put “recovery” first, and their family second. This leaves family members wondering whether the recovery is any better than the addiction – in both cases, their loved one is lost to them, and occupied with an all-consuming activity.
3. It doesn’t work.
Many will tell you that AA is the only way to get over a substance use problem. In fact, far more people get over their problems without 12 Step programs. There are well over 20 million people who’ve gotten over addictions, and only 2 million AA members. Moreover, a massive chunk of 12 Step members are mandated to be their by the legal system, or required to attend as part of their treatment. The vast majority of new 12 Step group members drop out of the group within the first year, because they just don’t like it and it doesn’t work for them. Researcher Lance Dodes estimates their success rate is in the range of 5-8%, which incidentally is lower than rates of natural unassisted recovery. That is to say, if 12 Step programs produce no better results than not getting help, they aren’t really effective at all, and those who are counted as 12 Step successes probably would’ve gotten over their problems even if they hadn’t joined the group. Considering the dependence it creates (as discussed above), that makes 12-step involvement all cost, and no benefit.
4. It’s not really anonymous!
12 Step members are promised privacy and secrecy of their problems, but this trust is regularly broken. There is no legal protection to stop other members from gossiping about you and the details of your life that you share in the course of an AA or NA meeting. Many former members are plagued by incidents of running into people they knew in 12 Step groups who pry into their lives and current substance use status, expressing suspicion and embarrassing them in public. It isn’t a therapist’s office – things you say in meetings can and may be used against you. Your past difficulties should remain in the past, but they can become public knowledge as a result of 12 step group involvement. Those with professional licenses also risk having their personal drug and alcohol struggles reported to state licensing boards as result of sharing details in meetings.
5. The program is invasive and moralizing
Prior to attending a 12 Step meeting, people think it’s centered on supporting each other to stop drinking or drugging. But what you’ll quickly find out is that the program requires you to dig into every aspect of your life, and dredge up mistakes and problems that have nothing to do with drugs or alcohol. The fourth step of the program even requires you to write about details of your childhood and other periods where you may not have even used substances in order to uncover your “character defects” and to “make amends” for things that have nothing to do with substance use. The fifth step even requires you to read all of this to another AA/NA member. 12 Step programs aren’t just about substance use – they seek to completely morally overhaul the individual. This comes from the fact that AA was originally spun-off from a Christian cult called the Oxford Group. The 12 Step conversion can’t really be completed without this immoral past, and members who haven’t done much wrong to talk about are seen as lying about their past, and essentially pressured to rewrite their past, casting themselves as a moral degenerate, so that they can now truly “surrender to God” and be reborn.
6. Its religiosity is offensive to non-believers
12 Step programs claim not to be spiritual rather than religious, but the word “God” appears in several of the steps, and countless times throughout the famous Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. Atheist members are pressured to believe in God, or to believe in a “higher power” that they say can be anything, but must, according to the steps, have supernatural powers. You have to pray to the higher power, surrender to it, and take on the “will” of the higher power, and it must be able to miraculously remove the desire to drink or drug from you. Sounds a lot like a God, doesn’t it?
7. Its spirituality is offensive to believers!
Many believers in God say that 12 Step programs’ dictums on God/Higher Power conflict with their own conception of God. Yet they are pressured to conform to these views or won’t be seen as “working a good program.” As one example, many people say they believe that God gave them free will to choose to live righteously. Yet AA tells them to deny their own will and their own free choice, and instead surrender to God’s will. There are many other conflicts that arise and offend, but the 12 Step brand of spirituality is so intertwined with the program that it becomes incompatible for most.
8. It promotes a negative self-image
It is a tradition to identify yourself as an addict or alcoholic in 12 step groups. These labels follow your name whenever you speak at a meeting. If you don’t use these labels, you will be met with scorn and suspicion. Some say “recovering alcoholic”, but if you believe you’ve gotten over your problem and refer to yourself as a “recovered alcoholic” you will be met with even more scorn than if you had eschewed the label altogether. Your entire life and being is wiped away, and you become defined by one aspect of your history, one set of struggles – forever. Labels like these are shame-inducing, have no benefit, and mentally limit those who believe in them.
9. It keeps you tethered to the past
If you feel like you’ve truly outgrown your addictions, and express that you feel good and are done within a 12 Step meeting, you’ll quickly be told that you’re “on a pink cloud that’s about to burst.” They remind you that you can only ever stop drinking/drugging “one day at a time” and that you don’t know what might happen tomorrow. This is reinforced by common 12 Step slogans like “relapse is a part of recovery” and constant repetition of their claim that addiction is a lifelong, or “incurable disease.” The 12th step, aka “passing it on” warns that you must continue to help other addicts/alcoholics by sponsorship, and thus continue to engage in discussion where you’ll need to repeat your past problems and be thinking of yourself daily as an alcoholic/addict.
10. “Loss of control”
AA popularized the idea that addicts/alcoholics have an allergy to drugs & alcohol that forces them to keep using after they’ve had a single swig or whiff of alcohol, or a single puff of a joint, etc. Whenever scientists have tested this theory they’ve found it to be false. But 12 Step programs, and the entire treatment industry they spawned, refuse to let go of this disproven myth in complete denial of solid scientific evidence. It is the foundation of their approach, which is to keep alcoholics and addicts sober with steady daily doses of fear. The myth is meant to keep people afraid and sober, but it backfires. This is proven in research, where it can be seen that after people are exposed to this loss of control myth, their rates of binge usage go up, multiple times of what it would have been if they hadn’t gone to a 12 step group. It becomes a sort of placebo effect, or self-fulfilling prophecy. What’s even worse, is that users of more dangerous drugs such as heroin, are told that a single drink or joint will send them uncontrollably back to heroin. To peddle such misinformation is downright reckless. Moreover, building your sobriety on this fear is foolish even if you stay abstinent. Fear puts the body into fight or flight mode, which is meant to be a temporary state and exerts damage on the body. We aren’t meant to live in perpetual fear, yet this is what many 12 step devotees will readily admit they are trying to achieve when they tell you they attend meetings to remind them how bad it will get if they ever take a drink or drug again.
11. Its practices go against established psychological research findings
Dredging up negative experiences and wrongdoings from the past and constantly reliving them has been shown to be damaging from research in the area of trauma, and it just goes against basic common sense. Their concepts of “powerlessness,” “loss of control,” and “triggers” all go against the principles of attributional research, begetting more of the type of feelings and behaviors they’re meant to reduce. Their demands for abstinence are at great odds with the science, where it is repeatedly demonstrated that at least 50% of people diagnosed as alcoholic return to successful moderate drinking. Their “incurable disease” model goes against several decades of research demonstrating that well over 90% of people permanently get over their substance use problems. Almost everything they teach is flat wrong, and yet they refuse to update their program, because it is seen as being passed down by God directly to Bill Wilson, the author of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. Thus, they have a bible of their own – not a method based on an evolving understanding of substance use problems.
12. It doesn’t really have a method to stop drinking/drugging
Instead, AA and NA are basically just clubs for people with drinking problems. When you sift through everything there to find a way to quit, it basically just tells you to do it, pray for a miracle, and keep going to meetings. Of course a lot of fear is involved as we said already too. But 12 step programs have little to do with drugs and alcohol at the end of the day. They mostly focus on moral reform, and they rely on you to choose not to drink/drug – all while telling you that you can’t choose not to drink/drug. It’s maddening.
With all this, it should be clear that 12 Step groups are to be avoided. But the sad fact is that if you seek addiction treatment anywhere in the US you will still be exposed to 12 Step ideas and probably required to attend 12 Step meetings.