Since coming onto the scene in the 1930’s, the group Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has shaped the way people with substance use problems are helped. AA had its roots in a fundamentalist Christian organization, The Oxford Group. The 12 steps were directives to a religious conversion to Christianity which were then adapted to help heavy drinkers to get and stay sober, one day at a time.  While there was no actual science behind the 12 step program and no evidence that it worked,  the charismatic nature of the founder, slick marketing techniques, making recruitment to AA (Step 12) a requirement for staying sober, along with a complete lack of other viable help, quickly made Alcoholics Anonymous the go-to answer for problem drinkers.

The relative few that found success in AA in the early years became vocal advocates of both the hopelessness of the disease of alcoholism and the effectiveness of 12 step group meetings.  As a result the current addiction treatment paradigm was born. Anecdotal evidence of success seemed to be plentiful, as those who were not successful were summarily ignored. It was believed those that failed were not working “hard enough” or that they were “constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves.”

As AA grew in popularity, the idea that to overcome an addiction you must spend time talking with other “addicted” people quickly became the only prescribed solution. So unlike any actual disease, the “treatment” for this pseudo-disease became prayer, service to other substance users, group therapy and group meetings. In other words talking about yourself and your problem with a bunch of other people who are also struggling and praying to be “restored to sanity” became the leading course of addiction treatment in this country. To this day, even if you pay tens of thousands of dollars to go into an inpatient treatment program, these two completely non-medical activities will make up the bulk of your treatment.

The question is how well do group meetings and group therapy work? Do heavy substance users actually need to be around other heavy substance users to stop their use? And are there drawbacks to support group meetings and group therapy both in and out of a treatment setting? When we began our research 30 years ago, the creator’s of The Freedom Model were attending daily AA meetings. Within our research we had already thrown out the first step, admitting powerlessness over alcohol (and substances), as it was clear that it was completely counterproductive.

We left AA completely in less than 10 years, but continued to have our own support group meetings for a few more years. 12-13 years into our research we stopped the support group meetings all together as our follow up studies on our retreat graduates showed that those that left the area and moved on with their lives without meetings were doing significantly better than those that stayed local and attended our meetings. We could see that continuing to attend meetings for the purposes of “recovery” was keeping people stuck in the mindset that they were sick and in need of support. It basically put their lives in a holding pattern, and kept them from moving on and creating the future they truly wanted.

Even after doing away with the meetings, we continued to have small group classes at our retreat. It seemed to be helpful to have people learn The Freedom Model (then called the Saint Jude Program) in a small group setting. So at our two larger retreats (20 person retreats) 2-4 guests would work together with an instructor. There were obvious problems within this arrangement as not all personalities are compatible and some guests would invariably monopolize the discussion while others stayed quiet. Additionally some guests seemed to grasp the material quickly, while others worked at a slower pace and needed far more discussion of each concept. We could see how frustrating it was for both the quick study and the person who needed more in depth discussion. We became concerned that for some these issues outweighed benefits they may be getting from the group dynamic.

When we opened our Executive Retreat we ran the experiment of making all classes completely one-on-one. One guest with one instructor meeting twice daily throughout their stay. Immediately we could see the immense benefits of this arrangement. This meant each guest could work at their own pace. They didn’t have to worry about the judgment of their classmates. They didn’t have to worry about their private discussions becoming house gossip. They felt safe and comfortable to be themselves, to ask questions, and to learn at their own pace.

Additionally the results were remarkable. Guests reported having a more enlightening and uplifting experience. Our completion rate at our Executive Retreat is 95% and has been consistently since we opened it in 2008. Our completion rate for our 2 larger retreats was still quite good at 80% overall for the 25 years they were open, but we knew we could do better. We could eliminate the drawbacks of a group dynamic by making all Freedom Model instruction completely private and keeping our retreat small.

For those who say there are benefits to group therapy and group meetings in treatment, it would seem the only people that experience any actual benefits are those that own and run the treatment center. It’s far less expensive to have 10, 20 or 30 people in a group session or meeting with one facilitator than to have one-on-one meetings. I do understand on a personal level how comforting it can be to sit in a room with others experiencing the same struggles as you, but there comes a time when you are no longer seeking comfort, instead you are seeking a solution.

Old habits sometimes die hard, and my behavior around other substance users remained constant from when I spent all my time with other heavy active users to those in recovery circles. I still acted much the same way. In group meetings I still felt I needed to perform for an audience, and be the baddest chick in the room. It was only when I was talking to certain people that I truly trusted, privately that I would let my guard down and make real progress on changing my life. It was only when I talked to those who seemed to have a solution, one-on-one, that I could see my future and it looked so much better than my past.

That is why we, at The Freedom Model have abandoned group classes and do not recommend support group meetings as a long term solution to overcoming substance use problems. Sure you can meet some new people and make a few new friends in support group meetings, but you can also meet new friends by joining a gym, a church, volunteering, taking a class or participating in a million various other activities.

If you are seeking a solution, a real solution; if you are seeking an answer to why you may still be struggling with substance use, the answers seem to come best when working one-on-one with someone who is knowledgeable, trustworthy and willing to take the time to really listen to you. Sometimes it’s nearly impossible to be honest even with yourself let alone in a group setting, especially about things you’ve been struggling with for any length of time. But in this case, with this kind of change, it’s important to not be limited by the dynamics of group settings.

At The Freedom Model you can learn a solution by working one-on-one with a certified Freedom Model Instructor. Whether you would rather stay at home or take some time away from your everyday life, we offer the level of help you want and feel you need. To get more information about our private, one-on-one program options call 888-424-2626 or go to www.TheFreedomModel.org.

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