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My 12 Step Program Isn’t Working ... Now What?

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12 step program not working

“It works if you work it.”

If you’ve been to 12 Step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA), then chances are good that you have heard this popular program catchphrase. Here’s another variation: “AA will work if you want it to work.”

But is it really true? Is it possible to work a 12 Step program wholeheartedly and have it not work for you?

What happens when you’ve tried your best to work the 12 Steps and it still doesn’t click? Does that mean that you’ve failed, or that there’s something wrong with you?

Quite the contrary. It just means that you need a different approach.

Why 12 Step Programs Might Not Work for You

If you’ve had difficult experiences with 12 Step programs, you are not alone. As a non 12 Step rehab, we talk to a lot of people who struggle with the 12 Step model.

In fact, most of our Program Participants have tried it. They’ve gone to the meetings and the traditional rehabs, and yet for all their effort they’re still in the throes of active addiction. This doesn’t mean that they’re broken; it means that something is missing from their support system.

Here’s a quick list of reasons why the 12 Steps model might not be your best bet.

1. Lack of Support for Dual Diagnosis

lack of support for dual diagnosis programsWhen the 12 Step model was created in the 1930s, addiction treatment was in its infancy.

Back then, there was no such thing as dual diagnosis, which is defined as a substance abuse issue along with a mental health condition.

The 12 Step model was built on a foundation of laypeople leading support groups, without formal training in mental health or counseling.

So 12 Step programs such as AA or NA don’t provide the kind of professional mental health support necessary for people dealing with serious mental health diagnoses.

Simply put, AA wasn’t created to serve people with mental health conditions such as clinical depression and anxiety … and most people with addictions have a mental health condition.

2. Low 12 Step Program Success Rates

AA success rates are as low as 5-10% according to Dr. Lance Dodes, retired assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

That means that it doesn’t work for 90-95% of people long term.

Yes, the 12 Step model is the most frequently used approach in addiction treatment today. But the industry isn’t doing so well. According to the 2016 New York Times article Drug Deaths in America Are Rising Faster than Ever, 2016 overdose deaths in the US exceeded 59,000, representing the largest annual jump ever recorded.

Granted, only a portion of drug users go to rehab, but clearly the problem is on the rise.

Check out our interview with Dr. Dodes here:

Dr. Lance Dodes: The Sober Truth - Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12 Step Programs

3. Shame and Guilt

While it’s true that many 12 Step meetings are kind, supportive places, many others use shame and guilt as motivating forces.

For example, the popular AA form of address, “Hi, my name is so-and-so, and I’m an alcoholic” can be problematic.

On one hand, it is helpful to take ownership of your struggle. On the other hand, it is not helpful to create your identity around your addiction.

It is not helpful to believe that you will always have a problem, that you are branded forever as an addict, that you cannot fully recover. Talk about a disempowering belief system!

AA Isn’t Working … And That’s Okay

12-steps-Not-WorkingThere is no shame in getting honest about the reality that the 12 Steps just aren’t a good fit for you.

On the contrary, telling the truth about your experience actually opens the door to the Non 12 Step world.

While the 12 Steps has dominated the recovery landscape for decades, that’s starting to shift.

For example, did you know that according to data from American Addiction Centers, approximately 26% of all residential rehab programs are Non 12 Step?

More and more people are seeking out new approaches to addiction treatment.

Little by little, an increasing number of programs are integrating the insights of modern psychology, medicine, and scientific research into their offerings.

Different Types of Non 12 Step Programs

While the 12 Step format is one-size-fits-all, the Non 12 Step world contains a plethora of possible treatment options.

We've created a comprehensive list of the different types of Non 12 Step programs along with the pros and cons each one. Here’s a short list:

  • Secular Addiction Recovery (or Rational Recovery)
  • Aversion Therapy
  • Medical-Based Addiction Therapy
  • Behavioral Therapy
  • Spirituality and Recovery
  • Spiritual Psychology (that’s us!)

Ready for Rehab? What to Look for in a Non 12 Step Program

Some Non 12 Step treatment options are much more effective than others.

Holistic Offerings

holistic offerings in non 12 step programsThe best addiction treatment modalities are holistic in nature, addressing issues on all four levels of self: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.

They don’t focus solely on physical-level coping strategies, such as detox and habit change. (Those are important, yes, but they’re just the beginning!)

Instead, the best programs empower individuals to work with the underlying core issues - their mental, emotional, and spiritual roadblocks to recovery. They’ll also incorporate insights from modern psychology, spirituality, and healing arts.

Supportive Environment

High-caliber rehabs provide a safe, nurturing, and supportive environment for clients.

We’re not talking about a celebrity spa vacation - that can be more distracting than helpful!

Rather, we’re talking about a comfortable, secure location where privacy is respected and personal needs are honored.

Daily Counseling Hours for Dual Diagnosis

It’s especially important that high-quality residential rehabs offer a significant amount of daily counseling hours to address the mental and emotional health issues that drive addictions.

12 step alternatives …. should offer more one-on-one counseling time and small group therapy that is more robust and deeper in content.

By contrast, plenty of inpatient programs offer the minimum number of counseling hours required by a given state. In some cases, that’s just an hour per week!

That’s not sufficient time, especially when you’re paying thousands of dollars for daily support.

(By contrast, we offer 120+ hours of licensed professional counseling for each Participant over the course of their 28 days with us.)

More Reading on Non 12 Step Programs

Ready to Get Started?

If you don’t work with your grief, your trauma, your depression, and your anxiety, then all the physical-level coping strategies in the world won’t help you to stay sober.

But if you are ready and willing to go deeper - to really look at the reasons behind your addictive behaviors - then there is hope. AA may not have worked, but you have other options. You have the power, and the choice to heal is yours.

For an even more in depth look at the 12 step approach and alternatives, download our FREE EBOOK:

Another Look at the 12 Steps EBook Download


Caroline McGraw

This post was written by Caroline McGraw

In addition to her work as "the voice of The Clearing", Caroline Garnet McGraw writes about trading perfectionism for possibility at A Wish Come Clear. Visit and receive your free Perfectionist Recovery Toolkit today!

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