Non 12-Step Rehabs Near You: Alternatives to AA and 12-Step Programs
The 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that more than 40 million Americans (aged 12 and older) had a substance use disorder, a medical condition characterized by the uncontrollable use of drugs or alcohol despite the negative consequences, in the past year.1
Addiction is considered a chronic disease with a relapse rate of around 40%-60%, similar to other chronic conditions.2 Aftercare services and support groups can help to promote sustained abstinence, which has been proven to decrease relapse rates. Studies indicate that individuals who remain abstinent from drugs and alcohol for five or more years relapse less than 15% of the time.3 While mutual-help groups and 12-step programs can be beneficial as part of an addiction treatment program, there is limited data to prove their effectiveness in sustained abstinence.4
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AA and Standard 12-Step Approaches
Perhaps one of the most well-known 12-Step programs is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Essentially a support group for individuals in recovery, AA helps individuals connect with others who also struggle with addiction to form a network of peers working toward the same goal: sustained sobriety in recovery.5 Individuals are able to work together to achieve this common goal and support each other through potential stressors; therefore, helping to reduce episodes of relapse. It can be highly beneficial to have someone to lean on who has already been there, who can offer insight, hope, and strength.
AA is based on the 12-Step doctrine that asks members to admit their lack of control over alcohol.6 In order to recover, individuals are asked to turn themselves over to a higher power and find a spiritual awakening.6 While this concept may be very helpful for many people, for others, the spiritual aspect of AA may not work. Even though AA is not based on a specific religion, the 12-Step model does have religious, or at least spiritual, undertones.
Alternative Programs to AA
Several alternatives to AA exist that are more secular in nature. These alternatives to traditional 12-step programs generally ask individuals to find motivation within themselves and to learn internal control instead of seeking an external source of power. Alternatives to 12-step programs also tend to evolve with new research, and they may be more flexible in their approaches than AA and other 12-step groups.
Alternative groups still rely on peer support and provide tools for minimizing relapse. Most of these programs are free to join, with the only requirement being that individuals struggling with addiction wish to achieve and maintain abstinence. Some common alternatives to 12-step programs include:
- Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART) Recovery.
- Women for Sobriety.
- Secular Organizations for Sobriety (S.O.S.).
- LifeRing Secular Recovery.
- Moderation Management.
- Evidence-based and science-based treatments.
- Holistic therapies.
- Experiential therapies.
A nonprofit organization that cultivates self-empowerment over addiction and addictive behaviors, SMART Recovery is a self-help support group for individuals who wish to remain abstinent from drugs and alcohol and/or other problem behaviors or activities. Offering face-to-face meetings with peers as well as daily online meetings, a chat room that runs 24/7, and an online message board, SMART Recovery is a research-based program that provides tools to help individuals change negative and defeating thoughts in order to enhance recovery from addiction.7 SMART Recovery follows a 4-point program.8 The four program points include:8
- Obtaining and maintaining motivation.
- Learning to manage urges.
- Handling emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.
- Finding and striking balance in life.
With a variety of tools and homework exercises to help members work through these four points, SMART Recovery helps individuals to find the motivation within themselves to illicit and maintain positive change and therefore long-term sobriety.9 Face-to-face SMART Recovery meetings typically follow the same format worldwide in an effort to maintain consistency throughout the program. Meetings usually last about 1.5 hours and are run by a trained facilitator. Anyone who struggles with any kind of addiction is free to attend a SMART Recovery meeting.8
Meetings typically begin with an introduction and check-in period where members can help to set the agenda for that day based on any pressing issues. If there aren’t any specific topics that come up during check-in, the facilitator will likely have a prepared topic to discuss and work through with the group. The bulk of the meeting is taken up by the working time, where the group works through one of the four program points, using some of the program’s provided tools and techniques. There is usually a donation plate passed around at some point, as the groups are self-sustaining and require donations to function. Meetings close with a closing dialogue to ensure all participants feel heard and understood.
Homework may be assigned between meetings, and there may be a social hour after the formal meeting concludes for individuals to get to know each other better. Meetings are kept confidential and provide a great space for people to share their experiences and gain support from peers in similar situations. Anyone can drop into a meeting at any time. The SMART Recovery website provides tools to help people find local meetings.
Women for Sobriety
The first self-help program to provide support strictly for women suffering from alcohol addiction nationwide, Women for Sobriety (WFS) is a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1975.10 Based on 13 acceptance statements that focus on positivity, responsibility for oneself, and emotional growth, the Women for Sobriety New Life Program helps women positively change negative thought and behavior patterns in order to establish a healthier and happier life in recovery.11 The WFS doctrine postulates that a person’s actions directly follow their thoughts, and that by changing the thoughts for the better, the resulting behaviors can be changed.11 WFS encourages women to take control of their own thoughts and actions and learn not only to love themselves, but also to exercise self-control and potentially experience spiritual growth as well.
Women are encouraged to follow the program by consciously subscribing to the 13 statements each day. Members are asked to spend time each morning and each night before bed, thinking through each statement, how it can be used, and its positive effects.11 WFS also uses meditation, healthy eating strategies, and other holistic healing forms to promote recovery as well.11
Meetings are run by a moderator in recovery, and groups are usually comprised of 6 to 10 women.12 Meetings last about 90 minutes once a week, and new members are given literature at their first meeting.12 Beyond that, women are asked to have their own program booklet, to join the WFS online community, and to read founder Dr. Jean Kirkpatrick’s “Turnabout: New Hope for the Woman Alcoholic.”12
At each meeting, women introduce themselves and shares a positive action or feeling and relates it back to the 13 acceptance statements.12 Membership is kept confidential, so women can share in private and with security. Discussions center around WFS literature. Meetings are closed by joining hands and reciting the WFS motto of competency, strength, and group support. For more information or to find a local meeting, contact WFS.
LifeRing Secular Recovery
By believing that each individual has the power to control their addiction within them, and that each person battling addiction is made up of two people, the “Addict Self” and the “Sober Self,” LifeRing focuses on helping individuals to weaken the former by strengthening the latter. Unlike 12-step programs, LifeRing does not rely on a higher power, sponsors, or certain steps to attain sobriety, but instead asks individuals to find strength and self-control within themselves. LifeRing is there to provide support as individuals find their own way to sustained sobriety and their own path in recovery. With face-to-face meetings and online support through a comprehensive online community, LifeRing is an international nonprofit organization.14
Individuals can join a group and attend face-to-face meetings, or connect confidentially with a member via email through a service called ePals to ask questions and receive one-on-one support. The focus of a LifeRing meeting is on the present, and the past is meant to be left behind.
Meetings are generally about an hour and facilitated by a “convener” who keeps people on topic and lets the conversation flow informally throughout the time. Meetings are kept positive and encouraging, with members asking and answering questions and offering advice and support. Meetings are free to attend, donations are requested, and attendance is confidential.15
Some meetings are considered “Study Meetings” where individuals work through the “Recovery by Choice” workbook together in the group.16 To find a local LifeRing meeting, visit lifering.org.
While almost all recovery support groups require complete abstinence as a condition of membership or even meeting attendance, Moderation Management (MM) is different. According to the National Health Survey on Drug Use and Health, 50% (or 138.5 million people) aged 12 and older drank alcohol within the past month of being surveyed in 2020, yet only 28.3 million had an alcohol use disorder, the medical term for alcohol addiction.1 Many people safely drink alcohol and do not engage in problematic behaviors or suffer from addiction. MM is a program designed to target problem drinking early on and invites individuals who see alcohol becoming an issue in their lives to join. MM seeks to change risky drinking habits and problematic behaviors surrounding alcohol misuse by promoting a healthy lifestyle and more responsible habits, not necessarily complete abstinence.17
MM doctrine states that alcohol misuse is a choice and a habit that can be changed with brief intervention strategies. MM allows its members to choose—alcohol in moderation or abstinence.17 That being said, MM does offer abstinence-based programs for individuals who choose to live completely alcohol free.18
Moderation Management asks its members to go through 7 steps focused on taking responsibility for one’s actions, recognizing harmful drinking patterns, and addressing problem drinking. The fifth step asks members to remain sober for a full month. If after that point members can drink responsibly, and in moderation, that is allowable. If not, they should continue to remain abstinent and may continue with the MM program or move to an abstinent-only type group.19
While members of MM may continue to drink, MM provides tools to help individuals develop awareness around their drinking. They include: setting drinking limits, not drinking every day, having other interests and hobbies that do not include alcohol, obeying laws surrounding drinking and driving, avoiding risky or dangerous situations when drinking, and keeping blood alcohol concentration (BAC) below moderate drinking levels (around 0.055%). MM holds that alcohol may be a part of a person’s life without being the center of it.19
MM may ask for donations at meetings to keep groups active. Information on finding a meeting can be found on their site.
Why Choose a 12-Step Alternative?
The 12-step program is not a one-size-fits-all solution to addiction. There are varying reasons some individuals may desire a 12-step alternative, including:
- Wanting to focus on a less spiritual or religious route to treatment.
- Believing that addiction is within your control and not wanting to submit to a higher power in that aspect.
- Having been unsuccessful using a 12-step program in the past.