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What are Twelve-Step Programs?

The 12 Steps compose the foundation of the peer-support program Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Founded in June 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous has grown to become the main peer support treatment for alcoholism. AA has been so successful that other addiction programs, such as Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and Overeaters Anonymous, started using the 12 Step as their basis for recovery.

If you haven’t already heard, 12 Step programs are popular. Nearly every treatment center in the Western world — no matter how expensive a visit costs — usually requires you to attend a Twelve-Step meeting as part of your stay. But why? Don’t we know that sometimes the majority can be lured down the wrong path?

That’s what I hope to explain in more detail. Some attendees feel “forced” to come to 12 Step meetings without many other options, either through a judge, family, or employer. Sure, you will understand the full depth of the program after you stick around a while, and maybe that’s the point of the push. Regardless, the pressure recommendation to attend 12 Step programs seems one-sided.


There are many good reasons for that pressure, however. Despite the many “cult,” “religious,” or “brainwashing” labels hurled at the program, they work. The meetings are full of former addicts who have years of clean time, lead useful lives, and contribute back to the program’s newcomers. They claim that the 12 Steps of recovery got them sober at last, despite all their other attempts at different methods.

What makes the 12 steps so different and more likely to lead to long-term sobriety? These are the simple facts about the program that makes it stand out, even 80 years after the founders, Bill W. and Dr. Bob, were inspired to put it into action for the first time.

  1. Membership is non-exclusive. You are a member when you say you are.
  2. The only cost is a recommended donation. You give what you can at the meeting, usually $1-2, to help pay rent for the room, coffee, and books.
  3. No profit motive. Members help each other to help themselves and are not professionals.
  4. Peer counseling. You are around other people who think like you but have found a way to stay sober.
  5. A workable program of actions in the form of the 12 Steps: You can apply the steps throughout life and all its ups and downs.
  6. Always available. In large cities, there are meetings you can attend nearly all hours of the day or ways to reach out to other members in recovery.

With the points above, you will realize that nothing has come close to replacing the benefits. You begin to understand why the 12-step programs have remained an active part of recovery for decades.

No Monopoly on Recovery Methods

Based on the book of Alcoholics Anonymous, however, Bill W. probably would have been the first to encourage you to try other programs for recovery and use them. Also, as a firm believer in science, he wrote passages in the book where you might suspect that he held on to the hope that one day a vaccine or medical invention would cure alcoholism.

The creators of AA did not want readers to think that they had cornered the recovery marketplace. In the Foreword to the second edition in the Alcoholics Anonymous text (page xxi), they write (emphasis mine):

“Upon therapy for the alcoholic, we surely have no monopoly. Yet it is our great hope that all those who have as yet found no answer may begin to find one in the pages of this book and will presently join us on the high road to a new freedom.”

Their willingness to encourage members to try other programs should clue you in that a “cult” label may not add up. They also admit that they don’t have the cure for all ills in the 12 Steps. The encouragement to get outside help is heightened for those with dual diagnoses (addiction and a separate mental illness), though many members would describe themselves that way. Seek any outside services that work for you. External resources won’t conflict with what you find in 12 step programs.


In summary, the 12 Steps were originally the recovery program of action for the Alcoholics Anonymous program. Over the years, other programs sprang up for various other issues that apply the 12 steps. However, the fundamental ideas of all these 12 step programs remain the same – openness to all, little cost, high availability, and peer counseling through the 12 steps. Labels such as “cult-like” do not hold much weight when you honestly read the literature provided by the programs and talk to members. You can take it or leave it, but the doors will remain open to you if you decide to come back.

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