The 12 step treatment approach to drug & alcohol addiction is a popular method for recovery. If you’re struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, you may find the program helpful.

Alcoholics Anonymous created the 12 Steps approach, and over the years, treatment centers across the country have used the method with great success.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), 74 percent1 of treatment centers have a 12 Step philosophy for addiction recovery.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) posts the full 12-step program online2, but it’s important to understand the context and history behind each step. It’s a powerful method that requires a strong familiarity with drug and alcohol addiction to fully appreciate.

If you’ve ever struggled with addiction or been affected by someone else’s drug and alcohol use, the 12 Step Treatment Approach to Substance Abuse is helpful. In this guide, we’ll discuss the 12 Step program—including its history and practice—in detail.

Many people find comfort knowing that this program has helped so many others. We hope you will, too.

What Is the 12 Step Treatment Approach to Drug & Alcohol Addiction?

The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous created the 12 steps as a guideline to overcome addiction. The foundation for the 12 Step program is rooted in community-based support and yielding your addiction to a higher power. While it was originally written for those recovering from alcohol use disorder, many others have adapted these 12 Steps. Programs like Cocaine Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous use the same 12 Steps.

Even though many of the 12 Steps contain spiritual references or surrender to a higher power, it’s not tied to any particular religion. You can interpret “higher power” however you like. Many non-religious people have success using these guidelines.

Related: Drug and Alcohol Addiction

The History and Goals of the 12 Step Program

Most experts credit Alcoholics Anonymous for creating the 12 Step Treatment Approach to Substance Abuse. However, the history of the 12 Steps is actually much older. Some historians believe the steps actually started with a Lutheran minister named Frank Buchman.

Buchman worked in Philadelphia, helping homeless young men get back on their feet. He dedicated his life to a shelter for these men, which quickly grew larger than its budget. When the Board of Directors told Buchman he needed to cut back on expenses, he was angry and quit. He was burned out and experiencing numerous health issues. He decided to take a break to recover.

Buchman attended a conference in England to rest and think over his options. There, he attended an afternoon church service and felt peace. He let go of the resentment he had towards the Board of Directors. He wrote six letters—one for each board member. In these letters, he explained his resentment and asked for forgiveness.

Later that same day, Buchman shared his epiphany with another conference member. The other member decided to follow Buchman’s path. Buchman decided to share his experience with anyone who wanted to change their life for the better. He came home to America and started the Oxford Group.

The Oxford Group

Though Buchman was a minister and credited God with his own experience, the Oxford Group was nondenominational. It was founded on Four Absolutes:

  1. Honesty
  2. Purity
  3. Unselfishness
  4. Love

Members of the group met regularly to help hold each other accountable. The group wasn’t initially focused on people who struggled with alcohol use disorder. However, those members found the group especially helpful. The group was healing and cathartic for many.

Bill Wilson and Bob Smith

In 1934, a man named Bill Wilson started attending these meetings. Wilson struggled with addiction and used the tenets of the Oxford Group to become sober. While traveling for business, Wilson worried he might relapse and contacted a local church. He hoped they might have an Oxford Group meeting. Instead, he found a minister, and later, a new friend named Bob Smith.

Bob Smith also struggled with alcohol addiction, and the two men decided to fight for sobriety together. Over time, they connected with other people and used the Four Absolutes to fight addiction together.

Eventually, this friendship developed into a group known as Alcoholics Anonymous. The group uses a book as its foundation. Wilson created the book, which he called the “Big Book.”

As Alcoholics Anonymous expanded to other cities across the United States, Wilson published another book called “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.” Wilson created the 12 Steps book as an expansion and explanation of the original principles of AA.

As you can see, the 12 Steps weren’t created by any single person or group. The steps themselves are traced back to Frank Buchman and the Oxford Group. They align perfectly with Buchman’s personal transformation at the conference in England.

  • Steps 1, 2 and 3 are focused on creating a connection between yourself and a higher authority.
  • Steps 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 are about getting your life back on track by changing your focus and becoming more spiritual.
  • Steps 10, 11 and 12 require assistance from a higher power.

For Buchman, the higher power, of course, was God. But it’s important to note that you don’t have to share Buchman’s faith to benefit from the program. All AA programs (and similar programs, such as Narcotics Anonymous) remain non-denominational. While religion is welcome, it’s not required. In fact, Bill Wilson firmly asserted that AA should not require members to believe in God. He wrote the books so that an AA member could think of any higher power they liked. That might be any God represented through religion, the universe itself, or any other spiritual authority.

Over the years, many organizations have used the 12 Step Treatment Approach to Drug & Alcohol Addiction for their own purposes. There are numerous adaptations of the original program, including agnostic and atheist versions.

The 12 Steps are primarily focused on inclusion and acceptance, no matter your spiritual beliefs.

The 12 Steps

You can adapt the 12 Steps to fit your needs. There is no right or wrong way to interpret them. The steps are outlined in the “Big Book”, which is the core of Alcoholics Anonymous. In addition to the steps, this book also has motivating success stories of people who recovered from alcohol use disorder, as well as other resources.

According to Alcoholics Anonymous, the 12 Steps are we:

  1. Admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Does the 12 Steps Treatment Approach Require Meetings?

While meetings aren’t strictly “required,” the 12 Steps program includes regular meetings. This is probably because of the history of AA and how it became so popular. Meetings hold you accountable and influence your success with the 12 Steps.

Of course, you could attempt the 12 Steps on your own. Working the steps with a group, however, gives you a place to discuss your concerns and find support. Drug and alcohol use disorder sometimes creates a distance between you and your family and friends. A support group that understands your struggles can be incredibly helpful.

While the 12 Steps program doesn’t specifically mention these meetings, the book “12 Steps and 12 Traditions” does.

AA helpfully includes the 12 Traditions3 for your reference. These outline the way AA functions and include guidelines for meetings.

According to the 12 Traditions, every meeting member is on the same level; there’s no one in control. Sometimes, there are leaders who act as a guide for the meeting, but they’re just there to help. The higher power is the source of authority, and each person answers to their own higher authority.

You can find a meeting through a substance treatment program, local church, or through Alcoholics Anonymous itself. Nearly all drug and substance treatment centers include meetings as part of the overall treatment plan. However, these meetings aren’t always affiliated with AA.

Cardinal Recovery also provides a 12 Step treatment approach for drug and alcohol use. Call (855) 928-1987 for a free assessment.

If you’re part of an inpatient program, meetings are usually on site. Outpatient programs usually offer meetings on-site, but you may also join a local meeting.

Meetings are usually one to 1.5 hours long. They start with a message to help focus everyone’s attention. Then they follow a loose structure. Meetings are usually grouped into different categories:

  • Step Meetings: Together as a group, you’ll read one of the steps from The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions and discuss its meaning and application. You may also discuss how it’s helped you.
  • Discussion Meetings: The group leader opens the group with a discussion topic, which the group then discusses at length.
  • Speaker Meetings: A guest speaker tells their own story (or someone else’s story). The group discusses the story and talks about the lessons you can learn.
  • Big Book Meetings: Together, you read a passage from the AA Big Book and discuss it.
  • Specialty Meetings: Some meetings are for specific groups, such as a women-only or men-only meeting.

Members themselves fund local meetings via contributions. At the end of the meeting, you can contribute a small amount (usually just a few dollars). This money pays for meeting space rent, coffee, snacks, and other expenses.

You don’t have to attend the same group meetings every time, but you may find it helpful. You’ll feel more comfortable if you see the same faces each week and share your experiences together. Some members recommend attending 90 meetings within your first 90 days. However, this isn’t a requirement. It’s just a suggestion.

Related: Group Therapy

The 12 Steps in Practice

The 12 Step treatment approach to substance use addiction gives people recovering from drug use a framework to overcome their disorder and move forward with healthier habits. With support groups based on the 12 Steps, individuals can rely on each other when things are good or bad. Through meetings, they can share experiences with people who truly understand their struggles. While people use the 12 Steps during their battle with drug and alcohol use, these steps help create a total life transformation.

The 12 Steps list is straightforward, but you may experience the steps in any order. Many people cycle through the steps repeatedly. Through this cycle, you’ll learn how to face and admit to a problem, surrender to the facts of your situation, make a decision for change, and learn self-observation and self-acceptance. You can use the tools from a 12 Step program for the rest of your life.

Related: Alcohol Withdrawal

Find a 12 Step Program Near You

If you’re ready to change your life and start your road to recovery, Cardinal Recovery can help. Call (855) 928-1987 to find a 12 Step treatment and reclaim your life.