The Many Types of 12 Step Programs

Written by Maura Rodkey, Program Director 

As a woman who got sober and started my recovery through the 12 Step Program of Alcoholics Anonymous, I feel passionately about offering the 12 Steps as a tool for our clients. I use this wording intentionally because that is how I view the 12 Steps: they are a tool! The 12 Steps are a  series of actionable steps and community-based guidelines that can lead us to becoming a better version of ourselves. The 12 Steps can lead us towards a life of recovery from longstanding, internal struggles.

Most people immediately associate the 12 Steps with Alcoholics Anonymous and therefore with alcoholism and substance-abuse. While the 12 Steps originated in Alcoholics Anonymous, they have expanded far past being only for those who struggle with alcohol or addictive substances. There is truly a 12 Step Program for everything!

Before I get into the many types of 12 Step Programs, I want to give a little background. For an alcoholic, drinking is the solution to a list of problems in their life. It is something that cures an internal ailment. The 12 Steps started with the two men who started the program Alcoholics Anonymous, as a way for them to help themselves and other alcoholics stay sober and live a life of recovery–free from those internal struggles. These two things can be exclusive of each other, meaning one can be sober and not be living a life of recovery. Recovery in this case is defined as a set of behavioral and mental changes that help address the underlying issues.

Abstaining from a certain behavior- in the case of Alcoholics Anonymous drinking alcohol-  but not actually changing any other behaviors is not living in recovery. Substance abuse is a coping skill, so if we take away the substance but do not replace or modify our other behaviors, we will inevitably end up using that substance again. You could think of it like this: say you had a headache from dehydration that you habitually took Ibuprofen for. If one day you just stopped taking Ibuprofen, then you would be abstinent or “sober” from the Ibuprofen. Being in recovery from your headaches, however, would mean drinking enough water every day that you no longer got the headache and therefore no longer needed Ibuprofen. If you stopped taking the Ibuprofen but did not start drinking more water, you would eventually end up needing the Ibuprofen again. In the same way, sobriety without active recovery will just lead to more pain. Active recovery is what 12 Step programs aim to help people find. 12 Step programs give us a path of actionable steps that we can take towards recovery. 12 Step programs give us a community and the tools to help us drink our water every day so that we don’t need to take Ibuprofen anymore.

With this metaphor in mind, I believe all the clients that walk through our door can benefit from a 12 step program, no matter their relationship to substances like alcohol. Each of our clients needs a community and a set of behavioral and mental changes that help address their individual, underlying struggles.

Remember the line about smartphone apps, “There’s an app for that!”? That is how I feel about the 12 Steps. There’s a 12 Step program for that! Drugs? There’s a program for that! Eating Disorder? There’s a program for that! Codependency? There’s a program for that!

One option for individualizing the 12 Steps that we often employ at Juniper Canyon is putting the 12 Steps in front of a client and having them create their own version. For example, the first step in Alcoholics Anonymous is “Admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable.” If alcohol is not their struggle, the client would replace “alcohol” with whatever is present for them. Maybe what they are struggling with is relationships, or anger, or gambling, or shopping, or food, or video games–the list goes on and on. The idea with this is to give clients the opportunity to identify their maladaptive behaviors, and practice this clear set of tools to both have abstinence from them and work an active program of recovery. The 12 Steps are a tool proven to work for many. Because of the universality and popularity of the 12 Steps, they give our clients an instant community of support and accountability when they leave our program – something imperative for long term success in recovery.

It can be easy to look at the tools in front of us and say, “These will never work for me”. In the case of the 12 Steps, this can be a limiting belief. At Juniper Canyon, we ask our clients to look at tools we put in front of them and say “How will these work for me?”.