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How 12 Step Programs Work

12 step programs work by connecting you to a power greater than yourself that, supposedly, stops whatever behavior you went into the program to stop. This can include:

  • Alcoholism
  • Drug addiction
  • Codependency
  • Overeating
  • Smoking
  • Sex addiction
  • Gambling addiction

There are hundreds of 12 step programs, all of which work the same way.

You work through all 12 steps, and as you do, you unburden yourself of “spiritual baggage,” like harms you caused, harm that was done to you, lies you’ve told, fears you have, and resentments that are “blocking” you from your higher power.

Essentially, that’s how 12 step programs work, but there’s a lot more to it than this simple explanation.

The 12 Steps Are Everywhere in Addiction Treatment Programs

Those struggling with addiction might find themselves frustrated that 12-step recovery is so prominent, and they want to know the mechanics behind 12 step programs before committing themselves.

Many people think they know how these programs work the second they walk in the door.

They’re often wrong.

Unfortunately, this leads to many people leaving before actually going through the steps outlined, labeling 12 step programs as failures. 

I was first introduced to 12 step recovery at a treatment center in 2009. At that point in time, I considered myself hopeless and thought that no one was actually sober in these programs.

When you check into treatment, battered and beaten, you’re looking for something tangible, not an inspirational poster.

Fortunately, the 12 steps present a compelling method for overcoming addiction. I can personally attest to its success. 

What Is Addiction?

In our post addressing the definition of recovery, we briefly covered the topic of addiction as viewed through the lens of 12-step programs. To summarize: 12-step programs believe addiction is a 3-part illness of the mind, body, and spirit.

Once a substance is consumed, the addict’s body craves more, resulting in prolonged use that typically ends with some consequence. This is a problem of the body, the physical side of the disease, which is sometimes referred to as an allergy.

The resulting consequences tend to land the user in a period of brief sobriety, which the addict finds extremely uncomfortable.

Many addicts refer to this uncomfortability as being restless, irritable, and discontent. This aspect of addiction is considered spiritual in nature as it has to do with your emotions and well-being.

Finally, the mind convinces the addict that despite the consequences, using drugs is okay as long as they try to control it through one method or another, kicking the cycle off once more.

Why Understanding Addiction Is Important to Understanding 12 Step Programs

The common approach is to tell users “just to stop,” which is impossible for the user because they are suffering from an allergy, which is just another way of saying that users have an abnormal reaction to a common substance—alcohol or drugs.

The allergy is manifesting itself as a craving for more drugs. 

That would mean that the best solution is to simply avoid putting it in your body, much like those who are allergic to peanuts don’t eat peanuts. 

But the addicts’ brains work against them. Using the peanut analogy, it’s as if someone just got out of the ER, having been treated for an allergic reaction to peanuts, and then leaves and tells their friends they are done with peanuts… but almonds never hurt anybody. This is like saying, “well, cocaine is the problem, but alcohol is okay.”

Essentially, your body is reacting to any substance you put in your body, no matter what it is. If you’re allergic to peanuts, you can’t try really hard to not have an allergic reaction when you eat peanuts. It’s the same with drugs and alcohol. You can’t try really hard to control your drinking or drugging—it won’t work.

The same goes for any addiction that you would use a 12 step program to address. You can’t try really hard to not gamble, or not overeat, because a little bit of gambling is all it takes to set off a gambling spree, or a little bit of sugar is enough to cause an overeater to start eating a ton of donuts.

The real question then, is what causes an addict’s brain to forget the pain and suffering of a week or even a month ago and decide to use again?

How the 12 Steps Break the Cycle of Addiction

The most polarizing aspect of the program is its spiritual approach, which many falsely identify with church or religion.

The reality is that all addict’s drug and alcohol use is a symptom of their underlying problems. Drugs and alcohol are not their problem: they are the solution they are trying to use to fix their problems. 

Many addicts suffer from spiritual maladies. They struggle with feelings of misery and depression, they are full of fear, they have trouble with personal relationships, they can’t control their emotions, and many feel like they have no purpose.

The 12-steps help users to first accept that they have a problem and therefore need help, which is arguably the most challenging-yet-critical aspect of recovering.

The steps are designed to systematically help with identifying things about ourselves that we don’t like: the things we’ve done to people that we are ashamed of, the things that have happened to us that left us damaged, and our fears. 

Once these character defects are identified, we can face them. We work with another person and tell them the things we keep bottled up. We go out and try to make our wrongs right, and we do our part to forgive those who harmed us. We can finally hold our head up.

The 12-steps lay out a framework to help those who still suffer from addiction, thereby giving us purpose and the satisfaction of helping others. It provides a design for living that gives purpose and meaning.

The caveat is this: how well 12 step programs work depends on how hard you work them, so give it an honest and open-minded attempt.

I did, and it was the best decision I’ve ever made.

Have you struggled with 12 step programs? Tell me about it in the comments.

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Mike Dickson

Mike is a motorsport enthusiast and has owned a wide variety of sport and luxury cars. He attended the Porsche Performance Driving School at Barber Motorsport Park in Alabama and also enjoys motorcycle riding and racing.

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