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What are 12 Step Programs?
12 Step programs are community-based, mutual-aid fellowship groups that provide support and hope to addicts who want to recover from compulsions, substance addictions, and behavioral addictions. Today, over 30 unique 12 Step programs exist to meet the distinct needs of different addictions. However, the most well-known 12 Step programs undoubtedly remain Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA).1
The History of AA and NA
NA was created by AA member Jimmy Kinnon who successfully recovered from his alcoholism with the support of AA. Still struggling with a pill addiction, Jimmy decided to make a new fellowship called NA. Complete with NA meetings and a core text that matched the structure and principles of AA, Narcotics Anonymous distinguished itself from AA by focusing on creating a safe space for drug addicts.
All 12 Step programs stem from the original AA and NA fellowships created in 1935 and 1953 respectively. For this reason, all 12 Step programs lean on two primary forms of support.
First, all programs include a progression of 12 Steps that guide the member through accepting a lack of control over their addiction coupled with the need for external help.
Second, 12 Step programs are fellowships, meaning they rely on community and peer support. Community members are people who’ve experienced that addiction firsthand and support others by providing understanding, guidance, and hope.
What are the 12 Steps?
The 12 Steps serve as a list of actions to achieve sobriety and an example of the typical progression from addiction to recovery, as noted by the founding members of AA. The steps are briefly summarized as follows:
- Accept that we’re powerless against our addiction and have lost control over our lives.
- Recognize the need for a higher power or something outside ourselves to help reclaim our lives.
- Decide to place our trust and faith in this Higher Power and let go of the facade of “control.”
- Fearlessly examine our moral characters – the good, bad, and neutral.
- Admit to ourselves, others, and our higher power where and how we have done wrong.
- Embrace and ready ourselves to release attachment to our old ways and personal defects.
- Ask and rely on our higher power to remove these defects.
- List all those we’ve harmed through addiction and become willing to accept accountability.
- Make direct amends to those we’ve harmed, except when doing so would cause more harm.
- Continue to examine and hold ourselves accountable for recovery and growth of character.
- Embrace meditation and prayer to reinforce the trust that our Higher Power will take care of us.
- Share our experience in humility and servitude to others, to reinforce our dedication and to aid others on their journeys.
You can read AA’s original 12 Steps here.2
Support Groups for Friends and Family
Family and friends can often feel lost as they navigate how to best support their loved ones in 12 Step fellowships. Luckily, there are several ways families and friends can heal their own experiences and support loved ones in recovery.
One option is to attend “open” 12 Step meetings. These meetings are open to the public, and friends and family are welcome to attend.
Another option includes support groups specifically for friends and family. Popular options include Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, and Alateen.
Founded in 1951, Al-Anon – also called Al-Anon Family Groups – provides a program of support for friends and families of alcoholics, whether they recognize their alcoholism or not.3 Al-Anon considers alcoholism a “family illness,” meaning that regardless of who is struggling with addiction, everyone is affected. Like AA, Al-Anon provides hope, camaraderie, and community for those whose loved ones fighting against alcoholism.
Alateen is an offshoot of Al-Anon geared towards younger family members and friends who have been impacted by a loved one’s alcohol addiction. Alateen provides a support system and framework of understanding for younger people – often teens – to heal from the impact of someone else’s drinking habits and learn how to support their loved one’s recovery.4
Similar to Al-Anon, Nar-Anon is a support group aimed to help and provide a community for those who have been affected by someone else’s drug addiction.5 Nar-Anon also offers a similar offshoot support group called Narteen that centers on the struggles and hopes of young adults who’ve been impacted by a loved one’s addiction.6
12 Step Programs and Psychedelic Drugs
At first glance, it could feel paradoxical trying to pair abstinence-focused 12 Step groups with psychedelic drugs. However, new research and stories from individuals who have created their paths to recovery suggest that for some, this potent combination could provide life-saving help.
Why Do Some Programs Use Psychedelic Drugs?
Many have found psychedelics such as LSD, ibogaine, psilocybin, ayahuasca, ketamine, and MDMA not only curb symptoms of withdrawal but provide world-bending spiritual awakenings. Those who experience this spiritual awakening often find they wake up with a fresh lease on life that enables them to more easily and eagerly follow the 12 Steps of recovery.
People who have taken this approach consistently report the need for both psychedelics and a 12 Step program. While their psychedelic experience provided the spiritual awakening necessary to get clean, they wouldn’t have stayed clean without the long-term support system provided by the 12 Steps groups.12
Is This Method Effective?
Unfortunately, many recovering addicts who choose this path find their experiences are met with tension in AA meetings and NA meetings. For this reason, many addicts who supplement their recovery fear losing the vital support of their community if they speak up. Interestingly enough, Bill Wilson – one of AA’s cofounders – had experimented and advocated for the use of LSD.
Although Wilson stayed sober, he found himself struggling with a crippling depression that AA couldn’t heal. After trying LSD – then an accessible and destigmatized drug – Wilson wrote a letter in 1957 to science writer Gerald Heard, stating, “I find myself with a heightened colour perception and an appreciation of beauty almost destroyed by my years of depression.”8
Because connection with and belief in a Higher Power is one of the fundamental principles for achieving sobriety in AA, Wilson felt psychedelics offered hope for “cynical alcoholics” who’d long since lost their belief in such a power. He saw psychedelics as a way to reinstill that sense of faith and belief.
Other Examples of 12 Step Psychedelic Programs
Dimitri was cofounder of the first 12 Step Psychedelic program called Psychedelics in Recovery (PIR).9 Dimitri had been fighting a heroin addiction for 20 years when he decided to take a chance on an ibogaine clinic in the Netherlands. With the success rate for the long-term recovery of opioid abusers through conventional treatments as low as 5-10%, Dimitri was amazed to leave his experience without any cravings to return to his addiction.10
After his experience, Dimitri became a fervent advocate for education and access to recovery-enhancing psychedelics and created PIR alongside cofounder Kevin. And while PIR began as a small weekly group of three to six people in New York City, it’s now skyrocketed in virtual meetings due to COVID 19. Now, PIR holds over 17 meetings each week with up to 40 members in any given session.
Since then, Psychedelic-aided recovery groups have begun growing in popularity. Current groups include Psychedelics in Recovery (PIR),11 Project New Day, Psychedelic Recovery group,12 and Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.13
Popular Alternatives to 12 Step Programs
Because of AA and NA’s central principle of relying on a Higher Power, many find the spiritual focus does not help their recovery. If you feel you’d benefit more from a secular approach to recovery, plenty of options are available to you.
SMART Recovery provides a path to sobriety centering self-empowerment and cognitive behavioral therapy to help individuals create better habits and work through emotional and behavioral patterns.
Rational Recovery is a for-profit vendor of information and direct guidance about recovering from alcohol addiction. Rational Recovery was created as an alternative to AA’s more spiritual approach.
Secular Organizations for Sobriety (S.O.S.)
S.O.S is a network of support groups providing mutual support for those working through recovery, alongside guidance for people who want to create successful recovery groups.
LifeRing Recovery provides another alternative for peer-run, secular support groups. LifeRing additionally provides support for those working towards their sobriety as well as for family and friends.