5 Tips for Recovering Without a 12-Step Program
By Beth Leipholtz
There isn’t one right way to recover and the reality is that although 12-step programs are effective for many people, they aren’t right for everyone.
A man holding up one hand with fingers spread (indicating 5)
When it comes down to it, no person’s recovery looks identical to another’s.
Like many people who get sober, I found a 12-step program to be helpful early on in my recovery. It gave me a concrete plan to follow. It was structured. There were steps to take and books to read and people to relate to. It felt like by attending 12-step meetings, someone was telling me what to do rather than me figuring it out on my own, which I needed in early recovery. I needed someone to hold my hand and say, “Here’s what comes next.”
But as time passed and I became more confident in my recovery, I found that 12-step meetings didn’t resonate the way they once did for me. I no longer felt understood there or felt as if I was contributing as much to the meetings as I once did. I often left feeling unsettled and frustrated.
And then I realized something: I didn’t have to recover with the 12 steps. If I no longer felt like 12-step programs were a good fit for me, I was free to leave and explore other methods of recovery or even figure out my own. In the few years since coming to that realization, my recovery has really become my own. I have a number of people I know I can lean on and tools I can use. Here are a few pieces of advice for recovering without a 12-step program.
1. Find your tribe. I can’t stress enough how important it is to find peers who understand the journey you are on and who have been where you are. When you are feeling down or as if your sobriety is in jeopardy, you need to have people you can reach out to and talk it through with. These can be people you know in real life or online. There are so many resources on the internet and on social media for connecting with other people in recovery. Facebook and Reddit in particular are helpful, as there are many recovery groups and pages to choose from. Some have a smaller number of people, while others have literally thousands. There are also online forums that deal with more specific types of recovery, such as medication-assisted treatment (MAT). As you make connections, you will become aware of more and more resources and connect with more people like yourself.
2. Use technology. Embracing technology is incredibly beneficial when it comes to recovery. Simply googling recovery resources turns up many results, including groups to join or blogs to read. There are various smartphone apps that can track your sober time, connect you to other people in recovery, and provide other helpful information. Many even deliver an inspirational quote each day. There are newsletters you can sign up for, readings you can relate to and learn from, chat rooms to talk with other sober people…the list goes on. The internet and technology in general are fantastic resources for those of us in recovery.
3. Have an outlet. It’s important for everyone to have a way to burn off steam, but it’s especially important for those in recovery. Chances are that if you are sober, you probably relied on a substance as a way of letting go, escaping, and as a place to channel negative feelings. In recovery, that is no longer an option. However, there are plenty of healthy outlets to choose from. Two of the ones I have found most helpful are writing and working out. Writing allows you to get out all of your negative emotions and frustrations. Putting things down on paper doesn’t mean that other people have to read what you’ve written. It can be therapeutic to write just for yourself. And working out is a way of giving yourself a physical release and it also provides benefits to your mind and body.. Of course, there are other options for outlets, too. Just make sure that you have something healthy to turn to when you are feeling down and discouraged.
4. Find another program. Believe it or not, 12-step programs are not the only recovery programs out there for people struggling with substance misuse. For example, another popular one is SMART Recovery. SMART stands for Self Management and Recovery Training. The program is secular and uses cognitive behavioral therapy (cbt) and other evidence-based approaches to help members sustain abstinence. Another program is Women for Sobriety, which helps women recover through discovery of self, gained by sharing experiences, hopes and encouragement with other women in similar circumstances. Simply google “non 12-step recovery programs” and you’ll have plenty of results to explore.
5. Share your story. This has been the best tool for my own recovery. There is something about telling your story to other people — and them telling their story in return — that makes you feel like you are holding one another accountable and sharing in both the successes and the struggles. Sharing your story can look different for different people. Some may choose to blog about it and be very public about their recovery, in places like social media. For others, that is too public and feels too vulnerable. Those people may choose to share more quietly and selectively, and that’s okay, too. There is just something freeing about being able to talk about your recovery and journey and allowing your own experiences to help another person.
When it comes down to it, no person’s recovery looks identical to another’s. There isn’t one right way to recover and the reality is that although 12-step programs are effective for many people, they aren’t right for everyone. The key to a successful recovery is taking note of what challenges you to grow while also making you feel the most secure. Also, look at what brings you joy in recovery. This process shouldn’t be boring and frustrating. If you find your own right way to do it, it can be incredibly enjoyable and fun. It just comes down to being willing to try various approaches.