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Alternative Recovery Methods: What if the 12 Steps Aren’t for Me?

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Alternative Recovery Methods: What if the 12 Steps Aren’t for Me?

“Recovery is specific to the individual.” We hear this constantly. We’re all our own people with our own lives, stories, and goals. So it makes sense that recovery should be catered to each individual recovering addict. “But all I hear about is AA. What if AA isn’t for me?” Yes, 12 Step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are the go-to for many recovering addicts. But that doesn’t mean they have to be for you too. Tunnel vision doesn’t work in recovery. I mean, does it really make sense that there can be so many different kinds of apples at the grocery store but something that takes such a big role in your life – your recovery – can only adhere to one method?

recovery(The answer to that question is no, by the way). There are actually quite a few alternative recovery methods. Some of them can even be worked alongside more traditional 12 Step programs. It all just depends on what you, the individual, want and need.

4 Alternative Recovery Methods:

SMART Recovery

SMART Recovery stands for Self Management and Recovery Training. It is a science-based program dedicated to helping people abstain from substance addiction (alcohol and drugs) as well as behavioral addictions (gambling). Unlike Alcoholics Anonymous, the SMART Recovery method does not require individuals to surrender to a higher power. It promotes science rather than spirituality. So, people who have a harder time accepting the spiritual aspect of 12 Step programs might find comfort in SMART Recovery.


SMART Recovery’s main goal is to help recovering addicts establish independence from addiction. It bases its methodology on scientifically validated research. However, because it is science based, it acknowledges that the program will evolve as science evolves.

At the base of SMART Recovery is its 4-Point Program. While the 12 Step Program guides recovering addicts through different mind and behavior altering activities, the 4 Points represent the different stages of an addict’s recovery.

recoveryThe 4-Point Program:

1: Building and maintaining motivation

2: Coping with urges

3: Managing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors

4: Living a balanced life

These points are the building blocks to this recovery method. Each point has different tools and techniques that essentially inflate them into real, workable points. These tools include Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), Hierarchy of Values, and Stages of Change (below).

Stages of Change:

  1. PrecontemplationYou don’t see you have a problem yet. You might have been told by others and encouraged to seek help but you don’t see it for yourself yet.
  2. ContemplationYou realize you might have a problem and start thinking about ways you can solve it.
  3. Determination/PreparationYou’re planning to take action to solve your problem. This is where all loose ends are tied.
  4. ActionYou start explicitly changing your behaviors and taking action to treat your problem.
  5. MaintenanceThe action you took during the action stage always needs to be maintained. It’s not unlikely that people experience relapse rather than graduation. But eventually, enough maintenance will make way for graduation.
  6. Graduation/Exit

SMART Recovery promotes the idea that recovery is individual and that everyone chooses their own path. SMART Recovery can be an alternative method to 12 Step programs or it can be supplemental, depending on what the individual wants and needs. However, if a recovering addict chooses to participate in SMART Recovery instead of 12 Step programs, the fellowship of those 12 Step programs is not lost. SMART Recovery offers online meetings as well as in-person meetings. The method may be based in science, but they do not ignore the fact that recovery takes interaction and support.

Harm Reduction

The Harm Reduction recovery model is completely alternative to 12 Step Programs. It implements a variety of strategies to help reduce negative consequences, ranging from managed use to total abstinence. However, instead of solely helping people abstain from substances, this model aims to reduce any negative consequences.

recoveryFor example, needle exchange programs were created as a harm reduction resource. They acknowledge the fact that not all drug users are going to stop using drugs over night. However, users who are deep in their addictions are likely to participate in dangerous and potentially harmful activities to achieve their high. This includes sharing needles. So, rather than put all their eggs into the “drug addicts will stop using drugs” basket, needle exchange programs offer free, clean needles in exchange for contaminated ones.

The harm reduction model believes that addict behaviors are gratifying to that specific individual. So the model can’t possibly have set rules and programming that would reduce harm for everyone who participates. But it does have core principles that it tries to promote to help addicts in general.

A few Harm Reduction principles:

  • “Accepts, for better or worse, that licit and illicit drug use is a part of our world and chooses to work to minimize its harmful effects rather than simply ignore or condemn them.”
  • “…acknowledges that some ways of using drugs are clearly safer than others.”
  • “Establishes quality of individual and community life and well-being . . . as the criteria for successful interventions and policies.”
  • “Affirms drug users themselves as the primary agents of reducing the harms of their drug use…”

Nuances of Harm Reduction

The harm reduction model has a lot to offer because it takes into account that there are many factors both in and outside of the addict’s hands that all contribute to addiction and recovery. This inclusive and broad-minded way of going about recovery takes into account things like:

  • Socioeconomic, class, and race discrimination
  • The addict’s individual accountability in his drug use
  • Drug users and addicts are real people with real voices
  • Judgment and coercion are detrimental to everyone’s wellbeing

Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT)

Medication assisted treatment (MAT) uses medications along with behavioral therapy and counseling to help addicts recover from addiction. Medications are very effective in helping people detox from certain substances, such as opioids and alcohol. They can also make the initial recovery process more comfortable for the recovering addict by helping to calm or eliminate withdrawal symptoms.


Commonly Used MAT Medications:

  • Methadone – Methadone is an opioid antagonist. It occupies opioid receptors in the brain to suppress withdrawal, reduce cravings, and block other opioids from stimulating a high. However, because methadone can easily be abused, it’s a subject of controversy among the recovery community.
  • Buprenorphine – Buprenorphine is only a partial opioid antagonist. The side effects and risk of abuse are lower than those of methadone. Because its effects aren’t as strong, it’s often used in combination with other medications, such as naltrexone.
  • NaltrexoneNaltrexone can be used for opioid and alcohol dependence. Like methadone, it occupies the brain’s opioid receptors and blocks the effects of other opioids. The theory behind this is if the drug doesn’t produce a high, the desire to use it will be significantly reduced.

Barriers to Medication Assisted Treatment

These medications have to be prescribed by a physician. So, people who don’t have access to adequate health care or a prescribing physician aren’t likely to support MAT. Furthermore, many people see medication-assisted treatment as substituting one addiction for another. While many people who have participated in MAT don’t become addicted to the prescribed medications, there are some who do. It’s difficult for some people to see the point in using medications to help an addict if those medications have their own risk of abuse and addiction. Regardless, MAT has been proven to effectively treat addiction and supplement recovery for many people.

  • The AA/MAT Controversy

    Alcoholics Anonymous boasts ideas of open-mindedness and inclusiveness. However, it has recently surfaced that AA does not welcome the stories those who are on MAT. The idea here is that those who are using medications to treat their addiction or supplement their recovery are not truly clean and sober. Which is totally understandable. However, AA claims that their only requirement for membership is the desire to stop drinking. (Similarly, the only requirement to join Narcotics Anonymous is the desire to stop using).

    If someone who is participating in medication assisted treatment has the desire to stop drinking, that should be enough for them to be able to actively participate in an AA meeting, according to that sole requirement. However, many AA members feel that someone who is not truly clean and sober (because they’re doing MAT) should not be able to share in a meeting because their recovery method doesn’t fall right in line with AA’s frame. MAT is not bad. AA is not bad. Whichever way you sway in this controversy is up to you. But we need to acknowledge that whichever method someone uses is okay, as long as they’re working towards recovery and bettering their life.

Celebrate Recovery

recoveryThe Celebrate Recovery model is a 12-Step recovery program similar to AA and NA. However, unlike AA’s more liberal spiritual philosophy, Celebrate Recovery is Christian-based. The program is used to help treat substance addictions as well as other “hurts, habits, and hang-ups,” such as co-dependency, eating disorders, and sex addiction. This model was founded by a member of Saddleback Church, who was recovering from alcoholism with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous. However, he wanted a purely Christian recovery program.

Celebrate’s Principles:

Celebrate Recovery uses eight principles in addition to the typical 12 Steps. These eight principles are based on the Sermon on the Mount.

  1. Realize I’m not God; I admit that I am powerless to control my tendency to do the wrong thing and that my life is unmanageable.
  2. Earnestly believe that God exists, that I matter to Him, and that He has the power to help me recover.
  3. Consciously choose to commit all my life and will to Christ’s care and control.
  4. Openly examine and confess my faults to God, to myself and to someone I trust.
  5. Voluntarily submit to every change God wants to make in my life and humbly ask Him to remove my character defects.
  6. Evaluate all my relationships. Offer forgiveness to those who have hurt me and make amends for harm I’ve done to others, except when to do so would harm them or others.
  7. Reserve a daily time with God for self-examination, Bible reading, and prayer in order to know God and His will for my life and to gain the power to follow His will.
  8. Yield myself to God to be used to bring this good news to others, both by my example and my words.

If you’re familiar with the 12 Steps, then you’ll notice that these principals sound very similar to the Steps. That’s because they are meant to work seamlessly with the 12 Steps. Someone who is looking for the structure and guidance of a 12 Step program and is deeply rooted in their Christianity might really benefit from Celebrate Recovery.


Like other 12 Step programs, Celebrate Recovery also offers fellowship meetings. There are three main meeting types in this recovery model: large group, open share groups, and step study. The large group is for everyone but open share groups and step study meetings are gender-specific. Celebrate believes that gender-specific meetings help to make the group feel more comfortable and safe.

Options Galore!

So, maybe you’ve given the 12 Steps of AA a try and it’s just not for you. (You also don’t like Granny Smith apples, but that’s a different matter). Hopefully this list of alternative recovery methods has helped give you some insight on how specific and individual recovery can get. You need to be comfortable and confident in order to be the best you can be in life and in recovery. If the 12 Steps don’t do that for you, there’s likely another method out there that can.

The first step to feeling comfortable and confident in recovery is reaching out for help. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, New Start is here for you. Give us a call at 855-737-7363 or reach out to us on our live chat. We want to help.

Posted in Recovery