Many people believe that the only way to manage long-term sobriety is by entering a 12-step program and attending regular meetings for the rest of their lives. Truthfully, for thousands of people, the Alcoholics Anonymous program is an unbeatable formula that has proven very successful. However, at the same time, a significant number of people simply do not find AA to be a good fit. It could be the fact that they don’t agree with the 12-Step philosophy or that they find the idea of handing over their will to a “Higher Power” repulsive. Or, perhaps they just prefer a more evidence-based, scientific approach to recovery.
Whatever the case may be, if AA is not a fit for you, don’t feel like you have to go without a support resource. There are a number of other alternatives that can support you in your journey in recovery just as well. Just take a look at any of these non 12-step approaches to start.
1. SMART Recovery
SMART (Self-Management and Recovery Training) is a mental health and educational program that is focused on changing human behavior. It draws on the work of psychologist Albert Ellis, who in the 1950s developed a cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy called Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). Using REBT, an individual is taught how to manage the beliefs and emotions that lead him or her to drink or use and through self-empowerment be able to quit and abstain. It also draws on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Motivational Interviewing (MI).
SMART uses worksheets and group discussion as a way of assisting people to recognize and curtail their self-destructive behaviors and maintain their abstinence. It’s one of the most well-known alternatives to a 12-Step program.
Who it appeals to: Individuals who are looking for an evidence-based, scientific approach to recovery.
2. LifeRing Secular Recovery
LifeRing was established in 2001 and is a peer-to-peer organization focusing on positive advice and living in the present. Unlike the powerlessness philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous, LifeRing believes that everyone has to power to overcome their addiction.
The main goal of LifeRing is to help the sober person living inside every addict who is perpetually fighting to get free. The emphasis is on individuals developing their own recovery tools and approach that suits them, recognizing each person’s individuality and strength. In addition, by connecting with other addicts, each person can learn from the other and gain strength for themselves. LifeRing offers in-person meetings in the United States, Canada and other selected countries as well as online meetings for members across the globe.
Who it appeals to: Individuals who believe in their own personal power to overcome their addiction and/or would rather attend a non-religious based meeting for mutual support.
3. Women for Sobriety
Dr. Jean Kirkpatrick, founder of Women for Sobriety (WFS), started the organization in 1976, soon after she realized that she felt uncomfortable with 12-Step’s premise of being “powerless” over her addiction. The organization helps empower women to recover from alcoholism and other addictions with the use of affirmations and positive statements toward personal responsibility, thereby reinforcing the idea that every woman is highly capable of managing their own addiction.
Who it appeals to: Women, especially those who may have suffered trauma and abuse at the hands of men, so would feel less comfortable in attending mixed gender recovery groups.
4. Rational Recovery
Rational Recovery uses the Addictive Voice Recognition Technique (AVRT), a method for addicted individuals to use for objectively recognizing mental thoughts that lead to substance abuse. According to Jack Trimpey, founder of Rational Recovery, the “addictive voice” is the beast that is the sole reason an addict continues down the self-destructive path of addiction. Therefore, the ability to recognize this voice makes it easier for the individual to say “no.” Rational Recovery does not offer support groups, but instead offers a variety of learning materials on practicing AVRT.
Who it appeals to: Individuals who would like very practical skills for overcoming their addiction, would rather not attend support groups, and/or may prefer to keep their recovery a very individual and self-directed approach.
5. Secular Organization for Sobriety
Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS) was started by James Christopher in Los Angeles more than 30 years ago. Christopher, now a sober alcoholic, founded this 12-Step alternative for those who were uneasy with the spiritual dependence of AA. SOS gives the credit for achieving sobriety to the individual, rather than to a Higher Power. The organization holds meetings in the U.S. and various other countries around the world.
SOS describes itself as empowering the individual to find their own tools to maintain their recovery. It recognizes that addiction thrives on isolation, so group support is there to assist people in their recovery.
Who it appeals to: Individuals who place an emphasis on rational decision-making and/or are not religious or spiritual.
6. Refuge Recovery
Refuge Recovery is an abstinence-based path and philosophy that uses mindfulness and Buddhist principles as key features of its approach to recovery. It utilizes the core teachings of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism and emphasizes knowledge and empathy as the path to recovery. The Refuge Recovery system does not require previous experience or knowledge of Buddhism or meditation.
Who it appeals to: Individuals who are interested in a non-theistic approach to recovery, have an interest in Eastern Spiritual Practices, and/or who are already following a Buddhist path.
7. Celebrate Recovery
Celebrate Recovery describes itself as a “biblical and balanced program that helps us overcome our hurts, hang-ups, and habits.” Launched 25 years ago at Saddleback Church, California, the program is based on AA’s 12-steps but incorporates eight additional principles based on the actual words of Jesus found in the Sermon on the Mount. Celebrate Recovery is an international organization, and is based in 29,000 churches worldwide.
Who it appeals to: Individuals who subscribe to the Christian faith and/or struggle with the vagueness of AA’s “Higher Power” or “God of your understanding.”
Alcoholics Anonymous isn’t for everyone but that’s no reason to navigate recovery on your own. There are plenty of other groups that have helped many move forward and they could be just the right option for you as well.
* Editor's Note: A previous version of this article did not include Refuge Recovery and Celebrate Recovery. The article has been amended to include suggestions from the SoberRecovery community as well as the most up-to-date information.