12 Things to Do if you Don’t like the 12 steps

12 Step groups are the biggest peer led group in the world, but with it’s traditions and dogma it isn’t for everyone.  And believe it or not that’s okay!   There are plenty of alternatives and it’s good idea to get a different perspective on other ideas that work.

The 12-steps picks up where other communities turn their back, although that is noble in its own way it by no means makes it an authority on addiction.  Addiction isn’t a popular notion, despite numerous celebrities talking openly about their addiction, addiction services are usually the first to have their funding cut. In the UK over the last 10 years addiction services have been marginalized to a point of almost non-existence. Looking after addictive disorders isn’t winning votes, at least certainly not in the UK.  Mental health services are often described as the “Cinderella Service”, meaning the poorer sister.  Despite mental health issues being incredibly common, it’s still a part of our day-to-day life a lot of people aren’t willing to openly and honestly talk about. 12 Steps pick up the slack because they’re a peer-based service, run by people for people. However, this also contributes to a lot of negative issues.  

I’ve seen first-hand some people involved in addiction treatment using the 12-steps as a gun to point at the head of a client, with some stating literally “get this or die”.   Even Terrance Gorski, who was in “the fellowship” (a name given to 12 step group attendees), said that “Recovery by Fear” was actually a system of denial rather than a pathway to recovery.

1. Find groups of healthy people.

One of the only merits of the 12-step community is that they all share a common goal, despite being a easy target for it’s mystical beliefs and outdated language, there is the aspect of community that can’t be ignored.  Chances are if you can identify substance misuse in your life, this isn’t your first rodeo, you’ve probably been around a lot of unhealthy sub-cultures that promote drink or drugs.  Maybe you have never had some exposure to healthy individuals.   A big stumbling block of this is how do you relate to a community of people who are healthy? If your life was raving, drugs or smoking crack, it’s very hard to join a triathlon community or gym goers.  You need to take baby steps and work within what is achievable.  Some people find martial arts a good community.  But remember, there are still plenty of people who exercise and drink alcohol.

You may need to stand clear of people who are harmful and hazardous to your well-being too.  

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2. Don’t be too shy about paying for help.

On a personal note, I have paid for therapy and I found it to be some of the best money I’ve ever spent.  It really helped me overcome terrible anxiety that effected my day-to-day life. Paying for therapy gives you a level of control that you don’t have with other forms of help, you have customer choice. If you want someone to help you work on your sex-life, alcohol life, social skills, anxiety, trauma, fitness goals, weight loss management, dealing with the past…etc you can just select that person. If you don’t find they’re helping you find someone else.

Substance use and alcohol use come at a cost, even if you were buying things for cheap or only drank cheap alcohol, I’ve rarely encountered a single person who hasn’t been deeply effected in a monetary way.  You can find a counsellor for as cheap as 40 pounds an hour at times, even if you only see that person once a month or twice a month, it will give you some tailored therapy around your needs, not some mother superior who wants to shoe horn you into the steps. 

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3. Exercise

Although it appears that the idea of addiction being a disease of dopamine deficiency is an outdated concept (Valentish, n.d), let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Despite a lack of evidence for this reductionist standpoint, dopamine does play a big part in getting well.  Whilst you won’t reach the heights of your drink or drugs of choice, exercise is very rewarding. Regular exercise seems to be the key, you can reduce irritability and depression even if it’s just 30mins of walking a day.

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4. Purpose / Passion

Finding a purpose can be one of the most fulfilling aspects of overcoming addictive disorders. I often look at the higher power aspect of  12 step groups as being finding a purpose, but instead the archaic language and setting of the steps lends itself more to gettin’ it on with god. Purpose after traumatic events creates a lot of meaning, if you’ve given up drink and drugs there’s a good chance you might feel like you’ve been chewed up and spat right back out.  Relationships take time, opportunities take time also to develop. You can come out the other-side feeling like you’re just twisting in the wind. So it’s important to find purpose in the events and situations you’ve witnessed.

  • Could you help others?
  • Could you begin to do that one thing your addiction prevented you from doing?
  • What are you passionate about now?
  • What were you passionate about but have lost touch with?
  • What gives you a sense of meaning?
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5. Daily Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) Exercises

Addiction can be likened to a learning disorder of sorts (Lewis, 2017), certain parts of the brain go off-line when someone is very active in their disorder. It can take awhile for your brain to really start firing on all cylinders again.  This is a good opportunity to start installing different aspects of yourself via CBT exercises.  A resource I love to use with people is CCI’s range of CBT exercises, all free and available to use on the internet: https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/resources/looking-after-yourself

CBT is the most researched mental health technique in the world, it’s become the global standard of most worthwhile therapy.  One of the only downsides of it is that it usually requires a lot of reading and writing, which can be a barrier if you find that more difficult.

6. Routine

A routine is probably the best method of getting out of an addictive pattern of behaviour. In psychology the “theory of planned behaviour” gives us a model of how we can change our subjective norm – often in the case of those who have an addiction that “subject-norm” is a negative default setting comprised of behaviour and thoughts that can promote addiction to return.  In more lay terms if you fail to plan, plan to fail.    In order to install a new way of living you must change a lot of things in your life and also stick to them.  

Work through what your goals might look like. Also explore what might be difficult about meeting those goals.  The road to sobriety isn’t always paved with gold. Chances are actually that sometimes the initial couple of weeks could feel terrible. 

Stick to your plan as best you can.

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7. Gorski Denial Management books

Terrance Gorski is a therapist and author of many relapse prevention workbooks.  These books are incredibly practical to use and really help you break through aspects of your disorder you might not consider. They’re written in plain English and are very easy to comprehend. The only downside is that they can be a bit repetitive. Gorski was a big fan of 12-Step recovery but he filled in a bit more practical advice than the mumbo-jumbo pathway. 

8. Sober-Fun

It’s very easy to get into euphoric recall whilst moving away from your addictive disorder.  You start thinking a pint or two might be fun, a couple of lines here and there might liven up the Friday night. However, these disqualify all the negatives and chances if you’ve made it this far down the list your problems with a substance probably far out weigh the benefits.  We need fun, we need novelty and enjoyment in the things we do.  Chances are if sitting at home in front of the TV had lots of appeal then you probably never would have done drink or drugs excessively. So, you’re going to need something fun to do.

A little exercise I do with people is to think of 100 different things to do than drink or use, it sounds like a very tall order, but that’s the point.   It gets people to really start thinking outside the box, is it archery you like? Cycling? Swimming? Studying? Target shooting? Yoga? Karate? Going to old country estates? Travelling? Think of something fun to do.

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9. Belief in Self

Excessive drinking and drugging aren’t signs of someone who is compassionate towards themselves. It’s usually always a sign that someone is trying to block out something in their life or they find it very difficult to achieve certain things or mental states.  

Being sober is a good time to start being more compassionate towards yourself. Bullying leads to an exacerbation of problems, compounding them and making them much worse (Arseneault, 2014), you might have to consider have you been bullying yourself in your own head?    Automatic negative thinking styles are very common within people who have addictive disorders ( McHugh, Hearon & Otto, 2010). Therefore, a way to counter-act these problems is to enhance your beliefs about yourself. Simple exercises involve writing a gratitude list about all the things you are grateful for. You can reprogram your default ways you think about yourself and the world by writing positive affirmations.


10. Learning and Evolving

No matter how well you think you managed your addictive behaviours and life, they probably took their toll on your brain power. You may have cognitive impairments and these might be so subtle that you may not even notice them (Nyberg, 2012). Now you’ve freed up you brain, in ways,   you may like to put it more to good use. Cognitive functioning generally declines if you live a sedentary life that lacks stimulation, so you might like to study for fun again in order to boost your cognitive functioning and get your life back on track.

It doesn’t always have to be books and studies; you might like to do something with your hands. Some DIY work, making something, painting or bird spotting.   Just be aware if you don’t use it you lose it. 

11. Relaxation Time

Modern life is stressful, if you’ve ever used to overcome stress you’re certainly not alone. Alcohol during stressful times is one of the biggest go-to drugs for relief going.  Even those without alcohol problems can share that they’ve drank in order to deal with stress. Stressors be them internal or external are most definitely going to happen.  You’re better off becoming more robust to stress or regularly letting off steam than fire-fighting stressors as they appear.   

Relaxation is a personal matter, some people enjoy a ride on a motorbike for an hour, a deep bath, masturbation or a personal massage. Whatever fits your bill though you should consider incorporating into your lifestyle as part of your routine. 

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12. Diet Improvement

Lack of vitamins can be a big proponent of alcohol and drug use.  In order to metabolize alcohol your body must draw upon thiamine.  Good news is you can get most of your thiamine from a good diet, however if you have been damaged by the effects of alcohol you can have a deficit of thiamine that needs a real boost.   You can buy over the counter vitamins that should be the right ticket or you can see a doctor about getting an intramuscular injection of vitamin B compound to help give a boost. 

Considering a sensible diet is also a bonus, its very easy to cross over into consuming excessive sugary items when giving up an addiction.  The brain can run like auto-pilot into foods that boost glutamate. Well it’s easy to think “oh well, at least it’s not cocaine”, unwanted weight gain can be incredibly difficult to manage for certain people and also be a huge relapse trigger.  Managing your weight via drug use or drink is always going to crash and burn, so it’s never a good idea.  It might be very wise to seek some professional advice and guidance for a diet that works well for yourself. 

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Arseneault, L. (2014) Health Impact of Childhood Bullying Can Last a Lifetime : A new study shows how our bodies react in similar ways to the stress of bullying as they do to an infection. The Conversation. Accessed 31st Jan 2021: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/health-impact-of-childhood-bullying-can-last-a-lifetime/

Lewis M. (2017). Addiction and the Brain: Development, Not Disease. Neuroethics, 10(1), 7–18. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12152-016-9293-4

Valentish, J. (n.d). Why addiction isn’t a disease but instead the result of ‘deep learning. National Drug & Alcohol Research Centre.  Retrieved from https://ndarc.med.unsw.edu.au/blog/why-addiction-isnt-disease-instead-result-deep-learning

McHugh, R. K., Hearon, B. A., & Otto, M. W. (2010). Cognitive behavioral therapy for substance use disorders. The Psychiatric clinics of North America, 33(3), 511–525. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psc.2010.04.012 Nyberg, F. (2012) Cognitive Impairments in Drug Addicts. Department of Pharmaceutical Biosciences, Uppsala University. Brain Damage – Bridging Between Basic Research and Clinics. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/221929125_Cognitive_Impairments_in_Drug_Addicts

Published by Dylan Kerr BA ACAT FDAP DipHE MBABCP

Mr Dylan Kerr Addictions Counselor Bachelors in Clinical Counseling (Hons) Advanced Certified Addictions Therapist Member of the British Association for Behaviour and Cognitive Psychotherapist Member of the Federation of Drug and Alcohol Practitioners HeDip Health-care HeDip Psychology of Addiction Dip Counselling Diploma in Arts Therapy Diploma in Transactional Analysis CSAT III Dylan Kerr is a Certified Substance Abuse Therapist who is qualified in Counseling, Psychology of addiction from Leeds University and Healthcare from Birmingham City University. Dylan Kerr has been a senior Therapist at the River Rehab, Lead Therapist at Lanna Rehab in Chiang Mai and Head Counselor of Hope Rehab in Siracha. As well as working in Thailand for 7 years, Dylan has also been the on-tour counsellor for the the Rock band ‘The Libertines’. Dylan is now resident counsellor at an Asian rehab. Dylan has experience of working within the music industry supporting acts in therapeutic needs. As well as working around the world Dylan has over 13 years experience delivering substance use disorder treatment at various agencies around the UK. He is skilled in motivational interviewing, CBT, RET and guidance around 12 step philosophies. Dylan has worked with a broad client base and establish the rapport needed to effect change and sustainable progression. Dylan wishes to start this blog to help educate people on his observations within this field and debate the nature of work in the addictions field.

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