Self-Help Support Groups

While your desire to help your partner, friend or family member certainly comes from a spirit of love and support, you probably don’t know exactly what he/she is going through if you haven’t experienced addiction yourself. The result may be, among other things, anger and frustration as the two of you attempt to make the other understand your point of view. This is where support groups can be a tremendous help — to both of you. Whether your loved one is struggling with an addiction that is mild, moderate or severe, being with others who’ve walked the same path can put the person you care about on the path to recovery that much sooner, assuming they’re willing to give one of these groups a try. Finding the right support group can help your loved one learn to:

  • Not feel alone and isolated
  • Admit the extent of his/her addiction
  • Learn how to gain control of his/her life again
  • Hear about the struggles and experiences of others who have been there, too
  • Experience support without judgment
  • Talk openly and honestly
  • Provide support and care for others
  • Relieve stressful and anxious feelings
  • Take the perspectives of others into account
  • Become educated about the disease of addiction
  • Recognize and sidestep relapse triggers
  • Find out about treatment centers, other support groups, therapists and doctors in the area

Support groups don’t just give your loved one an outlet, though. They’re also an important source of support for family members and friends of addicts. For example, AL-ANON/Alateen is a community of support where the families and friends of problem drinkers share their experiences. You might also try:

Nar-anon ( for loved ones of people with substance use disorders; Gam-anon for the families of compulsive gamblers; and for people who grew up with unhealthy substance use in the home.

12-Step Programs

You’ve probably heard about Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), the original community-based, mutual-support program that has been helping alcoholics get and stay sober since 1935. AA’s 12-step model was created for alcoholism, but over time, the 12 steps have been modified and applied to other types of addiction. Today there are 12-step-inspired programs for virtually every kind of addiction, including Crystal Meth Anonymous, Internet & Tech Addictions Anonymous, Food Addicts Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous and many more. Many of these have spin-offs to help family members, spouses and friends dealing with that type of addiction, too. When your loved one is struggling with an addiction, you’ll soon find a great deal of comfort in knowing that many other people (and their families) are facing the same challenges.

The 12-step approach is often part of treatment plans at rehab centers, residential programs and in hospitals and sober-living homes, so your loved one’s treatment is likely to include some aspect of a 12-step program unless he/she specifically opts not to go this route. Twelve-step meetings are held in cities and towns across the country and around the world. Just how effective AA and spin-off groups are in treating addictions, though, is not so clear. “Due to the anonymous nature of mutual-support groups, it is difficult for researchers to determine their success rates compared with those led by health professionals,” states the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. However, for those who regularly attend meetings, the 12-step philosophy is something they’ve come to rely on to get them through their darkest hours.

You’ll see that the original 12-step philosophy is founded on a dozen consecutive processes (each step builds on the one(s) before it):

The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Copyright 1952, 1953, 1981 by Alcoholics Anonymous Publishing
(now known as Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.)

Alternatives to 12-Step Programs

Not everyone wants to attend a 12-step program. There are other options for loved ones, including not attending any formal program at all and deciding to manage recovery in their own way, on their own terms. Or your loved one may choose a program like SMART Recovery®, which stands for Self-Management and Recovery Training. This approach relies on building a community of support to help people manage their own recovery and aims to increase the addict’s self-reliance through education and supportive meetings. SMART Recovery®, created by physician Joseph Gerstein in 1992, has a four-point program:

  1. Building and Maintaining Motivation
  2. Coping with Urges
  3. Managing Thoughts, Feelings and Behaviors
  4. Living a Balanced Life

It offers the option of having daily online or in-person meetings, as well as chat rooms and message boards that connect people in recovery with one another. The organization says it helps people learn self-directed ways to recover from all types of addiction and addictive behaviors.

Another alternative is for your loved to work with a doctor one-on-one or collaboratively with a group of healthcare professionals (doctors, nurses, therapists) to manage an addiction or a mental health issue using the BRENDA approach, which puts the patient at the center of treatment. This approach allows your loved one and the provider(s) to work together as a team to address the patient’s needs and priorities. Your loved one won’t have to attend support groups or 12-step meetings unless he/she decides to as part of his/her treatment goals. The BRENDA approach integrates prescription medication (to prevent cravings) with one-on-one counseling, offering motivation and encouragement. The name BRENDA is an acronym for a specific, multi-step counseling approach that includes:

Biopsychosocial evaluation
Report to the patient on assessment findings
Needs identified by patient and treatment provider
Direct patient advice
Assessing the patient’s reaction to advice and adjusting treatment overtime.

The type of medication prescribed in a BRENDA treatment regimen varies depending on the needs of the patient – there are several FDA-approved medications for addictions to alcohol, tobacco/nicotine and opioids. And of course, drugs to manage a mental health issue(s) may also be needed and can be prescribed by a healthcare provider. Providers using the BRENDA model use a therapy approach called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a general term for a widely accepted and relatively brief kind of therapy; the National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists states that on average, patients need about 16 sessions whereas psychoanalysis, by comparison, can take several years. With CBT, therapists ask logical, targeted questions designed to change patterns of negative thinking and belief.

With the BRENDA approach, the doctor or other healthcare providers will help manage treatment and also motivate your loved one to make important life changes.

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