Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and its sister program, Narcotics Anonymous (NA), have been considered the standard treatment for recovering addicts since their inception. AA, founded by Bill Wilson, is based on the 12 steps, first published in 1938. Narcotics Anonymous was founded in 1953 and follows similar principles.

An estimated 23 million Americans struggle with addiction. Many of these addicts seek AA or NA as part of their road to recovery. A number of rehabilitation centers focus on the 12 steps and urge those in recovery to continue attending meetings on a regular basis to maintain their hard-earned sobriety.

The 12-step program is responsible, in part, for saving many lives. This cannot be debated, but neither can the reality that the program is not effective for everyone. Those recovering from addiction recover in different ways, and the underlying spiritual elements of AA and NA can be confusing and uncomfortable for some.

Deborah’s story is common: Drugs and alcohol, once something she could control, began to define her life after a time. It is also important: It sheds light on the reality that recovery does not necessarily have to be found within “-Anonymous” programs. In fact, some of the principles of the steps can be frightening for people.

Deborah has been sober for over seven years, although she still and will forever describe herself as “a recovering addict.” This is the general consensus in regard to addiction recovery. Similar to chronic mental or physical illness, the nature of addiction requires those living with it to constantly monitor mood changes, life events, and triggers that may spawn relapse. Addiction is, in fact, categorized as a mental illness.

Deborah has two children, both under the age of 15, and she has been married for 23 years. She works part-time as a nurse and spends her spare time hiking and with her family and a close group of friends, many of whom also are in recovery. While this may sound like the stuff of a normal, everyday life, it was not always this way.

Deborah describes the impact of her addiction on her family:

My children were young when I was active in my addiction. I don’t believe they understood what was going on, though my husband worked to be honest with them. He told them I was sick and would become well. When I was an addict, my family, while important, were not as important as drugs. I felt I needed drugs in order to function, and I did function for some time. I managed to complete my nursing degree, but it all fell to pieces. Addiction nearly killed me, and I needed help. I finally realized, after five years of serious addiction, that I could not do it on my own.

During her stay in a rehabilitation center, Deborah was taught that the 12 steps were an important part of her success. However, she struggled with some of the core principles, the spiritual principles in particular. She is not alone.

The basic text of Narcotics Anonymous states as part of its 12 steps:

We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs… We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character… We sought, through prayer and meditation, to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for the knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

I presented these excerpts to Deborah; she was already well aware of them. In fact, she’d spent a very long time working to understand them and to apply the steps to her recovery journey. While the steps do make a point of mentioning that a person is to understand God “…as we understood Him,” implying that the program does not require a person to be religious nor adhere to any specific principles, the words do still feel stifling to those of other belief systems.

Deborah spent the better part of a year attending the meetings at least three times a week. She obtained a sponsor, a commonly recognized hallmark of the program, in order to work toward completing the 12 steps.

Nevertheless, as hard as she tried to work the program, she felt confused.

My sponsor, an exceptionally kind woman, worked to help me understand the concept of a ‘Higher Power.’ We spent hours over coffee discussing my innate reluctance to approach recovery in this fashion. It became difficult for us, as the months passed and I remained uncomfortable with the ideas, to maintain a healthy relationship with her. I realized then, after I had a year of sobriety under my belt, that the program would not work for me. I had initially assumed that because it has worked for so many people, it would work for me if I tried hard enough. I had to find another approach to my recovery. I had to find my own way.

After deciding to leave the program, Deborah and her family were anxious:

I had spent a long time thinking about what direction I would take. Instinctively, I knew the program would not work for anymore. My husband was understandably nervous. He urged me to stay and give it more time, but I had put enough time into trying to fit the mold. Yes, I was afraid, but not because I thought leaving would cause relapse. I was afraid of recovering alone.

Although she decided the 12 steps were not for her, Deborah recognized the difficulty — if not impossibility — of recovering alone:

It was sort of scary at first, but I was certain I was not the only one who needed to approach recovery in a unconventional way. I was surprised to find support groups that focused on recovery without any of the spiritual elements. I met fantastic people, and while we had meetings, we also took a different approach. We hiked together and found different outlets, doing things we had never done before. I actually skydived this year, something I never would have done otherwise.

Addiction is an isolating disease. While 12-step programs undeniably help many addicts, other options do exist for those who feel they do not fit in. The goal for addicts is ultimately to find a life free of addiction, no matter the route taken to get there.