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Why the World Needs 12-Step Support Groups

My grandma was fond of saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This is something that needs to be said to researchers from the Italian Agency for Public Health in Rome who recently reported there are no advantages to a 12 step intervention program. I don’t know why researchers felt the need to study the value of the programs. They are a simple approach to providing structure and a support system for those struggling with similar issues.

It was in the early 1930s that the first 12-step program was developed for Alcoholics Anonymous. Today, AA serves as a model for other recovery programs and has an estimated 2 million members in 180 countries attending meetings and working through the steps.

Shortly after the program for AA began, a 12-step program for spouses and family members was developed. The term for someone in this group was “co-alcoholic.” Like AA, the program evolved and now we use the word co-dependent to refer to someone who becomes so focused on rescuing another person that she neglects her own needs.

I was 17 the day a health care professional said I needed help and recommend a 12-step program for teens. I didn’t think I was the one who needed help. It seemed counter-intuitive that the incredible desire to rescue others-particularly family members-could be an addiction.

Seven years later, I took that first step. Styrofoam cups of coffee littered the tables of a crowded, smoke-filled basement of a New York retreat center. Entering the dimly lit room was not an easy thing for a girl who prefers sweet iced tea to coffee so strong you need a spoon to drink it. The other women gathered were older than I and most had the raspy voice that comes with years of hard living and cigarettes. When I squinted, I could see the front of the room and the outline of the speaker who began sharing her story of living with an alcoholic. She talked about trying to cover up the messes and throwing away the bottles of booze only to watch them pile up again behind the towels in the linen closet. She tried running away, and for some inexplicable reason, felt drawn back to rescue her alcoholic husband.

Hearing her talk, I realized that even though I didn’t sound like or look like the others, inside I was the same-a sick cookie, someone who need a 12-step program to stop feeling like it was my job to save others from themselves. I had to admit I had a problem, admit that my coping strategies were dysfunctional. I had to ask for help, the kind of help that comes from others who have gone through this. The kind of help that comes from believing in God and knowing that only He has the power to change lives.

It’s been more than 20 years since I took that first step, and when life seems unmanageable, I find a support group and work through the steps again. The researchers from the Agency for Public Health in Rome were right in asserting that 12-step programs are not a substitute for professional help. But who can be in therapy for 20 years? If you need help, you may need therapy and a structured support group. One that holds you accountable. One that lifts and encourages you. Making lasting changes takes time and determination. Twelve-step programs can’t be easily measured. The programs aren’t broken…they work.

For information on 12-step programs visit www.12step.org.

By Liza Weidle

Liza Weidle is a columnist, freelance writer and author. This article was first printed in The Cary News.

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