Why doesn’t AA work for everyone, and why is it such a tedious venture?

There are a number of reasons why AA or the other 12-Step programs might not work for individuals.  They range from a lack of commitment to sobriety to unwillingness to be a part of what they see (wrongly) as being a religious organization.  In other cases, people’s issues may be such that they simply lack the ability to stay abstinent for long enough to do the work required.  And, of course, some people expect a free ride: never getting a sponsor, working the steps, and not doing the  things that others have found effective.  That is often because they feel that they are different, and thus do not need to “Thoroughly follow our path.”  Doing so can be pretty scary, and it is easier to run than to face our fears.

As far as “tedious” goes, that is certainly in the mind of the individual.  It is true that some meetings rub some people the wrong way.  Solution: find another meeting.  It is also true that meetings tend to discuss the same things repeatedly.  That is because they are intended to address the issues of the members, and those are the issues.  While, as an “old-timer,” I might find some meetings lacking in variety, I have to remember that the meeting is not about me.  It is about all 5, 15, 30 or more people in attendance.  Becoming active in our group and beginning to help others can be useful in overcoming boredom.

I badly needed to hear the bsics myself, over and over, when I was a newcomer.  Hearing something once, or reading it once in a book, is not sufficient to help us change our outlook and behavior when we have been thinking like addicts and alcoholics for years.  If that were the case, all it would take is reading an article in a medical journal to sober us up.  Sometimes basic ideas don’t even make sense until the 10th hearing — or the 50th.  We need to listen with an open mind, and not assume that we are superior to the others in the room.  Thoughts like that virtually guarantee that we are wrong.

That said, the Steps are not for everyone.  The 12-step programs are extremely effective for people who are determined and willing to “go to any lengths.”  There is no reason, however, to assume that other programs would not work as well for people who are dedicated to remaining abstinent and relearning the skills and attitudes of normal living.  For those who prefer half measures, probably no program will work.  Remaining abstinent is the beginning, not the end of sobriety.  It is entirely possible to remain abstinent for years without changing our thinking enough to be truly happy ourselves, or to contribute to the happiness of others.

While this writer continues to believe that the 12-step process produces the best results for the greatest number, there are a number of other programs that could be effective.  They include

and a variety of others.

This is not meant to imply that these programs are the best, or that they are superior to any others.  Neither should it be considered a recommendation for them, as opposed to the twelve steps.  Our staff here at Sunrise includes literally hundreds of years of sobriety.  It is our experience that AA, NA and similar groups produce the best results for the greatest number.  Nonetheless, support is critical for successful recovery, and we hope that everyone will find a path that is right for them.


  1. What I have never understood about opponents of 12 step programs is how they can have so much hate for them. I have been on a site with people that have been involved in 12 step programs for almost 40 years, and then decide it doesn’t work. It’s been astonishing to me to have them claim that they were lied to or manipulated into coming when all of those programs have the steps on the walls and are completely voluntary unless mandated by a Court. AA doesn’t claim to work for everyone nor does it claim to be the only path to sobriety, yet when you point this out to the naysayers, they balk and argue. They surely cannot show you in the literature where it says that AA IS the only thing. What I heard out of people in our meetings was that despite trying everything, AA was the only thing that worked for them or was the most helpful.

    Since AA worked for me, I didn’t consider any of the options. But it wouldn’t have mattered. The options listed in the article were not available in my area, and while the detractors are quick to point out these very programs, none of them are willing to become facilitators so that these options could be more widespread.

  2. I am one of the people who could not get sober using the 12 steps,there are many like me,A/A doesn’t seem to recognise that we are all different and the one size fits all approach does not work, yes there are types of people who thrive in a/a and i say good luck to them,but please recognise the majority like myself who have quit drinking using their own resources, the god i believe in gives me freedom to choose, i choose not to drink alcohol.

    Kind regards,joe.

  3. soberdad says:

    I use HAMS harm reduction, not for everyone but it works for me.
    soberdad 16 years of abstinence

  4. soberdad says:

    PS. A detox can be a good start. Alcohol damages a persons ability to make decisions on their own behalf.
    A detox can be a good start because it helps distance you from the last drink or use!
    Better is better is my slogan, I use whatever I need to help me recover from and eliminate damage.

  5. Why don’t you post ANY! comments?

  6. Dear Donald,

    I post comments that are pertinent, substantive and not abusive. If you are referring to specific unposted commentary by yourself or someone else, the reason would have been their failure to meet those criteria. Please take note that I posted this one without hesitation.


  7. Hi Joe,

    Congratulations on your success. I have never claimed, nor will I ever claim, that AA or the other 12-step programs are right for everyone. In fact, my follow-up article yesterday specifically remarked on that, and mentioned alternatives.

    That said, I continue to believe that the 12-step approach is the most effective for the most people, and that is why I suggest and write about it. If people try it and find that it doesn’t suit, I wish them all the success in the world with the alternatives.

    I would point out, however, that many of the problems people perceive in AA, NA and the others are related to specific groups or individuals, rather than the fellowships as a whole. Just as I would never suggest that someone should remain in a program that really doesn’t fit, I believe I would be doing my readers a disservice by not encouraging them to try the most successful approach (in my experience and opinion), and not to attend only one group, but several. I believe many of the objections could be resolved by considering the wide variety of groups available.

    Thanks for your comments and ideas,


  8. Jose martinez says:

    I am involved with the veterans community. i have been asked to start a peer to peer group,because so many vet’s are not comfortable with AA/NA, AA- don’t talk about drugs!! NA/ if your on med’s your not sober!!!!. Another reason is ” If these people knew what I’ve done”.The relapse rate with Vets is High to say the least and many have a dual diagnosis generally PTSD but more often then not other mental diagnosis on top of the PTSD.The group is an experiment to see how effective having a group where it is more of a “mentoring” group then a therapeutic group and not as structured as AA/NA. the hope is that if is seen as effective we can expand the program into other VA’S

  9. I can see where vets would have difficulty dealing with many of their issues in a group of civilians. I suggest, however, that you not deviate any farther than necessary from the formats of the 12-step groups. There have been many efforts to re-invent the wheel, but few have proven as effective. The progression of the steps is there for a good reason; it’s the order in which they seem to work best. Keeping the basic ideas in an overall protocol shouldn’t be difficult, without necessarily referring to them as such.

    Just a thought. In any case, best of luck!

  10. Your article is really closed minded.
    I thought I might find a fair assessment of who the 12 steps might not be suitable, a constructive assessment but all you actually say is “The reasons AA doesn’t work for certain individuals is
    1. They don’t understand that AA is not a religious organization
    2. They are lazy
    3. They don’t understand the need to keep repeating the basics

    So basically , the 12 steps doesn’t work for lazy stupid people – is what you are actually saying.

    Maybe there are industrious, honest, and humble people for whom it doesn’t work.
    But you just think that anyone who doesn’t want to do the 12 steps simply has no character,

    It’s your kind of zealotry and dogmatism, bashing people over the head, that drives people away.

  11. Part of the reason so many rehab centers use 12 step programs is because they can send people out into “aftercare”. It’s convenient and cost effective for the rehab centers, who really should be providing their own aftercare facilities, to routinely send people out to 12 step meetings where they may or may not prosper. It’s callous in the end to force them all down the same route and not to give them personal support.

  12. The 12 steps was devised as a route to bring people to a spiritual awakening, Bill W had a spiritual experience after which he never drank again. The founders decided that the key was to get other people to have the same experience, it was felt that the “spiritual experience” was what truly made long term sobriety possible, it required a real radical shift in perspective.
    They examined the world religious traditions and concluded that people did not have spiritual experiences so long as their pride was still strong and they developed a step program to progressively reduce an individuals pride so that they would be amenable to the spiritual dimension of life.
    It was the spiritual experience that they were aiming for, it was the one thing that could truly transform alcoholics.

    Clearly there are many roads to spiritual revelation. Though it is doubtful that you get there on any road via egotism and pride. Assuming of course that addicts actually need such a revelation, which behaviorists would deny.

  13. Thanks for your comments, Neil.

    The Recovery Blog hosts essays and articles from individuals in recovery, which includes many, many people working in AA programs. This post was an example of one person’s opinion on the topic (the editor at the time). It might not be fuly accurate to boil his comments down to “lazy, stupid, people”.

    You are very wise to note that there are many roads to spiritual revelation. For many treatment professionals, AA meetings are a first step for individuals to start down the path of learning about the importance of religious or non-religious spirituality. That is one of the reasons AA is recommended for early recovery.

    As for the idea that treatment programs can send people into free aftercare, this is a concern of many treatment professionals, and the reason why many treatment centers and their professionals actively participate in local AA meetings themselves (facilitating, collaborating, participating). If the system has to adapt, treatment professionals can be trusted to be involved in helping that happen, partly because AA is one of the successful community-based programs.

  14. recovering alone says:

    12 step program doesn’t work for everyone. am an introvert and shy socially.
    i was abused , taken advantage of in 12 step groups.
    too any vulneravle people lacking social skills, are taken advantage of 12 in step groups.

    people need to find a recovery method that works for them. there needs to be re entry
    skills training for recovering people. Many have never developed the skills needed to function in society.

    Many of us go through rehab and are left to recover alone.

  15. Many people cannot reconcile their important spiritual, religious, intellectual and personal beliefs with AA’s spiritual and unscientific doctrine. These people aren’t lazy, they aren’t unwilling to work hard for their sobriety and they aren’t in denial about their alcohol/addiction problem, rather, they are simply unwilling to change their core beliefs so they fit with AA doctrine.

    The truth is pretty simple: AA and the 12-Steps are NOT broad enough to include everyone from every belief system. Unfortunately, that is how AA and the Steps are so often presented, and that needs to stop.

  16. name withheld by editor says:

    I am a sober survivor of Alcoholics Anonymous which was originally patterned after [a bunch of allegations deleted by the editor].

    Problem is, AA doesn’t work, never has worked [another allegation deleted by the editor], and it never will work…

    AA has a failure rate of [more stuff deleted by the editor].

    I have managed to actually stay clean and sober 37+ years BECAUSE I went into therapy, counseling, and sought qualified, professional treatment and support OUTSIDE of AA…

    If I had relied solely on AA…[more stuff deleted by editor]…I would not be alive or sober today.

    [more stuff similar to hate speech deleted by editor]

    I left AA 2 years ago and I am still clean and sober 37+ years and my life just keeps getting better and better the longer I stay away for AA and AA members.

    I’d specifically like to link up with other “Survivors of AA”.



    Editor’s Note: Well, thank you for sharing, but this volunteer editor did find it necessary to delete sections of this message OR ELSE it would have been deleted entirely. Perhaps better to allow the parts that don’t malign, offend, slander, or attempt to harm anyone? Normally we don’t edit comments… but this comment came in with a full name at the start, but different initials at the end.

    It is one thing to prefer some programs over others, or to feel AA is not appropriate, or have differences. It is quite another to “come in swinging” with inflammatory language and allegations/claims that are not known to be based in fact. This blog is not for debating facts, either… so thanks for contributing and good luck with your continued sobriety.

  17. For some people working the program entails too much work. period. Even if the person is willing to go to any lengths… it doesn’t mean he is capable of calling his sponsor EVERY DAY. or reading and writing EVERY DAY. or going to a meeting 3 times a week. Some people are moody and some days they can pull themselves together to go to a meeting and some days they simply cant. This is the reason why for many people the 12 steps do not work-it works- they just do not have the ability to work them.

  18. Marc Pellicane says:

    Get out of the church basement and live and enjoy life. I have nothing against people that go to AA and have found it helpful. I went for many years and it wasn’t my cup of tea! I learned some things but I also learned it’s more important to be with your family, work and be responsible than to spend all of your time in a church basement. And I drink moderately now and have totally changed my life. But yes I will hear that I was not a true “alcoholic” that I am in denial, etc. Whatever works for you is great! I don’t care if you stand on your head while you knit a sweater. If that helps you with your addiction than do it. For the AA people that think it’s the only way. IT’S NOT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! And my big issue with AA is that it is a religion. Pure and simple. I don’t follow AA religion anymore. This is a free country and I don’t have to do that.

  19. Rob O'Keefe says:

    Predictably, this opinion piece starts with a “blame the victim” point of view. If you can’t achieve lasting sobriety in AA, the article rationalizes, then there is something wrong with YOU. The Program, after all, is perfect. This is simply not true.

    I am not an AA basher. I haver been in and out of the rooms for 3 decades. When I had my longest term of sobriety (9 years), I freely admitted that I owed a great deal of my success to the people in the rooms, the support they gave and the wisdom they imparted. I am sober again today based in part by my experiences and lessons learned in AA. But the AA Program alone does not keep me sober. And many of the cornerstones of my newfound recovery are built upon ideal that are antithetical to the 12-Step model.

    Though we may share a common affliction, the remedy is not the same for every individual. Other than breathing, eating, sleeping and defecating, our personal needs vary widely and by degree. Twelve Step programs are not equipped to handle that reality. They work well for some but not everyone. It is not always the fault of the individual when the AA model falls short of what they require to obtain and maintain a sober lifestyle.

    The three biggest problems in AA. are its one-size fits all mentality and the inability to entertain any constructive criticism. This is what has kept the Program rooted in the past and limited its efficacy. The world had changed a great deal since 1939. But AA, sadly, has not. If Alcoholics Anonymous would embrace new research and learning and a more humble (Step 6, anyone?) approach, it might improve its success rate.

    Be Well,


    Editor Comment: Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Rob. That post is from 2012 and while attitudes about AA vs Other Options have changed quite a bit since then, the basic premise that 12 Step works for many people, still holds true. This blog post never states the program is perfect, as you suggest it did. In fact, the blogger very clearly highlighted that it is NOT for everyone. The post links out to several other quality programs towards the end. We wish you the best with your own journey, and thanks again for commenting.

  20. Kevin Mark Krueger says:

    AA. as well as all twelvestep programs are constantly being proselytize by the the majority in medical institutions as well as the so called justice system! Even people who have never seemed to have a compulsively behavioral problem, otherwise called a bad habit seem to be sucked in by the notion of the twelve step mantras! The proof is in the pudding, and that truth is that the success rates are appallingly low for all twelvestep programs!!! Just because the majority has been duped into believing a falsehood, does not mean it is not a majority of FOOLS!!! The fact of the matter is that it is a poor excuse for a treatment that has become the main go to! It’s results are actually worse than no treatment at all, meaning there is a higher success rate among people who kick their bad habits on their own! If it were truthfully a diseased and total abstinence was the only cure, overeaters would all starve to death, and people who are called sec addicts would never be able to procreate! If it were a lifelong diseases an ex-smoker who has not smoked in 20years would still be considered a smoker! Stop believing in the lies that money hungry individuals at the top have trickled the bullshit down onto the bottom continue to feed the masses with.

  21. I’ve done NA for 6 month after being an active addict for 9 years, I went for about four months and stayed clean for a year. Unfortunately my brain isn’t wired to just believe and follow a system. The individuals who live by it and actually belive in it has been convinced that works and therefore believe in. However I cannot see myself believing in a system created decays ago, especially if it has been forced upon me. Don’t get me wrong, my biggest goal is rating clean, but still living a normal life and not religiously changing my life and living a NA lifestyle. For me labeling as an addict makes it worse because it its a contand reminder. And the more you think of it the more the urges come in. I found that a bit of counseling and thee good type of support helps for example your spouse acknowledgeing your clean time and expressing proud essence. Bottom line is the brain is extremely powerful and you can stay clean if your mindset is right. Yes it gets labeled as a mental desease which initially is a chemical alternation in the brain. NA to me is a bunch of people talking about how they feel and as for the steps like a admtion to those who you hurt, who does that help? It just causes pain to those and doesn’t fix jack! The best recovery for me is living a normal life surrounded by good people, because NA makes me feel like I have a desease thus making me unhappy. No point in following a system that firstly you were forced into from the start by someone else using threats so will attend, and secondly that doesn’t work with your mind. We are all different..

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