Can I Attend AA and Another 12-Step Program at the Same Time?
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a 12-step program for people who desire to live a life of sobriety. The 12 Steps are a path to surrender, clarity, connection, accountability, and integrity.1
You can choose from multiple types of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and you can attend more than one type of 12 step program at a time.
Types of Alcoholics Anonymous Meetings
An AA meeting may be open or closed. An open meeting means that you can attend the meeting, whether or not you’re experiencing alcoholism. For example, sometimes family members wish to learn about the program, or students studying addiction want to attend. Closed meetings are only for people who are experiencing alcoholism.
Meetings may also be demographic-specific, such as meetings for men, women and groups for groups such as the LGBTQ community.
Additionally, meetings focus on a specific topic. They are:
- Speaker Meetings: In these meetings, members share their experience, strength, and hope about recovery at length.
- Topic and Discussion Meetings: In these meetings, a specific topic is chosen to focus on the meeting’s shares.
- The Big Book Study: In these meetings, AA members read a segment of the Big Book for an allotted time, and members share what they relate to from the readings.
- 12-Step Studies: In these meetings, there is a reading on a specific step. Members then share their experience, strength, and hope related to that step.
Other Types of 12-Step Programs
Addiction and compulsions manifest in many ways. When behavior reaches a point where you feel you have lost control, it may be classified as an addiction.2 You may want to make changes, but continue engaging in these behaviors despite the harmful impact on your life and relationships.
You may be experiencing a substance addiction, which involves dependence on a chemical such as alcohol, nicotine, or narcotics. Or you may be experiencing a behavioral addiction, which includes compulsive dietary behaviors (overeating, undereating, or purging after eating), sexual addiction, gambling addiction, or shopping addiction. There are 12-step programs for all of these.
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Some 12-step programs focus on relationships, such as (but not limited to):
- Al-Anon: This program provides support for friends and family of people struggling with alcoholism.3
- Adult Children of Alcoholics: This program provides support for adults raised in homes with addiction, misuse, a caregiver with a serious mental illness, or neglect.4
- Co-dependent Anonymous: This program provides support for people who identify as co-dependent, people whose lives have become unmanageable due to focusing too much on another person.5
- Co-Sex Addicts Anonymous: This program supports the friends and family of a person struggling with sexual addiction.6
When to Attend More Than One 12-Step Program
You may have more than one addiction, such as an addiction to narcotics and an alcohol addiction. Depending on the severity of your addictions, you may need a substance-specific 12-Step program and sponsor for each addiction.
Alternately, you may have a substance addiction and a behavioral addiction. For example, you may have an addiction to alcohol and an addiction to high-intensity sexual behaviors. It’s not uncommon to develop a new compulsive behavior in the midst of treating another.7,8 Addiction develops as a means to cope with overwhelming stress. Unless you’ve learned new coping skills, you may find yourself coping in new compulsive ways. For example, some AA members have found that they began to eat compulsively once sober from alcohol. They then turned to Overeaters Anonymous as a means to gain abstinence in their dietary health.
Lastly, you may be in a 12-step program for addiction and a program focused on relationships, such as Al-Anon or Adult Children of Alcoholics. The 12-step programs that focus on relationships support clarity around who and what you have control over (your behaviors) and letting go of who and what you do not have control over (another’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors). These programs bring peace to your life by teaching you where you need limits and boundaries.3,4 They shine a light on the plight of people-pleasing and give space for the confusion, suffering, and despair that can arise when loving someone with an addiction.5
People who attend a program for addiction and a relationship-based 12-step group refer to themselves as “double winners.” This phrase highlights the paradox associated with recovery. As one member put it, “I’m grateful that I had alcohol addiction and codependency because it brought me to the 12-Steps. Had I not found the 12-Steps, I would not be nearly as happy as I am in my life.”
When to Work with a Professional
Although doubling up on 12-step programs may be beneficial, it is helpful to have professional support. A benefit of professional support is working directly with a specialist trained in addiction, often with a background in psychology, which provides highly personalized care. A professional gets to know you, your emotional and thinking patterns, your specific coping mechanisms, and together you create a recovery plan. The majority of professionals supporting people with addiction encourage a combination of counseling, 12-step meetings, and (depending on the severity of your addiction) a treatment program.2
Many people who struggle with an addiction developed the addiction to cope with stress and trauma in their life.9 For example:
- You may have experienced stress so significant that you could not return to a baseline of calm and peace. It felt like the only way to relieve your stress was to use a substance for (temporary) relief, and it eventually became addictive.
- You may have experienced a lack of self-confidence and self-worth that led to difficulty knowing how to interact with others. The use of a substance may have altered your experience in such a way that helped you to interact socially to combat loneliness.
- You may have felt depressed and only experienced a sense of joy by engaging in the behaviors that provided (temporary) pleasure and a (temporary) escape from your suffering.
- You may have suffered trauma, misuse, neglect, or violence. These experiences may have led to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and one of the ways you managed symptoms was to alter your experience through a substance or behavior that led you to disconnect from your pain.
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If you are experiencing PTSD, it is helpful to engage in trauma-specific treatment.10 You could participate in several types of trauma-specific care, such as eye movement desensitization or reprocessing somatic experiencing and internal family systems. If you are experiencing depression, it is helpful to engage in therapies that examine your thinking patterns, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy.11 If you are uncomfortable in social settings, beneficial treatments include interpersonal skills training and assertiveness training. If you experience intense emotions that overwhelm you and frequently change, engaging in dialectical and behavioral therapy can provide a pathway to feeling calm and grounded.12
The Differences in Treatment and 12-Step Programs
One of the benefits of attending substance use treatment is the programs are designed to teach skills that include distress tolerance, identifying and responding to distorted thinking patterns, emotional regulation skills, and creating a relapse prevention plan. In treatment programs, a specialist in the field of addiction provides this psychoeducation. This teaching may take place in a setting that resembles a formal classroom with lectures, question-and-answer sessions, worksheets, and homework, or it may take place in individual and group therapy sessions.
The format of 12-step meetings is different than a treatment program. 12-step programs are intentionally nonprofessional and do not formally teach skills. A significant amount of learning takes place within 12-step meetings. However, this learning takes place by listening to the experience of other members and by sharing your own experience, strength, and hope.1,3
Both treatment centers and 12-step programs support your recovery. Treatment centers often have 12-step programs as part of their curriculum to allow participants to hear personal stories from other 12-step members who have used the skills taught in treatment. For example, you may listen to a 12-step member share about how they became aware of their unique risks for relapse with their counselor. Or, you may hear a 12-step member share about how they applied some of the emotional regulation skills they learned in treatment.
Whether behavioral or substance-related, addiction is a powerful force. Having multiple resources can aid in your sobriety.2 The tools taught in treatment programs help generate a path forward. They provide life-skills training that you may have never received, which helps reduce stress and reduces the risk for relapse. The tools learned in individual and group therapies, facilitated by a professional specializing in addiction, can provide insights into your personal experience. The trained listening that a professional can provide helps generate a sense of clarity that links the cause and effect of the behaviors you’re working to change.13 Additionally, the compassion you receive in treatment from staff and participants can generate a new way of relating to yourself, which in turn reduces stress and toxic shame, all of which support a life of sobriety.14
Call an addiction specialist today for information about the right kind of treatment options for you 800-839-1686Who Answers?.
- Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. (1989). Twelve steps and twelve traditions. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services.
- Miller, W.R., Forcehimes, A.A., Zweben, A. (2011). Treating Addiction A Guide for Professionals. The Gilford Press.
- Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc. (1981). Al-Anon’s twelve steps & twelve traditions. New York: Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters.
- Woititz, J. G. (1990). Adult children of alcoholics. Deerfield Beach, Fla: Health Communications.
- CoDA Services Office. (1995). Co-Dependents Anonymous. CoDA Services Office.
- International Service Organization of COSA (2020). COSA Step One, Working the COSA first Step. International Service Organization of COSA.
- Sussman, S., Lisha, N., & Griffiths, M. (2011). Prevalence of the addictions: a problem of the majority or the minority? Evaluation & the health professions, 34(1), 3-56. https://doi.org/10.1177/0163278710380124
- Kotyuk, E., Magi, A., Eisinger, A., Király, O., Vereczkei, A., Barta, C., Griffiths, M. D., Székely, A., Kökönyei, G., Farkas, J., Kun, B., Badgaiyan, R. D., Urbán, R., Blum, K., & Demetrovics, Z. (2020). Co-occurrences of substance use and other potentially addictive behaviors: Epidemiological results from the Psychological and Genetic Factors of the Addictive Behaviors (PGA) Study. Journal of behavioral addictions, 9(2), 272-288.
- Khoury, L., Tang, Y. L., Bradley, B., Cubells, J. F., & Ressler, K. J. (2010). Substance use, childhood traumatic experience, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in an urban civilian population. Depression and anxiety, 27(12), 1077-1086. https://doi.org/10.1002/da.20751
- Najavits, L. M., Weiss, R. D., & Shaw, S. R. (1997). The link between substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder in women. A research review. The American journal on addictions, 6(4), 273-283.
- Health Quality Ontario (2017). Psychotherapy for Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder: A Health Technology Assessment. Ontario health technology assessment series, 17(15), 1-167.
- Goodman, M., Carpenter, D., Tang, C. Y., Goldstein, K. E., Avedon, J., Fernandez, N., Mascitelli, K. A., Blair, N. J., New, A. S., Triebwasser, J., Siever, L. J., & Hazlett, E. A. (2014). Dialectical behavior therapy alters emotion regulation and amygdala activity in patients with borderline personality disorder. Journal of psychiatric research, 57, 108-116.
- Sommers-Flanagan, J., Sommers-Flanagan, R. (2017). Clinical Interviewing, 6th Vitalsource Technologies, Inc.
- Bradshaw, J. (1988). Healing the Shame that Binds You. Deerfield Beach, Fla: Health Communications.