The 12 Steps Meets Harm Reduction — A Fresh Way to Look at the Steps
In the world of recovery, many people are familiar with the globally accepted 12 steps implemented in many addiction treatments and support groups. While these principles work for many, a good amount of time has passed since their creation, and more strategies have been created based off of these steps to help those of us who are in recovery.
Every person’s journey of recovery is unique to them. This means that for many people, some methods work, while for others, they might not. Looking at the original 12-step program implemented for those in recovery, it is heavily rooted in the practice of abstinence.
Now, newer methods known as harm-reduction strategies and moderation support are also being implemented, both by themselves and alongside the original 12-step program.
Here is a new, fresh way to look at the 12 steps of recovery while also using harm-reduction strategies.
What Is Abstinence?
Recovery strategies rooted in abstinence have been around for years. Abstinence-based recovery is the practice of avoiding or abstaining from the harmful behaviors and substances that you may have been dependent on before your journey of recovery.
The abstinence-rooted method was popularized by the support group Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). This was one of the first recovery programs implemented across the country. Because of this, many people have morphed the idea of recovery with the concept of abstinence as the only way to heal, when this isn’t always the case. However, abstinence has worked well for many people.
Here are just a few of the aspects that go into abstinence:
- Abstaining from harmful substances and behaviors
- Finding healthy coping mechanisms
- Removing temptations
- Social support from family, friends, and other groups
What Is Harm Reduction?
Harm-reduction-based strategies are becoming increasingly popular for many people in recovery. It is an approach that focuses on meeting you in the current situation you are in. For many, abstinence is a very hard change. Harm reduction prioritizes preventing harmful behaviors.
A few of the many principles that go into harm reduction include:
- Prioritizing preventing harm
- Focusing on quality of life over abstinence
- Moderation support
- Accepting and celebrating behavioral change
- Empowering the individual
Abstinence vs. Harm Reduction in Recovery
With these two different methods, many people in recovery, trying to heal, don’t know where to start. Ultimately, both of these strategies work well. Recovery is a unique and individual process for each person that goes through it. Because of this, it is up to you to find what methods work for you and help you feel your best.
Abstinence is a good method for those who have struggled with alcohol or drug dependencies for a majority of their life and feel that their best way of healing might be through abstaining from substances that promote their harmful behaviors. It is still the most commonly used method for addiction recovery. One of the biggest parts of abstinence-based recovery is finding healthy, positive coping mechanisms that will replace drinking or drug use.
Harm reduction takes a bit of a different approach because it does not look at addiction as an incurable disease. Harm reduction takes the steps to allow you to still enjoy things like alcohol, just in moderation, teaching yourself control. This method of recovery prioritizes meeting you in your current situation and working on improving it, and preventing harmful behaviors at the same time. Harm reduction methods emphasize that you can change.
Criticism of Abstinence
While abstinence has worked great for many people in recovery, there are some criticisms that people have with this method:
1. Addiction as a Disease
One of the problems some people have when looking at abstinence programs is that addiction is looked at as a disease that you are not able to control yourself from, and the only way to help yourself is by abstaining completely, which is not always the case.
2. Faith-Based Work
Other people sometimes find issue with the fact that the well-known 12-step program is often faith-based. Some people are often uncomfortable with the spiritual and faith-based side of abstinence programs as they do not align with their beliefs, and they have not, for example, prayed to anyone or anything before.
3. Difficult to Start
Unfortunately, because abstinence involves completely cutting off the substances that you may have been struggling with, many people cannot get themselves to start. Many people who struggle with dependency are scared of the idea of completely cutting themselves off.
Criticism of Harm-Reduction Strategies
Because harm-reduction methods are a newer approach to recovery, some people have criticisms on some of the different aspects of it:
Many people that use the abstinence recovery method find issues in the fact that harm reduction allows people to continue substance use and think of it as enabling them. A lot of people look at using the substances you struggled with as relapse, wherein harm reduction is about teaching you safety and control.
2. People Can Lie
Another issue people find in harm-reduction methods is that a person might lie about the amount they are drinking or the amount of a substance they’re using. Harm reduction relies heavily on trust, belief, and support.
3. Not Quite as Easy With Hard Substances
One of the biggest criticisms people bring up with harm reduction methods is the fact that it is not quite as easy if you’re dealing with illicit substances such as heroin. There’s not really a way to find a healthy or safe use of some substances.
The 12 Steps Meet Harm Reduction
A lot of people find positives in both abstinence and harm reduction methods and try to combine the different aspects of both that work best for them.
Here is a fresh way to look at the original 12 steps with harm reduction in mind, too:
Honesty to yourself and others is a large part of recovery. Whether it’s your struggles, a relapse, or how much you drink when starting harm-reduction methods, honesty is your biggest friend.
While this aspect in many abstinence programs involves some faith-based action, it doesn’t necessarily have to. Having hope in yourself, in your future, and your goals is just as helpful as having hope in a higher power. Believing that you can get better is crucial.
Surrender is about taking that next step in your journey. Prioritizing your goals and surrendering to a new, healthier lifestyle will help change your life for the better. This step often also looks at surrendering spiritually, acknowledging that you will find the help you need from the universe.
No matter what recovery methods you’re using, courage is a massive aspect of your healing process. It takes a lot of courage just to simply identify that you are struggling and take the next step, and that is something to be proud of. It takes courage to acknowledge your past mistakes and harmful behaviors so that you can work on making yourself better.
This principle lines up with our views of honesty as well. Integrity is a large part of the recovery process and requires us to take a deep look into ourselves and what we value. Being honest about your past and present mistakes will help you on your journey of recovery immensely.
Having the willingness to work towards your healing, to work towards a better you, is crucial. It’s extremely difficult to try and start a process of healing and change when the person that is beginning it doesn’t want to be there or be a part of it.
Whether you’re using abstinence or harm-reduction methods, this step is all about releasing yourself from your past mistakes. We’ve all messed up in our lives — there is no ignoring that. But practicing humility and understanding why certain things may have been wrong in your past, and looking at how you can fix them means you’re on your way to healing.
Love for yourself, your life, and the people that support you are crucial to your process of recovery, no matter how you are doing it.
This step urges us to take responsibility for our actions, both good and bad. We are responsible for making the choices in our lives and working towards making them better. Taking responsibility for your life and your choices can make you feel better about yourself and your life.
Building on responsibility, we also need to have discipline. Willpower is an immensely difficult aspect of recovery, and we have to be able to strengthen that as well as keep ourselves disciplined to keep going, both with abstinence and harm reduction.
Being aware of your life, your triggers, and your surroundings are all aspects to keep in mind when you’re healing. Staying aware of what you are working towards is crucial.
This last step is popular in abstinence support groups such as AA, where people can move on to sponsor others who are struggling too. But it doesn’t have to just be that. You can serve both yourself and others in healing ways other than mentoring.
The Journey to Recovery
Recovery is a long, difficult, lifelong journey.
Luckily, resources are abundant out there for those who are healing. Whatever methods you use, the most important thing to remember is that you CAN get better. We urge you to give yourself a pat on the back now and again to remind yourself of how far you’ve come.
Jenny Weatherall is the co-owner and CEO of Eminent SEO, a design and marketing agency founded in 2009. She has worked in the industry since 2005, when she fell in love with digital marketing… and her now husband and partner, Chris. Together they have 6 children and 3 granddaughters.
Jenny has a passion for learning and sharing what she learns. She has researched, written and published hundreds of articles on a wide variety of topics, including: SEO, design, marketing, ethics, business management, sustainability, inclusion, behavioral health, wellness and work-life balance.