Why Attend Addictions Recovery Support Groups?

If it were possible to run two experiments on a life where a person with addictions became abstinent and spent a year trying to stay that way solo, then was taken back in time and run through that year again but this time attended support group meetings, I’d put my money on more relapses in experiment one vs. experiment two.

Oh, the suffering in experiment one! It feels inhumane to even think of it.

I wish on day one of my abstinence from out-of-control drinking that I had been sent a link to web page like this one. Or even been given the text on a printed handout.

. . . . .

Support Your Recovery by Attending Support Groups

Benefits of attending a recovery support groupIn support of your recovery, we ask you to attend daily support group meetings for a year.

It’s not because support groups are “a good thing.”

Research yields mixed results on the success of support groups in helping people get and stay abstinent from the substance – drugs, alcohol – or the process – over-eating, under-eating, gambling, spending, etc. – that plagues them. Recent research on  one support group reports 1 in 15 stay abstinent.

Nonetheless, we think attending support groups increases the odds of you achieving your recovery goals.

“[Support group] effectiveness may not be due to its specific content or process. Rather, its chief strength may lie in its ability to provide free, long-term, easy access and exposure to recovery-related common therapeutic elements, the dose of which, can be adaptively self-regulated according to perceived need.”
– John Francis Kelly, Molly Magill, and Robert Lauren Stout, How do people recover…?

Yes, but I don’t like it.

Some people challenged with addictions say they attended a few meetings of a support group and didn’t like it.

Sure, support groups may not be for everyone. But try to answer this question: “Can you name some things you do like?”

You probably can’t. You’re not alone. Most people in early recovery don’t like much. They can’t. They have anhedonia, essentially the inability to feel pleasure – to feel good or to feel better – a darkly troubling downside of abstinence. It makes sense you might not like a support group, since you probably don’t like how your hamburger was cooked, how that guy was driving, what you see in the mirror, what you’ve done with your life, etc.

Yes, but I don’t get it.

Some people attend support groups and say they don’t understand what’s going on. Very gently, we want to let you know that your thinking is impaired from abstinence and will be for awhile, although you will improve. You’re going to have trouble understanding much of anything and all you need to understand, for now, is that it’s normal. Easy does it.

Yes, but I want to do this on my own.

Most people have tried the solo route of attempting to abstain on their own. After resolving to quit, or being released from detox or a treatment program, they think, “I’m clean and sober now. I’ve got it this time.” However, hour after hour of alone time begins again. Solo didn’t work before and it’s very unlikely to work again.

The first year of abstinence is the toughest and we want to encourage you to care for yourself and your recovery every day.

And one year is a rough estimate of how long anhedonia can last, although research is mixed. If you don’t “like” support groups after a year, then your cognitive functioning will have improved, your anhedonia might be lifting a bit, and your powers of discernment will be in much better shape. By then, you may be able to know whether or not you truly “like” something. If it’s not your cup of tea after a year, by all means, stop going.

It doesn’t matter whether you attend AA, NA, PP or ZZ. It doesn’t matter what group you attend – it just matters that you do attend.

  • Being with people who want to stay abstinent increases your ability to stay abstinent. (Source)
  • Participating in support groups and building a social network of abstinent people in your life helps you stay abstinent. (Source) (additional Source added 3/18/15)
  • Attending support group meetings helps you change “people, places and things.” (Source)
  • People with addiction challenges have trouble believing they can stop. They lack what’s termed “self-efficacy.” Research suggests that those who attend support group meetings grow in self-efficacy. (Source)
  • Research suggests that people who attend support group meetings can stay abstinent longer than those who don’t. (Source)
  • Group attendance offers “close, but not too close,” i.e. being in a group with others begins to heal the isolation of addiction but provides space for the self to heal as well. (Source)

“Despite all our efforts to give, guide, and support, each of us is ultimately alone when it comes to our life, recovery and growth. This is the inevitable plight of the human condition… The primary conflict for us all, the addicted as well as the nonaddicted, is to belong and be connected to something larger than ourselves without losing ourselves… Can I be close and truly intimate without losing myself, or will my need for independence come at a cost of alienation and isolation?”
– David Richo, When the Past is Present

You may find what you hear in support meetings moving and motivating or unusual and confusing. Practice that essential recovery skill of self-calming if you find yourself hearing something you don’t like or don’t agree with. Here are ways to help you make support group meetings helpful to you.

Yes, but I don’t agree with what they say.

That’s okay. You don’t have to. The benefit is from being there.

Remember that it’s not the content of the meeting that’s most important – it’s spending time with people who want to stay abstinent. Discuss any questions and concerns you have with people at the meetings with whom you can relate and with other people in your recovery support network.

Keep looking for ways to make this free and daily source of support for your recovery work for you.

You may hear at meetings, “Take what you like and leave the rest.” By all means. Customize a recovery program that helps you with your recovery goals.

. . . . .

When I realized I had a drinking problem, the only help at the time was a support group meeting and that’s where I went. With the help of a huge team, personal experience, and intensive study, I’ve learned that addictions recovery requires an entire addictions recovery system. Attending support groups is part of that system. I am working on a book manuscript attempting to describe the addictions recovery system I wish had been available to me on day one of my abstinence from alcohol. So, so, so many variables…

I thought my job at a support group was to learn the material, just as if I had been in a class. I fought to understand. And I fought with how to be close enough to people to receive the benefits of connection, but far enough to feel safe. If only I had known I just needed to be there. All I had to do was just rest a minute in the company of people also trying to stay abstinent. Any other benefits that might come my way would be icing on an already fine cake.

Except sugar is a no-no in a recovery support diet. So many variables…

I am grateful to Laurel Sindewald for contributing to the research for this post.

The opinions expressed here are mine and do not necessarily reflect the positions of my associates, employers, clients or relatives.

The content of this post is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or professional advice. Consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical and professional advice.

Further reading:

How to Make 12-Step Recovery Groups Work for You