Alcohol Recovery? A Comparison of Support Groups

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEveryone has heard of AA support groups and its 12 step program. But most people are not aware of alternatives.

One reason for this is that the AA philosophy is pervasive in our culture, and conventional wisdom considers it the gold standard for recovery from “alcoholism.” Related to this is the fact that AA groups are quite numerous in every town and city. The non-12 step groups, not so much.

Nonetheless, there are other options, some of which are based on scientific evidence, such as HAMS and SMART Support. Below is a list of the main support groups, with brief descriptions for comparison purposes.

Alcoholics Anonymous

Alcoholics Anonymous is the best-known and oldest of the primary support groups for people recovering from the overconsumption of alcohol. It is also by far the most plentiful and widely available of all the support groups.

The organization, with 2 million members worldwide, was founded in 1935 by alcoholics Bob Smith and Bill Wilson. Its primary mission is to help alcoholics “to stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety.” The only requirement is a desire to stop drinking.

Members are encouraged to attend as many meetings as they need, working with a more experienced mentor between meetings. There is no charge for meetings; supporting materials are sold. Members work toward sobriety by following 12 steps designed to bring members to confront their addiction and its effects on themselves and others.

AA encourages members to accept that they are hopeless and powerless against alcohol and to rely on a higher power to help them change their behavior. According to AA, alcoholics are in recovery for the rest of their lives, regardless of how long they have been abstinent. Thus “in recovery,” never recovered. They are encouraged to attend meetings through their lifetime, to help them in their recovery.

HAMS – Harm Reduction Abstinence and Moderation Support

HAMS is a free information and support group, for anyone who wants to change their alcohol habits for the better.  The approach is a non-judgmental, practical one, which proposes that forced abstinence does not work, but that there are still ways to reduce the negative consequences of excessive drinking.

Harm reduction meets people where they are, encouraging them to set their own goals. HAMS supports every positive change, whether it be safer drinking, reduced drinking, or abstinence. The premise is that any small, positive changes are worthwhile and worth supporting.

Whereas AA has 12 steps, HAMS has 17 elements. You can pick and choose whichever elements you deem useful. They can be done in any order. You can leave the program when you are finished, or you can choose to stay and help others. It’s your free choice.

HAMS offers support and information through their website, via chat room, email group, and live meetings. There are many free articles on the sight which can be downloaded.

Moderation Management

The nonprofit Moderation Management does not require complete abstinence from alcohol. It was created in 1994 by problem drinker Audrey Kishline for people who consider themselves problem drinkers rather than alcoholics. The number of potential members is large: the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that there are four times as many problem drinkers as alcoholics in the U.S.

The basic principal of MM is that it is easier and less expensive to address a budding alcohol dependency rather than waiting until the problem has become chronic.

MM encourages members to attend group meetings and to work through a series of self-management techniques. New members are encouraged to avoid drinking for 30 days to examine their feelings and actions relating to alcohol. An MM website offers online meetings, a forum and a calendar for members to keep track of their alcohol consumption. There is also a complementary website,, that provides additional support.

Rational Recovery

Rational Recovery, founded in 1986 by social worker and alcoholic Jack Trimpey, is a secular, commercial program that focuses on changing the problem drinker’s conviction that alcohol has the power to ease anxiety.

That conviction is fueled by what Trimpey calls the “addictive voice,” a compulsion to drink to avoid depression, irritability, and the absence of pleasure in daily life. RR refers to that voice as the Beast.

The Addictive Voice Recognition Technique (AVRT) is the heart of RR. It aims to help the addict recognize the rational reasons to avoid alcohol. Eventually, those rational reasons, repeated and reinforced, will stifle the addictive voice.

RR subscribes to a life plan rather than a day-by-day philosophy, as in AA. It refers to alcoholism as a choice rather than a disease and is conducted online rather than in group gatherings.

The program’s website is free; there is a charge for supporting books, videos and lectures.

SMART Recovery

The broad-based SMART Recovery (Self Management and Recovery Training) program takes on all addictive behaviors – alcohol, drugs, gambling, etc. It is nonprofit (a donation is requested and materials are sold) and secular, relying on scientifically-based techniques supported by evidence of their effectiveness.

Members focus on four points:

· Enhancing and maintaining motivation

· Coping with cravings and urges

· Managing problem thoughts, feelings, and behaviors

· Lifestyle balance with momentary and enduring satisfactions

Tools and techniques taught and discussed in meetings support the four points.

The organization was created in 1992 under the name Alcohol and Drug Abuse Self-Help Network; the name was simplified in 1994. The goal is abstinence, although members who are drinking or using other substances are welcome.

Women for Sobriety

The first national self-help program aimed at women with addiction, this nonprofit was created in 1976 by alcoholic Jean Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick created a program aimed at correcting what she listed as problems unique to women alcoholics: low self-esteem, depression, loneliness, and guilt feelings.

The 13 steps in the WFS program encourage women to change their thinking to positive messages.

The program’s aim is abstinence through women helping each other and themselves to discover the ways their own negative thinking sabotages their lives.

There is no charge for membership, but donations are collected at group meetings and there is a charge for supporting literature.

If you think you might benefit from a support group, search online to get more information on the various groups and locations. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to find alternatives to AA within a convenient distance.  However, check out the websites to get more information on means of support, including online groups.

Here is a list to help you get started:


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