Building Support Systems Outside AA

Stanton Peele By: Dr. Stanton Peele

Posted on October 10th, 2023 - Last updated: October 13th, 2023
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AA has been around a long time (since 1935 — the first edition of the Big Book was produced in 1939). It and its 12 steps have been the dominant approach to alcoholism and addiction  in America for at least 50 years — and really longer. (The film “The Days of Wine and Roses,” an AA primer, was made in 1962 — it’s on Broadway again currently.)

So why haven’t alcoholism and addiction rates improved? Why are more Americans than ever dying from drugs (up to 110,000 in 2022) and more women than ever dying due to alcohol?

Of course, one answer is to get more people to participate in AA. But haven’t we pushed that button hard for a half century and more? And what do we have to show for it?

Instead, AA membership has actually been declining since 2015 according to AA itself:

AA’s membership exceeded two million members for the first time in 1990 and peaked at 2.2 million in 2001. We’ve never relived that past glory. January of 2015, we counted 5% fewer members in our ranks. Outside USA/Canada membership fell by 13%

Millennials may find AA ever less appealing.

Why People Won’t Go To, or Stay In, AA

AA reflects an older generation, one that accepts being dictated to, especially by God.  There have always been people who dislike that approach. In fact, by law, Jews, atheists, Buddhists, etc. can’t be forced into Christianity-oriented AA groups by courts.

For Millennials and others, the idea of God directing their actions may meet with stronger resistance. This was true for one young woman interviewed by Cosmopolitan:

“I’m not anti-religion, but I don’t believe in anything enough to take that idea seriously. I want to control my own destiny.”

A divorced man wrote the same thing to us at LPP. He voluntarily went to AA for help. But the God thing got in the way for him too. Not so much God, but, he said:

I believe in God, but I didn’t like the constant reliance on “Faith” and “Letting Go and Letting God” (whatever that means).

Instead, this man (and many Millennials) feel:  “I didn’t think I was powerless.”  But when he began saying this, “other members were getting very hostile towards me. I decided it was time to leave AA.

And, you know, some people just don’t like groups and group meetings. It’s not their style, especially for dealing with a personal problem.

Where Do You Get Support?

So what options do you and they have?

Alternative support groups. 

There are many support groups available on line aside from AA — too many to name. But here are five:

  1. SMART Recovery is a non-AA recovery program that utilizes cognitive behavioral techniques;
  2. HAMS: Harm Reduction for Alcohol takes in all comers, even those who may drink heavily but still want support for taking care of themselves;
  3. Moderation Management is for those seeking support for cutting back drinking etc.;
  4. Deprogramming AA — there are groups that help you escape the AA “cult”;
  5. Belonging — there are support systems set up (this one at UC Berkeley) to help people who feel the need for more contact with others, whether they have an addiction or not.

Create or improve  your own support group

You already do have supports in place, you know: family, friends, people who care about you, people you know who may share similar concerns or problems with you.

Here are steps to activate such existing real-life supports:

  1. Identify people who care about you: just think about those you know whom you like and care for, then reflect back on how they care for you.
  2.  Express your positive feelings; be open: tell them that you like or respect them and want to spend time together. Also be frank about problems you are having; ask for their help.
  3. Structure your support: getting support from people may be hard to put into action, even if they want to be helpful. So you can think of activities that maintain your support structure or relationship, like having coffee together or walking or talking for a half hour some mornings,
  4. Reward support you receive: express your appreciation, in words and/or by giving the person a flower — or paying for the coffee!
  5. Offer support to others: Support groups are about giving, as well as receiving, support. Think of people you know who may need some kind of support — emotional, practical, whatever. Then offer to help them in these ways.
  6. You may promote your activity or social group, through social media for instance, to others who could benefit from participating in it.

A note on caring. I have coffee and a roll regularly at an outdoor cafe in my Brooklyn neighborhood. A young, adorable woman waits on me. We chat. This week I was having trouble digesting my roll (I’m 77). I was outside; this woman inside. I had no idea she was aware of me. Without a word she came out with a cup of camomile tea.


There are disadvantages to committing yourself to support groups like AA. You can get stuck in this one problem, drinking, and build your life around it. For instance, by only associating with recovering AA members you may never deal  with people without drinking issues. And there may be much to learn from them, including about alcohol. After all, they’re people who don’t have any problems with drinking..

A better approach may be to organize your life to have the most different kinds of support possible including family, old friends, people you just like being around, people you share a specific interest with (exercising, hiking, movies, sports, work). A  diverse support group may provide the strongest support possible. If one support is broken your overall network is still in place to provide care and help.

There are, after all, many helpful people out there. You may even be one yourself!

Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.

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