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AA Alternatives: What Is SOS and Why Choose Secular Recovery?

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Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a worldwide peer support organization with a spiritual base in which members are encouraged to give over control of their lives and recovery to a higher power.1 While AA holds space for many belief systems, the spiritual aspects are not meaningful for everyone in alcohol addiction recovery. Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS) is one secular recovery peer support group.

What Is Secular Organizations for Sobriety?

James Christopher founded the Secular Organizations for Sobriety—sometimes called Save Our Selves—in 1985. The premise of SOS is that you can achieve long-term secular addiction recovery by relying on yourself and taking personal responsibility. Through self-empowerment, you make abstinence your first priority. Just as alcohol or drugs take priority in the cycle of a substance use disorder, abstinence must take priority in secular recovery.2

SOS is not religious or spiritual, unlike AA and organizations like Celebrate Recovery. Its philosophy is based on the disease model of addiction to understand alcohol misuse, alcohol use disorders, and secular alcohol recovery.

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The program’s foundation is much different from that of AA, which encourages members to put faith in a power greater than themselves.2

Why Secular Organizations for Sobriety?

Statistics show over 20 million Americans age 12 and older have a substance use disorder. Nearly 13 million have an alcohol use disorder only. 3

Secular recovery offers peer support to those who did not have positive experiences in AA.Early recovery includes emotional volatility, cravings, and triggers. While dealing with these challenges, individuals must also find a way to fulfill their personal responsibilities and participate in relationships. For some, the idea of turning to a higher power enables them to “let go and let God” based on AA’s principles. For others, the idea of waiting for a spiritual transformation may inhibit their recovery.

In a study of 161 SOS participants who had also attended AA meetings: 4

  • 19% reported AA attendance was harmful to them
  • 61.3% stated they would never attend an AA meeting in the future
  • 66.2% disliked the emphasis on a higher power
  • 36.9% did not feel comfortable with the idea of being powerless and felt they did not fit in

Results of the study also indicated that support that reflected an individual’s belief system correlated to a higher number of days of sobriety, as well as increasing program participation. 4

What Are the Secular Organizations for Sobriety Cycles?

Secular Organizations for Sobriety claims each person gets stuck in cycles of substance misuse. Like AA, SOS is abstinence-based. It does not recognize moderation or harm reduction models, such as those endorsed by the HAMS peer support group, as a sustainable form of recovery. SOS recognizes physiological or chemical needs, learned habits, and denial are the patterns that make it difficult to stay sober. 5

To break the cycle of denial and achieve sobriety, we first acknowledge that we are alcoholics or addicts. We reaffirm this truth daily and acknowledge without reservation that, as clean and sober individuals, we cannot and do not drink or use, no matter what.

SOS’ philosophy is focused on breaking a cycle of addiction by creating a better cycle, the “cycle of sobriety,” which has three elements:6

  1. Acknowledgment you have an alcohol use or substance use disorder
  2. Acceptance of your alcohol use or substance use disorder
  3. Prioritization of your sobriety as the number one issue in your life

By living each day in the cycle of sobriety, you replace old behaviors with new, healthy behaviors. 6 This is a concept used in many forms of alcohol addiction treatment, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT focuses on identifying thought patterns that lead to specific behaviors so that unwanted behaviors, like substance misuse, can be altered or eliminated. CBT is one of the most common therapeutic modalities in addiction treatment programs. SOS guidelines state, “Since drinking or using is not an option for us, we take whatever steps are necessary to continue our Sobriety Priority lifelong.” 5 This may include SOS activities, personal recovery efforts like a mindfulness practice, and initial or continued addiction treatment overseen by your care team.

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What Are the Guidelines for Secular Recovery Success?

The primary difference between the guidelines of AA and Secular Organizations for Sobriety is the inclusion, or exclusion, of faith or spirituality. SOS also reinforces that sobriety is the top priority. The AA 12 Steps give specific actions a member must take to accomplish long-term sobriety.7

Many peer support groups have guidelines to guide members in the recovery process. AA’s 12 Steps are the most well-known and well-researched. The 12 Steps of AA are evidence-based to help maintain recovery long-term.8

While there is no qualitative research on the SOS guidelines, research on the 12 Steps indicates that having structured guidelines may be a beneficial component of peer-led addiction support.

SOS endorses guidelines that are taken in their entirety rather than in a linear fashion like the 12 Steps. The guidelines include:5

  • “A quality of life—’the good life’—can be achieved. However, life is also filled with uncertainties. Therefore, we do not drink or use regardless of feelings, circumstances, or conflicts.”
  • “We share in confidence with each other our thoughts and feelings as sober, clean individuals.”
  • “Sobriety is our Priority, and we are each responsible for our lives and our sobriety.”

Both support groups emphasize the importance of admitting a problem exists and using the group format to share and get others’ insight on challenges in recovery based on the program’s principles.9

Does Secular Organizations for Sobriety Support Families?

Secular Organizations for Sobriety provides support for friends and family. They created the family and friends’ recovery cycle: 5

  1. Knowledge of the cycle of addiction
  2. Knowledge of the recovery cycle
  3. Assumption of responsibility only for yourself

The SOS guidelines ask that loved ones, “Be gentle with yourself and the addicted person in your family. Remember, sobriety skills are not developed overnight, so give yourself credit for being understanding.”

It’s recommended that family and friends:10

  • Attend SOS meetings—The guidelines say to, “Attend as many SOS meetings as you can. If you like, attend other family non secular and secular recovery-group meetings. Take what you can use from these and leave the rest.”
  • Get connected—Building a sober network is encouraged by “Get[ting] names and phone numbers from sober individuals in secular recovery and their family members at meetings. Use these phone numbers. Practice calling people when you are feeling okay so that you will be able to call more easily when you are in need of help.”
  • Simplify—The guidelines adjusting lifestyle to support the family and friends’ recovery cycle: “Try putting some simplified structure into your life: get up and get dressed at a regular time, take a walk before or after dinner, etc.”

How Can I Learn More About Secular Organizations for Sobriety?

Secular Organizations for Sobriety has a range of available literature for members and prospective members, including downloadable literature and James Christopher’s books: 11

  • SOS Sobriety: The Proven Alternative to 12-step Programs
  • How to Stay Sober: Recovery Without Religion
  • Unhooked: Staying Sober and Drug-Free
  • Escape from Nicotine Country: How to Stop Smoking Painlessly

There are no requirements for attending an SOS meeting in your area other than an interest in the organization and a desire to achieve sobriety through secular means. You may also find it helpful to attend other peer support and professionally led addiction recovery sessions—many professionals and organizations endorse working to find the resources, tools, and environments that help you feel most supported.

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  1. Gross M. (2010). Alcoholics Anonymous: still sober after 75 years. 1935. American Journal of Public Health, 100(12), 2361-2363.
  2. Secular Organizations for Sobriety. (2021). What We Do.
  3. Grim, B. J., & Grim, M. E. (2019). Belief, Behavior, and Belonging: How Faith is Indispensable in Preventing and Recovering from Substance Abuse. Journal of Religion and Health, 58(5), 1713-1750.
  4. Atkins, R. G., Jr, & Hawdon, J. E. (2007). Religiosity and participation in mutual-aid support groups for addiction. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 33(3), 321-331.
  5. Secular Organizations for Sobriety. (2021). Suggested Guidelines for Sobriety.
  6. Secular Organizations for Sobriety. (2021). Cycle of Addiction and Recovery.
  7. Donovan, D. M., Ingalsbe, M. H., Benbow, J., & Daley, D. C. (2013). 12-step interventions and mutual support programs for substance use disorders: an overview. Social Work in Public Health, 28(3-4), 313–332.
  8. Sussman S. (2010). A review of Alcoholics Anonymous/ Narcotics Anonymous Programs for Teens. Evaluation & the health professions, 33(1), 26-55.
  9. Zemore, S. E., Kaskutas, L. A., Mericle, A., & Hemberg, J. (2017). Comparison of 12-step Groups to Mutual Help Alternatives for AUD in a Large, National Study: Differences in Membership Characteristics and Group Participation, Cohesion, and Satisfaction. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 73, 16-26.
  10. Secular Organizations for Sobriety. (2021). Family and Friends Recovery.
  11. Secular Organizations for Sobriety. (2021). SOS Literature.
  12. Secular Organizations for Sobriety. (2021). Find a Meeting.
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