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For nearly 80 years, Alcoholics Anonymous has been considered by many the only effective way to get "clean and sober."

But a growing number of people uncomfortable with AA's nearly 80-year-old "12 steps" model, its strict program, ritual prayers and conviction that overcoming addiction is all in the hands of God or a "higher power," are calling for more secular alternatives. They insist that when it comes to recovery, one size doesn't fit all.

"I'd like to see where alternatives are represented as a clear and equal choice," said Byron Kerr, a recovering alcoholic and promoter of LifeRing, a 13-year-old independent, nonprofit, peer-support network for alcoholics and drug abusers with no spiritual or religious underpinnings.

Like AA, it provides support through meetings and believes in abstinence. But it's different in that it sees the power to get "clean and sober" as within the individual, whether they believe in a higher power or not. LifeRing encourages members to come up with their own programs, doesn't expect attendees to have "sponsors" and encourages "cross talk" in meetings among attendees.

"I think 12-step is a fine institution — all of the different 12-step organizations," said Kerr, 61, a longtime Sonoma County resident who just recently moved to Milpitas. "Their intent is wonderful. Their success, what they have, is admirable. That is not the point. The point is that no one should be forced or coerced into something that is against their world view."

With about 180 meetings each week held at various locations around the world and drawing a combined 2,000 people, the Oakland-based LifeRing, with its "Three 'S' philosophy" — Sober, Secular, & Self-Empowered — is slowly gaining a tiny toehold in a recovery community dominated for decades by AA.

In Sonoma County, there are about a dozen LifeRing meetings every week scattered from Petaluma to Sonoma to Santa Rosa, each drawing an average of 10 attendees. Other organizations, such as Rational Recovery, Secular Organization for Sobriety and SMART Recovery, also include non-religious programs, and there are non-Christian spiritual support groups for Jews and Buddhists.

Kerr works to spread the word and make sure social service agencies, rehabilitation programs, health care organizations, the courts and other agencies and groups in the position to make referrals include LifeRing as an option for peer support.

On May 30 to June 1, LifeRing will hold its annual international meeting in Santa Rosa, with growth a key topic on the agenda for the opening meeting Friday evening at the Arlene Francis Center. A daylong Saturday conference open to the public will include speakers on a range of topics from addiction recovery science to support and legal issues.

Kerr became committed to choice in recovery after he sought help for his drug and alcohol problems from his company's Employee Assistance Program and they sent him to a 28-day residential program that promoted AA.

"The first day I immediately objected to all of the 12-step concepts in terms of recognizing some supernatural entity," said Kerr, who was raised in an extreme fundamentalist church that forced him out when he was a teenager for questioning doctrine. It left him sensitive to any situation where he feels religion is being pushed on him. He says he's an atheist.

"The 12 steps very specifically say 'God,' he said. They try to sound polite and say 'God as you understand him. But that's quite obviously the Christian God and each meeting closes with the very first Christian prayer composed, 'The Lord's Prayer.' The entire process is inherently religious.'"

AA representatives could not be reached for comment, but a series of court rulings have in the past confirmed that AA is religious.

Michael Kennedy, who oversees mental health and substance abuse services for Sonoma County, said all of his staff includes LifeRing among their referrals for peer support.

"I support anything that works for people," Kennedy said. "The 12-steps have been going on for such a long time there is easy access, with meetings all over the county every day of the week. LifeRing is new and they're getting established, but there's a lot of people who don't want to go to something tied to a higher power, so it's good to have alternatives."

Jen Keegan, the county's Drug and DUI Court coordinator, said the courts as part of the diversion program specify only that someone engage in some self-help activity. Some choose private therapy or a combination of groups. But LifeRing, she said, is slowly catching on.

David V. of Forestville had bad feelings about organized religion growing up with a strict Catholic mother. He started an AA group for agnostics and atheists but gave it up for a LifeRing group after too many people complained that he was "doing it wrong."

Lise, a 41-year-old Santa Rosa woman charged with three DUI's, said she goes to both AA and LifeRing. She likes the smaller groups and the lack of ritual in LifeRing and finds it more affirming, with no pressure to state her name or declare herself an alcoholic, which she says is implicit.

Lee Hamilton, the executive director of Mountain Vista Farm, a 65-year-old residential treatment program in Glen Ellen that hosts both 12-step and LifeRing support groups, said both models, as well as a combination of both, can work and that it really depends on the individual.

"It's important for people to understand and forgive the philosophical differences among groups that are all trying to help them," he said.

<i>You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.</i>