The Twelve Steps: A Primer

18 Apr

12-steps-keep-it-simpleMany people who are not ensconced in Twelve Step recovery have no idea about what the Twelve Steps are. Neither do many people in recovery understand the Twelve Steps. What I offer here is my condensed interpretation of the Twelve Steps, based on more than 25 years of being in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. To be clear, I’ve been working on my recovery for that long, but in twelve-step, we count continuous sobriety, of which I have 11 years in a row, with no alcohol, drugs, nicotine or nitrous oxide. This is not to say that I am an expert, but as it says elsewhere, the steps are a design for living that works.

To begin to solve any problem we initially must identify the problem. So it is with alcoholism. The first step states, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.” Obviously this is from Alcoholics Anonymous. Other programs have substituted various words or phrases for the word “alcohol.” Narcotics Anonymous uses “our addiction,” Overeaters Anonymous replaces “alcohol” with “food;” some fellowships just admit to a general powerlessness, i.e. “we admitted we were powerless” without giving an object. This step says, “I can no longer control my substance use or addictive behavior,” or, “The negative consequences of my using have become greater than the benefits I receive.”

Notice two things here. The steps are plural and written in the past tense. This says: You do not have to do this alone, We took these steps together; and We have recovered, you can too; here is how we achieved this miracle.

The second step reads “We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” After admitting we had a problem, we now acknowledge that we had actually been “insane” as regards our substance, behavior and  thinking, and we cannot fix ourselves. We need help. People often seek assistance from others who have expertise. (Think of Home Depot and Fry’s Electronics. They hire knowledgeable people who help customers select the right products.) It was pointed out to me early on that a “power greater than myself” could just be you and me together.

We go much further in the third step when we say “We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” Many people balk here. We may be haunted by a bad experience with God or religion or believe that God has turned His back on us, or are already damned for eternity due to our actions. We may have no knowledge of God, or have proven to ourselves that God doesn’t exist. We have protested, “How can I turn my life over? I’ll lose myself in the process.” A newcomer is usually assured by the veteran that these thoughts are not new, and all that is needed is willingness to make a decision, and try something different. It may be pointed out if we were so proficient at running our own lives, would we now need the help of the fellowship?

We are advised to choose a God of our own understanding, utilizing the basic criteria that our God be “loving, caring and greater than ourselves.” We are reminded that GOD can be an acronym for Good Orderly Direction, and are often advised to use the group or the fellowship as our Higher Power, or to borrow a God from someone else. The action involved here is that we decide to turn our will over. This is accomplished by practicing the remainder of the steps.

The fourth step strikes fear into the hearts of many. “We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” Not many addicted people are willing to delve into how they’ve made a mess of their lives, which means we actually have to take responsibility for ourselves. Sometimes we’ve been victimized so brutally that we fear looking back would re-traumatize us. There are books and workshops and programs and weekend conferences devoted to explaining and conducting the fourth step.

Making allowance for the mistakes of others by acknowledging that they, like us, may be spiritually sick sows the seeds of compassion and forgiveness during the process of the fourth step. We learn to look for our part in past situations.  We may come to forgive ourselves. We look at the past with an open mind. Where have we been selfish, self-seeking, dishonest and afraid? We are advised to “uncover, discover and discard” those behaviors and ideas that are no longer beneficial to us. For example, people who have been victimized often view the world as harmful and view other people with suspicion. This puts others on the defensive and does not allow for healthy discourse. By realizing that we engage this way, we can decide whether to continue.

In the fifth step, “We admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” It has become common practice for recovering people to share our fourth steps with our sponsor, someone chosen to help us through the steps. Reviewing our past and sharing our secrets relieves us of the shame and guilt that entombs us. Through this process, our sponsors help us define our character defects and moral shortcomings which we become ready to have God remove in the sixth step and humbly ask Him to do so in the seventh step.

This is followed by Step Eight: “Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all;” and Nine: “Made direct amends to such people whenever possible except when to do so would injure them or others.” These actions encourage us to take responsibility for ourselves and exercise compassion toward others.

Steps Ten, Eleven and Twelve are known as the maintenance steps. “We continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.” “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.”  “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and practice these principles in all our affairs.”

In the textbook which outlines the program of recovery known as the Big Book of AA, it stresses that the Twelve Steps are a program of progress, not perfection. The aim of the steps is for us to learn to live in accordance with our personal values and to cultivate a relationship with a God of our understanding.



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