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Monday, December 20, 2004

The 12 Steps

Last week, I began a four-part series on Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization that helps millions of people around the world win their fight with alcoholism. Tonight, I want to talk more about how individual alcoholics use the A.A. program to get better.

A.A. famously began the "12 step" approach to alcoholism treatment. The 12 steps are easy to find on the A.A. web site, but I think they're important enough to reprint here, in their entirety. The 12 steps of alcoholics anonymous are:

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol--that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11. 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.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Everyone works through the same 12 steps, in the same order. Significantly, A.A. is very explicit about the fact that there is no set timetable for the steps. Alcoholics work the steps as quickly or slowly as they wish. In keeping with the free thinking bent of A.A., no one is required to follow, or even to read, the 12 steps. The steps are simply a set of ideas and techniques that have helped millions of alcoholics recover.

So how does it work in practice? When a new person joins A.A., he or she is assigned to a sponsor, someone who has been in the program for at least six months and has worked through at least the first few steps. Steps are usually done at home, but the member usually describes his or her experiences with the steps at regular A.A. meetings.

The first step is to recognize that he or she is powerless over alcohol. This can be accomplished by standing up in an A.A. meeting and declaring, "my name is _____, and I'm an alcoholic." But it has to come from the heart, and some people spend years working on the first step, trying to admit to themselves that they are powerless over alcohol. A.A. has a saying - "powerless but not helpless." The alcoholic can't conquer alcohol addiction under their own power - that's where the second step comes in.

Step 2 is for the alcoholic to believe that a Higher Power can restore them to sanity. "Sanity" means more than not drinking - it means committing to live a purposeful, responsible, and satisfying life. As I mentioned previously, for many people "Higher Power" means God, but many people find their Higher Power squarely in this world. Step 3 is making a commitment to this Higher Power.

Step 4 is one of the toughest ones. It requires taking a long, difficult look at one's self. Character defects can include traits like resentment, fear, jealously, or actions like criticism (of others or the self), or hatred. With careful, loving feedback from their sponsor, a member makes a "fearless" - that is, a completely honest, list of all character defects he or she possesses. In step 5, the member admits his or her character defects to themselves, to God, and to another person. The other person is especially critical - it's easy to pretend to discuss your defects to yourself, but it's harder - and more honest and real - to describe them to another person. In steps 6 and 7, the alcoholic humbly asks God to remove his or her shortcomings. This is one of the places where God enters most explicitly into the A.A. program - perhaps it would be better to state that the alcoholic appeals to his or her Higher Power. (This might be a place to criticize A.A. - just because I'm profiling them in Total Drek doesn't mean I think they're perfect.)

Steps 8 and 9 are the alcoholic's public reaction to the character defects recounted in steps 4 through 7. The alcoholic recognizes the harm that his character defects have done to other people, and promises to make amends to the people he or she has harmed. Often the process begins with writing letters to these people, apologizing for the harm they have caused. The more specific the letters - recounting actual events at specific times and places - the more likely the alcoholic will get better. Amends continue with promises to people to change behavior in the future. These promises also need to be specific - not "I will spend more time with my family," but "I will spend five evenings a week at home with my family." As I said, the more specific the amends, the more likely the alcoholic will get better.

Steps 10 through 12 might be described as "maintenance" steps - they help the alcoholic stay sober and stay in the A.A. program. The 12th step never really ends; having found recovery and a better life from the first 11 steps, the alcoholic spreads the message of A.A. for the 12th step. Even after completing the first 11 steps and working on the 12th, A.A. members still refer to themselves as "recovering alcoholics." Their work is never done.

In the course of my research for this article, I found this blog from a recovering alcoholic. I make no statements about the quality of the blog. I just wanted to point it out, to give you a way to see what A.A. is like from the inside.

Coming Wednesday - more about how A.A. functions as a group, on the local and national level.


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