Since Alcoholics Anonymous introduced them in the 1930s, “the 12 Steps” have become virtually inseparable from any discussion of addiction recovery. At least 200 organizations–an “Anonymous” for everything from crystal meth to hoarding to pornography, plus other-named groups such as Celebrate Recovery–and countless treatment centers employ 12-Step programs for the benefit of their members or patients. Still, many people would be at a loss if asked to name even one of the specific steps. If you are considering a program and want a solid idea of what would be expected of you, here are the 12 steps in order:
The 12 Steps
We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction–that our lives had become unmanageable.
“I can handle it” is one of humanity’s favorite phrases, versions of which many of us master before we can talk. The high-chair occupant grabs the spoon and tries to feed himself; the toddler screams “Me do it!” at Mom’s attempt to dress him; the kindergartner is openly insulted at the idea of having to hold someone’s hand crossing the street. Independence is a good thing up to the point that one is narrowly missed by a speeding car–or awakens with a killer hangover on yet another “morning after” having full intention of stopping at a reasonable limit this time. If you can handle it, it’s not an addiction. If your attempts to handle it invariably end in failure and guilt, it’s time to admit you could use a little help.
We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
When Alcoholics Anonymous was born, there was still one generally accepted definition of “God” in the United States. Now, work for the 12 steps comes from every religion and none, and organized groups range from those unashamedly committed to the way of one specific religion, to those full of members who proudly proclaim their uncompromising atheism. But even if your personal definition of a “Higher Power” stops at the combined energy of a support group or the theoretically unused 90 percent of your own brain, there’s a freeing aspect in realizing that what you already know, and have tried in vain to make work, isn’t the limit of your available resources. Especially when facing the stress of a major transition, having outside help you can count on strengthens your courage for the journey.
We made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God, as we understood him.
“Let go and let God” is a cliche, but a useful principle nonetheless. If you insist on hanging on to everything (especially harmful habits) for fear of losing something, you’ll eventually break under the strain and lose a lot more. Into every life fall a few things that are out of our control; just giving them the right to be, instead of fighting them with anger or chemical escapes, frees us to make the best of the things we can control.
We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
If you’re like me, trying to “make sure you’ve covered every little detail” can get a bit out of control in its own right. Still, it’s true that the typical moral inventory takes hours to write out and runs for many pages. (And it always is written; an inventory stored purely in the head has little organization and less lasting value.) One thing many beginners don’t realize is that it isn’t just our faults and shortcomings that need to be searched; the strengths we may have belittled and the opportunities we may have neglected (which may take more courage to face than our faults!) belong here too. The point is not to convince ourselves that we are, in fact, worthless, but to catch a vision of what we can become.
We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
The “other human being” is usually a counselor or experienced fellow member from the 12-Step group. It’s important to have someone who can offer feedback and draw out reluctant details; it’s also practice for apologizing to those more emotionally involved.
We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
“Entirely ready” means no holding back “just a little” or asking “Can I have one more month to enjoy myself first?” It also means being brave enough to face life without what seemed to be a major part of you, if not your whole perceived identity. Don’t panic, you won’t be left empty. The Higher Power never removes defects from a willing soul without giving it something better to fill the space.
We humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
The key word here is “humbly”–no blame-shifting, no excuses, no attempts to dictate what circumstances have to change before you can. Humility is summed up in the sentiment “I don’t know what’s going to happen or how I’ll cope, but I trust that I’ll be safe not knowing, because a Power greater than myself does know and is working things out for good.”
We made a list of all persons we had wronged, and became willing to make amends to them all.
For anyone who has long balanced an outwardly “normal” life with a substance addiction, the list can get pretty long and is likely to include everyone you’ve lived with, worked with, or been close to for a number of years. You can not “just hope they’ve forgotten,” especially if you’re going to continue an ongoing relationship with them. While they may well have already forgiven you, they need the assurance that you genuinely intend to change and become trustworthy again.
We made direct amends to such persons whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
It’s true that there are some things people are better off not knowing. Does one confess a one-time drunken liaison to a spouse, or will that crush all hopes of mending the marriage? Does anyone need to know the angry and hurtful–yet unspoken–thoughts you harbored toward them, or that you were the one who started that false rumor or secretly sabotaged their chances of a promotion? This is a question that needs the advice of a mentor; everyone handles a painful revelation differently, and only someone with inside knowledge can figure out what’s best in an individual situation. But whatever you do, don’t use “they’re better off not knowing” as a blanket rationalization for avoiding every confrontation you personally dread.
We continued to take personal inventory, and, when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
Recovery isn’t a one-time achievement, any more than is eating lunch or cleaning house. Unless you keep doing the right thing daily, and unless you head off any lapses promptly, you can slide back into old habits before you know it. Especially when life gets stressful, and especially when you feel “too busy” to keep an eye on yourself through daily review, the practice is the last thing you should consider putting aside for a while.
We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood him, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry it out.
Call it mindfulness, visualization, direct conversation with God, or simply a good rest-and-relaxation session: regular “quiet time” (kept as free as possible of your own preconceptions and expectations) is essential to staying aware of your purpose and functioning to your maximum potential.
Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
In the delight of finding something that makes such a difference in their lives, most newly recovering people go through a “missionary phase” where they can’t stop telling everyone in sight how great the program is and how everyone should try it. Enthusiasm is a great thing to have, providing you stay sensitive to others’ feelings and needs. But an equal danger to becoming the 12-Step equivalent of a “Bible thumper” is letting the enthusiasm die out as you settle into a new “ordinary life.” Remember, recovery is an ongoing and lifelong process, and it’s your responsibility to both stay true to it yourself and encourage others who need it.
Step by step, all of us in recovery are building better, fuller lives.