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How to Work a Good 12-Step Program

What exactly is a 12-step program? It is the people, principles and practices of recovery from addiction that was started by Alcoholics Anonymous back in the 1930’s. To work a program successfully, you need all three—the people, principles and practices. You can’t just read and learn at home, just go to meetings and call your sponsor, or just change your ways.  To recover you need to do it all.

12-step programs are being used by many to recover from addictions to substances like alcohol, drugs, cigarettes and even lip balm(!), addictions to behaviors like gambling, internet pornography, overworking and overeating, and addictions to people, who are often addicted, dependent, or aloof.

You start new recovery behaviors in order to change the thoughts, feelings and situations that used to trigger relapse. To insure change, much repetition is built into “the program.” Certain things are repeated verbatim at each meeting, like reading the 12 steps of recommended problem-solving tools. What are they? Here’s the gist of them in five pieces:

1. Admit you’re powerless over your addiction, and that your life is unmanageable by you alone. Admit you need “a higher power.”

2. Entrust your will and your life to the care (not control) of God “as you understand him.” If you’ve been burned by organized religion, you can make your higher power to be the spirit of the program, the wisdom of the Big Book (AA’s collection of stories and advice for staying sober), or whatever works for you until your understanding of God grows.

3. Examine your past behavior and motivations. Take inventory of your moral strengths and weaknesses. Look at your problems and ask, “What was my part of this? How do I clean up my side of the street?” Confess what you’ve done and why to God, another person, and yourself.

4. Make amends to yourself and others for the mistakes you’ve made. Pay back the money, self-esteem, truth, etc. you have taken from other people, “except when to do so would injure them or others.” We go tell people we are sorry, and make every effort to restore what we have taken.

5. Give back to others and to the program what you have received. You give service to your groups by telling your story, chairing meetings, helping newcomers, and cleaning up. This keeps you growing and avoids relapse.

Meetings usually begin by reading also the 12 traditions of how groups manage their affairs.  The 12 traditions keep groups from owning property, competing with each other, or taking stands on controversial issues like politics and religion.  To make sure they keep the focus on principles not personalities, they emphasize protecting the anonymity of its members.  They have “no leaders, just trusted servants.”

The program grows “by attraction, not promotion,” so 12-steppers remain anonymous, by not making  public statements about whether they are in a program like AA or not.  They grow only by people noticing changed lives, and deciding to come try 12-stepping for themselves, because “I want what you have.”

All this makes 12-stepping different from religion, which encourages its churches to own property and its members to lead groups and do public witnessing. But AA encourages religion, praying and seeking the guidance and protection of God, but it endorses no particular “sect or denomination.”

Like the self-help movement, people are encouraged to be in charge of their own program, and grow at their own pace.  They decide for themselves if they are an alcoholic or gambling addict or whatever, and they choose their own home group, sponsor, etc.  A home group is the one you go to most regularly, usually every week, and it’s usually where your sponsor goes.

Your sponsor mainly teaches you how to work the steps, how to apply 12-step principles to your own situation.  Sponsors don’t so much give orders as direction, by sharing their “experience, strength and hope.”   This one-on-one relationship with weekly check-ins makes it seem somewhat like psychotherapy, but like everything in 12-stepping, it is free.  The way you find a sponsor is to listen for people (the “winners”) who focus on solutions instead of those who focus on problems (the “whiners”).  Tell them after the meeting how you benefited from what they said, and when the conversation dies down, ask, “May I have your phone number?”    Use it, by leaving a message that gives a brief report and asks a question or two.  If he calls back, tell him at the next meeting how much this and his new remarks at this meeting have helped you.  After a few rounds of this, ask him about his experience with sponsoring and being sponsored, how he thinks that should go.  If that sounds good to you, ask him if you could talk with him about being your sponsor.

Recovery is also like the medical model, in that it teaches that the addiction is a disease.  Alcoholism for example is portrayed as a physical allergy and a mental obsession, and medical treatment and hospitalization is encouraged as an adjunct to any recovery that needs it.  We aren’t responsible for whether we have an addiction, but we are responsible for all our behavior, our emotions, and beliefs.  We choose whether we get into recovery, and whether we stay there.

In conclusion, as I understand it, 12-step recovery teaches that “anything you put before your recovery you will lose,” including your job, your health, your family, and your faith. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that if you follow the 12-step way of life, it is free, and it makes everything else in your life better. You get not only sobriety, but serenity. As they say, “it works if you work it.

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About Paul Schmidt

Dr. Paul Schmidt, PhD is a psychologist life coach with offices in Louisville and Lexington, KY, 502 633 2860.