12 Steps to the 12 Steps

By Ruth Fowler 06/30/11

Having spent a considerable amount of her sober existence making excuses for her AA attendance, our writer pens a handy 12-step guide to a few of the misconceptions she’s run across.

The Dirty Dozen Photo via

Myth one: By admitting we were “powerless” and our lives “unmanageable,” we’re making ourselves prime bait to be brainwashed by a cult.

This whole powerless and unmanageable business—doesn’t it basically boil down to the fact that by the time you’re desperate enough to hit a meeting, you’re on your knees? They say in AA that no one turns up here by accident. Au contraire, I actually turned up to my first meeting thinking I was going on a dinner date, but let’s not split hairs. By the time you walk into the rooms, it’s pretty obvious that things have become too hard to handle alone and you need some help. Don’t buy into the psychobabble and the spooked onlookers telling you this is what cults tell you! All powerless and unmanageable means to me, is that a problem with booze or drugs has gotten out of control.

Myth two: You have to believe you’re nuts and that only some “Higher Power” can bestow you with the blessing of sobriety and sanity.

Oh boy, this is a goody. Many AA-ers truly believe that an entity—let’s call said entity, for the sake of argument, “God”—well, they believe God will, in reward for your faith, help keep you sober. If you don’t believe in God—and I don’t, unless it’s when I want something, like a husband, or money—then what do you do? I always took this step to mean I had to have faith, pure and simple. Not faith in a quasi-religious sense, not faith that involved picketing abortion clinics and limiting marriage to hetero white people, but faith that I could quit drinking and have the kind of life I wanted, and knew I could have. The only reference I felt I needed was the power of everyone around me who had quit drinking and managed to turn their lives around.

Despite the fact we keep telling you we’re not Christians, you don’t believe us.

Myth three: Made “a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him” means I can’t be in AA unless I’m a Christian.

Despite the fact we keep telling you we’re not Christians, you don’t believe us. “It says God in the 12 steps!” many cry. “Multiple times!” The problem isn’t with God, my friend. It’s with you. Every time someone mentions Him, you squirm a bit, count off how many world wars he’s started and how much money is poured into the Catholic Church’s coffers while contemptuously rolling out some variation on the concept that religion is for the superstitious and weak. But many AA-ers are non-believers. It’s perfectly acceptable *not* to believe in God. It’s perfectly acceptable *not* to hand your life over to Him. I always understood this step to mean: I came to AA a total mess, and I needed to be willing to take the suggestion of everyone around me and have enough faith to trust that things will get better so I can piece my life back together. These people became my quasi-gods, and their advice became my commandments, if you will. And I kind of liked them more because they were real, flawed, screwed-up human beings, not a big old bearded man in the sky. It’s okay not to “get” God. If your sponsor tells you otherwise, ditch your Goddamn sponsor. Don’t drink and keep coming back.

Myth four: Making “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves” sounds a bit patronizing. Why should I admit I’m wrong just because I like the sauce?

There’s a saying in AA about how you should “keep your side of the street clean.” It means that even if someone’s done something to piss you off, all you need to worry about is you and your response to it. Be responsible for yourself, in other words, and no one else. Recovering from addiction isn’t merely about stopping using substances—it’s about examining yourself with honesty, in detail, and then trying to make a fundamental change. We’re looking at ourselves critically, as the assholes we were. And if we weren’t? Onto the next.

Myth five: “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs” doesn’t appeal to me. Why should I tell my dark and dirty secrets to someone else?

I can’t help thinking that humility kind of sucks. Admitting the foolish, dark and mean things we did in the past really doesn’t sound like too much fun. And it’s not. But saying these things out loud, and admitting to the most shameful acts, often removes them of their power and ability to wound. Confessing our secrets to our sponsor, who will not judge nor scold, is a little bit like an exorcism, and—for me, anyway—surprisingly painless after the fact (if not before).

Myth six: “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character” suggests that I have defects of character!

You have defects of character. So does your sponsor. So does the Queen of England. So does the hot chick next door. I bet even the Dalai Lama has a few. Defects are what make us wonderfully and gloriously human. They are also the source of a lot of pain and misunderstanding. Another oft-quoted saying in AA is that “the definition of madness is repeating the same act over and over again.” Despite the fact we know one drink will lead to chaos, many of us still try that one drink, hoping this time it might be different. Despite the fact that we know losing our temper is not a good idea, we still lose it and then mourn the fact that everyone around us thinks of us as bad tempered. Recognizing and becoming willing to abandon or change our defects means we’re willing to grow. Substitute the word “grace” for “God” if you’re a non-believer, and remember that the ”God” reference doesn’t mean we have no active part in our recovery. God, for me, stands in this case for hope and faith.

Myth seven: “Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings” IS A TRICK TO LURE US INTO BEING CHRISTIANS!

Or it’s actually another way of saying that you become willing to stop being such an asshole all the time, and make a pledge to yourself and the universe to address and work on your character defects. Since even the believers don’t think God performs magic tricks, this is the step that can take the longest (as in: the rest of your life).

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