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).

Myth eight: Making “a list of all persons we had harmed” and becoming “willing to make amends to them all” will be incredibly complicated.

Yes and no. While examining our resentments, we built up a list of people we need to make amends to. Essentially this means figuring out who we should apologize to, and try to make right whatever we did wrong, doing our best not to repeat bad behavior. Actually making the list is the easy part. Whereas...

Myth nine: Making “direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others” sounds like a nightmare.

Often this can be terrifying: confronting the ex-best friend whose boyfriend you stole is not gonna be a fun time. Sometimes it can mean swallowing a lot of humility and ignoring those inner voices shrieking, “Why am I apologizing to this asshole? Sure, I wronged him, but he hit me first!” Fortunately, the people you’re apologizing to rarely want to talk to you again, let alone listen to a sniffling re-enactment of the time you shagged their disabled mom in order to steal her Oxy. Yet plenty are willing to hear you out and the truth is that oftentimes their reactions will shock you. Those whom you were convinced would toss you out their office embrace you like an old friend while the ones you think probably didn’t even notice your egregious behavior have stored up the most vitriol.

When making amends would be detrimental to either you or the person you owe them to—this is that “injuring them or others” part—I’ve learned to make living amends instead. A friend of mine stole drinks from work. Years later, the restaurant had closed and she had no way of contacting her bosses to repay them for this, and so instead she bought cases of mineral water and handed them out to homeless people on the streets of California and always left big restaurant tips. But be honest with yourself if you’re suddenly writing off every amend as a living amend and remember that many consider amends the most rewarding part of the entire 12-step process.

Myth 10: Continuing "to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it” sounds unrealistic. I have no interest in constantly examining and confessing to bad behavior.

This is all a sneaky way of distracting us while also helping us to develop a conscience. We will be so busy noting with horror the terrible things we do on a minute-by-minute basis that we won’t have time to drink! Not really—it’s actually a surprisingly refreshing way to live. I started off doing daily, and then weekly inventories, but once I’d integrated the concept into my life, examining my day-to-day living became like second nature, and less like an exhausting chore.

Myth 11: No, thank you, I’d rather not seek “through prayer and meditation to improve” my “conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”

I tried prayer. I tried really hard. For a whole year. And it wasn’t happening, and I still didn’t believe in God, so forgive me for the terrible truth I’m about to reveal: I quit. I kept up with yoga and meditation, I set myself a little resolution for the day—and that’s cool with me. AA is full of suggestions, and I recommend trying everything - but then adapt your program to suit your needs. Be scientific, keep what works, throw out what doesn’t. Prayer wasn’t my thing, but it’s the core of my friend Billy’s recovery. We’re both sober; we just stay there slightly differently.

Myth 12: I’m not interested in “having a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps” or in carrying “this message to alcoholics” or in practicing “these principles in all my affairs.”

My feelings on this one have changed over time. I spent the first year of my recovery feeling compelled to like everyone, take 5 AM phone calls, and ferry junkies to the ER on a regular basis. It was an experience, and it kept me busy and sober, but it made me feel a little bit—well, put upon. Plus, let’s be honest. I’m not a people person. Waiting anxiously outside a meeting to leap upon a newcomer and worry them to death with kindness ain’t my thing. I’m a writer. I’m at my best alone in dark rooms with a laptop. These days, I prefer writing about recovery to hanging out in the emergency room with an 18 -year-old OD-er. Everyone gets to figure out how to do step 12 in a way that’s unique and best for them—a way that fits into their new, sober, busy life. And your sober life will be busy, believe me. Billy hates sponsoring people but always has a stream of alcoholics in and out of his house, asking for advice and a sympathetic ear. Others take commitments at meetings while still others do community service work or bake cupcakes for their favorite meetings. The list goes on.

Essentially, the 12 steps may help keep you sober but they certainly don’t turn you into a saint. Remember that oftentimes those that criticize them the most vehemently are the people that have never even stepped foot in a meeting, nor suffered from direct or indirect experiences with addicts and alcoholics. I say try these steps out, make them work for you, and figure out what you agree with and what you don’t (for some people, that’s going to mean doing them exactly as they’re laid out, and that’s great). This may well bring you a life, as they say, beyond your wildest dreams. And you have nothing to lose but a drinking habit that’s probably been destroying your existence. 

But then again, I would say that—you know, being a member of a cult and all.

Ruth Fowler has written for The Village VoiceThe GuardianThe Huffington PostThe New York Post and The Observer. Her memoir, No Man's Land, which documented her pre-sobriety experiences as a stripper in Manhattan, was published by Viking in 2008. She also wrote about why doctors can't deal with addicted patients and nursing your way back to health, among many other topics.

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