Review by Linda R
A Woman’s Way through the 12 Steps by Stephanie Covington was published in 1994 and has become a favorite book for many women in AA. Why do women have their own book? One reason is the effect on women of the religious language used in the original AA literature. And it is important to recognize that the Big Book was written in 1939, when the possibility of a woman being an alcoholic was barely considered.
Although an entire chapter in the Big Book was devoted to women, it was not addressed to them as women alcoholics. Instead, it categorized them as the wives of the men for whom the book was written. This chapter, entitled “To Wives,” was written by a male alcoholic, Bill Wilson, who instructed the “wives” on how to behave toward their alcoholic spouse. Many women find this chapter quaint and antiquated, if not downright condescending.
A Woman’s Way through the 12 Steps is specifically geared to a women audience, but it may be useful too to men who also live in the modern world; a world which differs significantly from the world occupied by the author of the Big Book. Covington’s discussion of “God” should be of interest to all genders. Her treatment of the God topic is non-judgmental and higher power neutral.
Covington acknowledges that on the surface the original AA literature suggests that we can choose our own conception of God, and that AA is not intended to be a religion or a church. However, she points out that while some alternatives to using the word God are provided — The Great Reality, Creative Intelligence, Spirit of the Universe – the text in the Big Book reflects and emphasizes the traditional religious notion of an all knowing supernatural Being. Moreover, there are many references to God as “Him”, where “He” is the “Father” and we are “His” children. Language and imagery that depicts God as a male figure can be alienating for women. Reading the original AA literature often replicates the alienation felt by these women through experiencing the same emphasis on God as a male figure in their childhood churches and religions.
Furthermore, Covington does not agree with the viewpoint of the original AA literature which portrays rejection of God as a dangerous rebellion that leads to drinking. She notes that the original AA literature warns of the “belligerence” of the alcoholic who won’t believe in God and provides an extremely negative image of the non-believer:
He is in a state of mind that can only be considered savage. (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p 25).
Covington reflects that on the contrary, “By staying true to what is right for us, we may actually do better in our recovery.” (p. 32)
Stories are provided of women who come to think of God in non-traditional ways that are different from the original AA literature. In addition, stories of women who do come to believe in the traditional “God of our Fathers” are provided too and according to Covington “There is nothing wrong with the traditional male image of God, though, as long as it is supportive.” (p. 33) But stunningly, Covington includes the voices of women who do not develop nor come to depend upon any belief in God — traditional or non-traditional – to stay sober. Their power is often external, such as the power of relationships. Or it can be internal, such as the deep, inner self that is “the self that is greater than who you seem to be on the surface.” (p. 34)
Unlike the original AA literature, which attempts to convince the reader that a belief in God is necessary to maintain sobriety, this book is focused on exploring different perspectives on the Steps, in order for alcoholics to create their own path of recovery. Using the Steps as guides, the book helps them discover or rediscover what they think, feel and believe and connect this to their actions and their relations with other people in the world around them. Covington calls this experience “wholeness, or integrity.”
The theme of integrating the inner and outer life runs throughout the book, because Covington believes that each of the Steps in some way touches on soul-searching and self-honesty and that:
Ultimately, the underlying theme of the Steps is living a life that is consistent with your deepest values. The Steps are designed to help you discover what those values are – to look at your inner life—so that you can see how you may be acting contrary to your values and learn to honor them in the future–in your outer life. This is what recovery is about: integrating inner with outer and thereby creating integrity. (p. 3)
The book’s length is 251 pages. There is a chapter devoted to each Step and there are several additional chapters entitled “A Step Before the Steps,” “A Step After,” “Self,” “Relationship,” “Sexuality,” and “Spirituality.”
Below is an interpretation from the book for each of the Steps:
Step 1 The first step in recovery is to look inside ourselves. Turning inward is the beginning of becoming more truthful with ourselves. Honesty is essential because addictions thrive on dishonesty: we have become accustomed to hiding from our true feelings and values. (p. 15)
Step 2 What can we believe in? Whom can we trust?The problem is that life is more difficult and empty without someone or something to trust and believe in. (p. 27)
Step 3 Of course, simple things aren’t always easy. This Step says we turn our will over. When we cling to our will – our fierce determination that things should always go our way – we’ll always be in conflict with something. Our willfulness keeps us pushing against, not flowing with life. (p. 51)
Step 4 When we carry intense guilt, we can hardly bear the thought of reviewing our past deeds. It may feel too painful to think about how we have hurt others and hurt ourselves. We may question the value of opening old wounds and remembering scenes we’d rather forget. It was a revelation to discover that Step Four wasn’t just about agonizing about the past. Instead, it was about getting to know myself better. (p. 59)
Step 5 The Fifth Step offers healing. It shows us how to create a new kind of relationship with people. We make ourselves vulnerable and open, allowing ourselves to be seen for who we really are, maybe for the first time. (p. 93)
Step 6 In this Step we become willing to be open to change, willing to let go of habits or traits that cause our lives to be unbalanced. We become open to a deeper knowing and a clearer vision. (p. 95)
Step 7 But for all of our awareness, we may still not accept ourselves. Step Seven gives us the opportunity to move from self-awareness to self-acceptance. Acceptance is the key to change. Another paradox I have learned in recovery is that when I accept myself just as I am, I can change. (p. 120)
Step 8 Where is there ongoing bitterness, animosity, fear or hostility in our relationships? Whom do we resent or avoid? But as we continue to work this Step, we realize that “harm” has other meanings as well. We might want to consider relationships that feel unresolved – whether we believe we’ve harmed someone or not. Is there unfinished business to attend to? (p. 122)
Step 9 What does it mean to make amends to another person? It means taking responsibility for your part in a relationship. Responsibility refers to the ability to respond appropriately. When you do, you extend hope for something new to yourself and to another person. (p. 137)
Step 10 Now we make a daily commitment to continuing observation and reflection – recognizing when we’re out of balance or hurting ourselves or others. Our ongoing awareness allows us to meet each day and each relationship with responsibility. (p. 152)
Step 11 We can choose whatever practice gives us a sense of inner peace. (p. 173)
Step 12 With recovery this can mean that we offer a straightforward explanation of the Twelve Steps, as well as our own personal experience – how we reworked, translated, revised, or otherwise molded the Steps until they were relevant to us. We all have more to offer than the party line and a by-the-book recitation of the Steps. We can share our story any way we like. (p. 188)
This book not only provides an outlet for the author’s interpretation of the Steps, but each Step is also explored through the voices of other women in recovery, Women who have traveled “through and around” the Steps, having carefully examined the language and concepts, and discovered what fits or what doesn’t for them. The women Covington interviewed for the book are not experts or voices of authority, but women who have created a personal interpretation of the Steps by listening to their own inner voices and the voices of other women in recovery.
Stephanie S. Covington, Ph.D., L.C.S.W. is a clinician, lecturer, organizational consultant, and workshop leader. She is co-director of the Institute for Relational Development.