Personalizing the 12 Steps
By Neil F.
On the 13th of April 1986, during a drive from Montreal to Toronto, I broke into a cold sweat and started shaking. I felt like I was losing control of my mind and my body. It was all I could do to resist the temptation to curl up into a little ball and cry. I could no longer stand the pain of living this way but did not want to die. Something had to change.
I decided to try the same changes that had seemed to work under similar circumstances in the past; I would stop smoking tobacco, I would stop drinking to reduce the likelihood of smoking and I would start an exercise program to regain my physical health. With this approach, I gained short term relief from my problems and I avoided admitting that alcohol was the real problem. In retrospect, this was denial and was always the source of my downfall. When I regained my health, I always went back to drinking as I was convinced that I had to be able to drink to be normal. Alcohol was a part of my business and social life and was to be protected at all costs.
While this approach had seemed to work in the past, this time was different. A week later I was bouncing off of the walls and the ceiling and really needed a drink. In a moment of desperation, I reached out for help; I attended my first AA meeting. Thanks to the fellowship of AA and the recovery process of the 12 Steps I have not had to pick up a drink since.
Thus began my struggle with the Twelve Steps. I really wanted the recovery that AA seemed to offer, but I didn’t believe in God. As a result, I was hung up on the second and third steps. Despite the platitudes of a “Higher Power” and a “God of Your Understanding,” when I read the Big Book and the 12 & 12 it was clear to me that the expectation was that if I did the steps I would come to my senses and convert to a belief in a personal God that sounded very much like the Christian God. For some time I tried the “fake it till you make it” approach but the truth is that I couldn’t just decide to believe what I didn’t believe. Pascal’s wager would not work for me.
Over time, I have come to accept the Twelve Steps as a template for a recovery process. This template can be tailored to be compatible with the beliefs and needs of each alcoholic. If I were a christian I could use the original template without modification. If I were a muslim, I could substitute Allah in the place of God. If I were a theravadan buddhist, I could edit the template to replace God with the Dhamma, the teachings of the Buddha. For an agnostic, or an atheist the tailoring might be more extensive but it is still possible.
After many modifications over the years, the following is my current, personal 12 step process:
- We admitted that we suffer from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body.
- Came to believe that we could recover.
- Became open to changes in how we approach and respond to life.
- Made a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves.
- Reviewed our inventory with another human being.
- Became entirely open to change.
- Humbly affirmed our desire to change.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became ready to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible.
- Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
- Sought through meditation to improve our understanding of ourselves, our program and our progress.
- Having changed as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
This process addresses what I believe are the core requirements of each of the steps and guides my recovery and daily living. This is how I understand the steps and this understanding informs any discussion I have with another alcoholic or any contribution I make in an AA meeting. I don’t try to convince others that the wording of the steps needs to be changed, I just talk about what each step means to me and how I practice the step.
In Step 1, I do not admit to being powerless over alcohol or to having an unmanageable life. The first step as worded in the Big Book seems to influence the newcomer to conclude that only God can bring about the required change. I do not believe that it is necessary to believe in God to recover from this seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. When I came to AA everything seemed to be hopeless but by working this process my life today is anything but hopeless. By following the process of the 12 Steps I remained an alcoholic but I recovered from the seemingly hopeless state of mind and body.
In Step 2, I came to believe that I could recover. This came about by reading the stories in the Big Book, by listening to what other members had to say during AA meetings and by talking to other members over coffee after the meetings.
My way of approaching and responding to life before coming to AA always led to drinking. I believed that I had to drink to be normal. I believed that I needed to be in control of all aspects of my life. I believed that what was important was success. Success would lead to happiness and success was measured in terms of money, position, power and prestige. When I did not get what I wanted, I responded to life with a lot of anger, resentment and fear. In step 3, I decided to take another look how I approach and respond to life to see if some changes might reduce the likelihood of my picking up a drink. I didn’t actually look at what needed to change in Step 3, I just made a decision to take a look and be open to change.
In Step 4, I made a searching and fearless inventory of how I approached and responded to life. This is the step where I really got to know myself. I explored resentments, anger, fears and relationships. I understood which actions and reactions have negative and which have positive impacts on me and others. I identified what leads to lasting happiness and what to unhappiness. In this step, I tried not to judge myself or others. This step was about getting to know myself; not about moral judgement.
In Step 5, I gained additional insight by reviewing my Step 4 with another person. An individual with more experience in the program was able to help ensure that I had an understanding of how I had approached and responded to life and the impacts that this had on me and others.
My step 6 required a lot of action. I needed to examine each inventory item and come to some conclusion about whether it led to happiness or unhappiness for myself and others. Then I looked at each item that led to unhappiness for myself or others to consider the impact of letting go of that approach or response. Invariably what I concluded was that letting go of negative approaches or reactions would lead to more happiness and that this in turn would reduce the likelihood of me picking up a drink.
In Step 7, I affirmed my desire to let go of my negative approaches and reactions. This is a step that I took on completion of step 6 but it is also a step that I revisit on a daily basis as a part of Steps 10 and 11.
At this point, I had identified changes that would improve my life and reduce the likelihood of my picking up a drink. I concluded that this would provide great benefits going forward but I was still bothered by my past. I wanted to be able to walk down the street and look everyone in the eye. I did not want to be worried about who I might meet. I wanted to be able to answer the phone without being concerned about who might be on the other end of the line. To accomplish this, I needed to clean up the wreckage of my past. To this end, in Step 8 I made a list of all persons that I had harmed and became ready to make amends to them all. To become ready to make amends required that I look at each situation and decide how I might best address any harm that had been done.
Having prepared to make amends in Step 8, in Step 9, wherever possible, I approached each person on the list to correct any harm that had been done in the past. My objective was to perform a reset. As much as possible, I tried to return the situation to the state that it was in prior to any harm that I had done. In some cases an apology was sufficient, in others money owed needed to be repaid and in some cases just being an engaged, supportive member of the family was all that was required.
In Step 10, I try to be mindful of what I am thinking, saying and doing on a continuous basis throughout each day. I try to look at how I am impacting myself or others and if I find myself engaging in my old approaches or responses I try to point myself back down the path I affirmed in Step 7. I find it most important to watch what I am thinking. If I can catch myself as soon as my thinking starts to go off of the rails, I get get myself pointed back in the right direction before doing vocal or physical harm. The more I practice being mindful on a continuous basis, the more likely this becomes. If I have gone beyond thinking and actually harmed someone else, I try to make amends right away.
Step 11 provides guidance for my daily living. In this step, at the beginning of the day I review how I want to approach and respond to life. During the day, I practice Step 10. If I remain frustrated when I try to reorient myself, I find it helpful to take some time for meditation. The meditation can be used to calm down, refocus and remind myself of how I want to live. At the end of the day, some quiet time to review my day is beneficial. It is a good time for ongoing self examination. At this time, I review what I am trying to accomplish, what progress I am making, what seems to be working, what seems not to be working. If I have missed something during my day, I can make note of any amends that still need to be made. I also use meditation on an ongoing basis to explore the working of my mind, my body and the relationship between the two.
In Step 12, I recognized that I have changed. While I an still an alcoholic, I no longer suffer from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. I am able to live a normal life. I have become a useful member of my family, Alcoholics Anonymous and society. I try to carry this message to other alcoholics and to practice these principles in all aspects of my life.
The preceding is my personal process. It is what I have used to guide my recovery and day to day living. It has worked for me. If you feel this process can work for you please feel free to use it. If not, please feel free to personalize it. If it is way off, please feel free to start again from the original template so that you have a process that you are comfortable with and that works for you.
May you achieve sobriety. May you remain sober. May you be happy.
Over a long and diverse career, Neil has lived in six provinces and two states. Now retired, he and his wife live on an acreage outside of Stony Plain, Alberta. He struggled with the religiosity of the Big Book and the 12 Steps, eventually discovering a lot in common between the teachings of the Buddha and the AA 12 Steps. He found that the steps could be tailored to a wide variety of spiritual beliefs and developed his own personalized 12 Steps, based upon the core principles of the original 12-Step template. In recovery for the last 26 years, Neil works his personalized 12 Steps, helps others in the fellowship in their recovery and is active in AA Service. His new way of life has led him out of despair to a life filled with hope and happiness. Neil and his wife enjoy camping and hiking in the Canadian Rockies.