Principles and the 12 Steps

Legal Steps

By Patricia K.

I have been sober for a while. I got sober before the development of AA meetings for atheists, agnostics and freethinkers.

Even though I do not believe in a god, I stayed in mainstream AA and edited the language and the literature so it fit with my understanding of the world. Five years ago, I was invited to my first agnostic meeting of Alcoholic Anonymous and I found a safe place where I no longer needed to edit. As a result, my experience and beliefs about recovery are a mix of mainstream Christian AA and secular AA.

I am glad of that. I learned a great deal in mainstream AA that has stood me well. I was supported and encouraged in my recovery by people who would not step foot in a meeting for agnostics and atheists. I am, and will remain, grateful to them and their lessons.

These are some facts of my life: I was separated from my mother as a baby, raised in an alcoholic home and sexually abused as a child. This is not self-pity. These are the facts.

As a result I was full of shame, hurt, pain, sadness and anger. I grew up painfully shy and insecure. When I was 12 years old, I found a solution to all my troubles with alcohol and other drugs… However that solution eventually turned on me. What had stopped me from killing myself then almost cost me my life. I came into recovery physically sick and emotionally wounded. I had what psychologists describe as a “failure to thrive” syndrome. I was unemployable, homeless and physically and mentally sick.

I needed to change. I needed to heal. For me the twelve steps were a way to change. To become a different person, one that did not need to hide from life in a bottle or a pill.

I know that the wording of the 12 steps and their Christian origins are a stumbling block if not a downright deterrent for many people. I struggled with them as well. However I was afraid I was going to die and so I had to find a way forward. Luckily I was introduced to the idea that the steps actually represent some simple concepts, some basic principles to live by. Perhaps if I could incorporate those principles I could experience, as it states in Appendix II of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, “a personality change sufficient to bring about recovery”.

Searching the Internet you will find many versions of the principles of the 12 steps. The one that I use is below along with a short interpretation of each of them from my perspective. This is not meant to suggest there is only one way to interpret the steps. I offer it to you as a jumping off point for your own reflection.

Step 1
I had to admit that I had problem. That is as simple as it gets.

Step 2
Hearing the stories of others in 12 step meetings I began to think that if this deal could work for them, maybe it could get me out of the hell I was in.

Step 3
Faith is defined as confidence or trust in something or someone unseen. My faith that this would work for me was shaky to say the least but I just committed to trying it.

Step 4
Courage is acting in spite of fear. I was very fearful of this step but I had decided to try. I found it to be enlightening. It was much more than a list of all the things I had done wrong in my life. It helped me to understand who I was, and how my experiences to that point were affecting me.

Step 5
Now that I had a better idea of who I was it was time to let others in. This was a chance to be real with the world.

Step 6
The person that came into the program was a person who needed to use alcohol and other drugs in order to stay sane. I needed to change, to become a different person. I was forced into willingness.

Step 7
When I was getting sober I was advised to use a dictionary to make sure what I thought I knew was true. I found that humility is defined as knowing my place in the world. I came to understand that I have many wonderful qualities, as well some characteristics which cause harm to me and others. Suddenly I realized that I could relax. I realized that being human meant that I was flawed and so was everyone else on this planet. Back to step 6 and the willingness and trying to change.

Step 8
How does making a list of people I had harmed show love? Simple. It demonstrates empathy and compassion for others in recognizing how I may have harmed them.

Step 9
This step suggests that we make amends to those we have harmed. Once again it is about me accepting that I had harmed others. Sometimes I was received well, other time I was told to go to hell. I was taught that this step was not about mending relationships but if they were mended, it is a bonus. The purpose of the step work is for me to alleviate some of the shame and guilt that drove me to drink.

Step 10
Recovery work is hard.  Sometimes it would be so much easier to say fuck it rather than look at my actions. And sometimes I do just that. However, I know that I want to live in a state of contentment and in order to do that I have to try and be right with my fellow humans.

Step 11
For me this step simply means that I should always try to have empathy for the world I live in and the beings I share it with.  And to try to act from a place of compassion for myself and others.

Step 12
I know that not everyone believes as I do, but I believe that the program of AA saved my life. I feel an immense sense of duty to try to make sure that the rooms of AA are an inclusive and healthy place for all who need them. However, I do not believe that this is altruism. This is very much a selfish act. I want to feel good about myself. Being of service in and outside of the fellowship helps me do that.

The next question is, how does a person “work” the steps. Well for me, I try to incorporate the principles of the steps in my daily life. The practice of doing this relies heavily on the principle of the 10th step, Discipline. I have to practise (meaning I do not always succeed) at being honest with myself and others. I have to be willing to look at myself in all situations and judge my behaviour and my underlying motives. I have to accept other people’s humanness.

 And I fail and I try and I fail and I try.

There may be many readers who do not believe they need to change in order to stay sober. There may be many that believe they do not need to “work the steps”. I have no argument with this or take no exception to this approach.

But I needed to find a real “personality change”. Because I am an alcoholic my system just does not handle alcohol the way others can. I cannot take the first drink or snort or smoke or…. Because I will always want more. The sense of ease and comfort that comes from drinking and using is just so enticing for me that if I start I cannot stop. Therefore I needed to find another way to find ease and comfort and I have mostly succeeded.

This is my interpretation of the steps and each person will likely view the principles differently.

As a result of trying to practise these principles in my life, I am sober and have been since Nov 9, 1986.

More importantly I am sober and relatively happy. My life is far from perfect. I do not handle money well and I struggle with personal relationships. In other words, I have troubles in my life like everyone else but I no longer am tormented by my past. I have gained an education and I achieved a degree of success in a career; I don’t own a house but have a nice place to live. I am healthy; I don’t own a car which is great because I walk a great deal which helps keep me in shape. I have discovered my creativity. Nothing I have ever created will likely hang in a gallery but I find peace in doing that work. I discovered a love of nature and with a limited budget spend as much time as I can outdoors pursuing outdoor activities.

My life now is rich and I am sober and able to enjoy it.

12 Responses

  1. life-j says:

    Thanks, this is nice and clear, I like your subtitles to the steps, and you’ve described it all well, especially so that it becomes actions WE can take, rather than idly ask for it from a deity.

    This is probably the main thing that made AA successful where movements before it weren’t: AA HAS a program. Stuff we can do to change, we don’t merely get together for coffee and hope things change.
    Yet yesterday I found myself in a meeting saying, I don’t believe in the philosophy of AA anymore, can’t stand the Big Book, especially can’t stand How it Works.

    If only it could be reduced to these principles, It would all be ok.

  2. Thomas B. says:

    Indeed, Patrica, this is as cogent and concise a description of How and Why AA works for anyone, anywhere, as I have ever read — thanks for your recovery and for your ability to so effectively explicate how AA works for you. It is an exemplary testament that the language within which the principles of AA are communicated does not have to necessarily be an impediment to foster full recovery within AA, which results in a life of service, creativity and fulfillment.

  3. Ted F. says:

    I’ve often wondered how and why I’ve stuck it out in AA. At its most basic, I truly find it repellent. It’s wrong in its ultimate dogmatic conclusions as well as wrong-headed in its philosophy and frightfully odious in its psychology. When I got sober for the first time over 31 years ago, everyone in AA spoke of AA as the “recipe” for life. At that time I would sometimes remind those espousers that I wasn’t a German Chocolate Cake; now people say it’s “the program,” and to the extent I need to run that program, I need to always also keep it mind nowadays that my ambition really isn’t to be a computer ‘bot.

    AA can work, although often it doesn’t, in that a streamline one-sided fanatical discipline with a monomaniacal mindset can achieve through intense concentration a limited goal of keeping you from doing this one bad thing by allowing you, and urging you, to instead do a host of other bad things instead. It’s the kitchen sink method of throwing everything at a problem, but it isn’t good for you overall in any way except that one way of helping you stay sober at the expense of all integrity.

    It’s not that it forces a particular belief system on you that makes it evil, it’s not that it tries to force you to believe in God, a particular god, although, contrary to many of its devotees, it sure does; it’s that it, like all religions, wants to inculcate a particular mindset, a perniciously wrong way of thinking about things, into you about the world, how it works, how people work, and especially about the ultimate things. It compounds this offense by holding as a companion tenet that it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you believe along a certain line and in a certain way. To instill this into you, it, like all religions, abjures you not to think, but instead to merely accept and believe and to only be constantly open to an extent that allows continual reinforcement of that way of thinking that gives rise to that sort of believing. Yes, it asks you to collude in your brainwashing.

    That is so sad as to be almost too depressing, but what’s worse is that AA and its ‘Bots are so blasé about its effect. What does it matter, I’m told, as long as it works for you. Something else might work even better, with the added plus of being in concert with truth — but that’s just waved aside. Truth is presumed, and if it can’t be presumed within a particular mental-box, it is just dismissed as immaterial and trivial.

    Some people take pride in not thinking. In fact, if you are at all aware of politics, you know that abounds. In fact, they boast about it openly, only what they really mean is that they think but only in one sort of restricted, horse-blinders way. They think thinking like this redounds to their credit. It would be worse than just sad if they were true to that dictum as it applied to them. But they aren’t. They do think; they love to think. They just have a closed mind about it. It’s you who shouldn’t think. They fear your thinking. That’s what “faith” will do for you, the only thing that it will do for you, and why it infects all your thinking if you take that approach, and makes you wrong right out of the chute.

    The last ditch goal-line stance, when all else fails, is to remind someone that it’s just an opinion, and everyone has an opinion. For them, that ends the matter. They think that’s all there is — opinions leading to beliefs. For me, an opinion is just the beginning. Looking at it that way, the journey has surprises, wonderful changes of scenery, a sense of a real quest rather than a retreat into the gloomy dark caves of repressive dogma at the slightest indication of the unfamiliar. Existence isn’t static; it’s dynamic. Acknowledging that is freeing.

    They reduce agnostic/atheist AA recovery to just another religious/spiritual belief stance. Just another God/Higher Power as you understand him/it/them. It’s like bald becomes just another hair color.

    So, then, why do I hang around “the program”? Why do I have over 21 years of sobriety in AA, which sobriety is due in part, perhaps in cockeyed part, to AA? I need a community of support. I think we all do, and AA has been the only game in town for a long time. Why am I in the position of being a hypocrite? First, as Dr. Bob put it, it’s the least I can do to repay my debt. I remember, and must never forget, that AA, and its most devoted adherents, saved my life. I owe it, but I especially owe some people in AA who aided and comforted me in my divers and sundry hours of utmost need. Therefore, the very minimum I can do to repay them is to stay open and receptive as best I can, in some way and in my fashion, to them and their views, although, truth be told, when the rubber hits the road this minimum is probably my maximum — at least when it comes to me being tolerant. I stay with AA to keep myself honest.

    It’s also a way of keeping an open mind. They may be onto something with that bilge, as I view it, which issues forth in a never-ending flood – hell or high water; the program may be this working discipline/philosophy of the ages. Who knows – it’s very unlikely – but still… So I hedge my bet to this parsimonious extent. Too bad, they and the program, for the overwhelming part, can’t reciprocate. But fanaticism never does. Nonetheless, it gets lonely sometimes. Here, at this home group I have found cohorts, and I remind myself that we’re all essentially alone anyway. True, no man is an island (he’s merely a peninsula). No “other” can be one’s perfect match when it comes to serious beliefs. However, I’m not just lonely; I’m a lonely alcoholic, and part of that is treatable.

    Moreover, putting up with AA also indicates something good and necessary. That I do stick around and go through my pitiful motions of putting up with what I find ludicrous and abhorrent indicates more than anything else could the fear my alcoholism has instilled in me, a fear that just doesn’t linger at the edges, but permeates and informs my entire being and all my existence. I don’t want to drink again. My history is that I’ve always reverted to drinking. I worked at trying to get and stay sober for at least ten years, going to thousands of meetings during that time, because it finally clicked. I just couldn’t take the pain. It’s never left my memory. Here, in AA there are people dealing in an organized way with that dilemma. This is part of my world, and as an avowed realist, I must acknowledge the universe as it is, not as I would like to pretend it was. For nothing good happens if I don’t stay sober. And to stay sober, I have to have specialized help. “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” That’s my reality, and AA is part of it. I can’t deny it without loss of integrity.

    • life-j says:

      Ted, I like this rant. Both the rant part, since I feel the same way, and the well, I-need-the-program-anyway part, since I do.

      I’m really having a program crisis, though. I still go to 2-4 meetings a week, sometimes I don’t say anything, sometimes, like yesterday I say I don’t believe in the AA philosophy anymore, can’t stand the big book, and especially can’t stand how it works anymore, but I keep coming, because the fellowship works for me. And I need reminders of how I did, and would, handle my drinking. And yes, AA did get me sober, and I did learn how to live. No small feat.

      • Ted F. says:

        I do think that AA can serve an overall positive function. If nothing else, it gives the atheist an adversary and points of contention. But more than that, until there are more agnostic/atheist AA meetings, it gives us a substitute support network. And real friendship and genuine aid can come out of that.

        My point is always that agnosticism/atheism is not just a form of religious or “spiritual” belief system. And that should not be forgotten. Indeed, what that means should be pursued up front, loud and clear, same as those with conventional religious beliefs as to AA, and not minimized or played down.

      • Brien says:

        if it is just the fellowship you need to stay sober you can try Lifering or Smart Recovery

    • Mark C. says:

      Superbly put. From another avowed atheist, and former theist.

  4. daniel says:

    Patricia, thank you so much for bringing the solution to my alcoholism out in technicolor. These principles you described are the only things that have not changed in time, everything else has. They are principles from the inside, the spirit, and if practiced releases one from the desire to drink and then on to lead a productive life. These principles are why AA is described as a spiritual program. Cheers, Daniel.

  5. Helen says:

    Dear Patricia – You have expressed the principles that form the basis of the steps so clearly – best I have read. THANK YOU! I am in awe of how you have used them in our own journey towards thriving.

  6. Jeb B. says:

    Since Bill wrote “The principles we have set down are guides to progress,” immediately after summarizing his “precise directions” in twelve steps (meaning courses of action) which end with “practice these principles in all our affairs,” I fail to understand how a list of words such as these can be considered the principles of AA or even the “principles behind the steps.” At the same time, since everything is open to interpretation (see page 191 in As Bill Sees It), it is easy to see these as “perfect ideals” that continuing practice of the 12 Step process can produce, and “against which we can measure our progress.” That said, I appreciate Patricia’s explanation of this list of perfect ideals, but for me it takes at least trying to follow the process beginning on page 60 with “Being convinced, we were at Step Three…” Of course, this is supposedly but the founders’ experience, strength and hope.

  7. Tommy H says:

    Good stuff, Patricia, thanks.

  8. Mary R says:

    Thanks so much, Patricia, for such a clear and succinct explanation of the Steps. Be warned that I intend to share them (with attribution, of course). This morning I spoke at a women’s retreat held at a church camp. My topic was Conscious Contact (Step 11). During the following discussion, a woman commented that she had always been afraid of atheists in AA, but no longer felt threatened. I was happy she felt relieved, but shocked at her fear. We have a lot of work to do.

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