How do the Twelve Steps help?

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The Twelve Steps have been a key part in millions of personal recovery stories around the world for decades now.

Originally devised in the 1930s to help alcoholics, they have since been adapted to help with all addictions, including behavioral addictions.

Increasingly, they are also being used to help with many other mental health problems. This includes codependency, anxiety, depression, stress and bipolar disorder.

It’s estimated that the Twelve Steps to at least some degree are used by 75 percent of treatment centers.

What are the Twelve Steps?

They are a set of guiding principles for life that provide a course of action for recovery from addiction, compulsion and other unhealthy behaviors. The Twelve Steps are a series of positive measures that anyone can do.

They were written in 1938 by Bill Wilson, an alcoholic New York stockbroker. He had discovered that by going through a certain process and helping other alcoholics he could stay sober himself.

Up until then, alcoholics were seen by even the best professionals as having an incurable condition. It would frequently only end in death.

The Twelve Steps were published a year later in 1939 in the book called Alcoholics Anonymous. More commonly referred to as the “Big Book”, it is one of the world’s bestselling recovery books – having sold more than 30 million copies worldwide.

In fact, it is most likely the most read recovery book in history as excerpts of it are read aloud at most AA meetings today. AA meetings are in about 180 countries around the world. There are an estimated two million members.

This is how the Twelve Steps were originally written:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Twelve Steps for all

When the Twelve Steps are adapted, the words “alcohol” and “alcoholics” as they were originally written are replaced by the addiction or problem being treated.

So, for instance, Step 1 for Overeaters Anonymous reads: “We admitted we were powerless over food –  that our lives had become unmanageable.”

There has been the birth of dozens of Twelve Steps groups since AA started in the late 1930s. These include Al-Anon (offering a program of recovery for family members and friends of alcoholics, formed in 1951); Narcotics Anonymous (in 1953); Gamblers Anonymous (in 1957);  Overeaters Anonymous (in 1960); Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (in 1976); Debtors Anonymous (in 1971); Emotions Anonymous (in 1971); Cocaine Anonymous (in 1982); Workaholics Anonymous (in 1983); Co-Dependents Anonymous (in 1986); Crystal Meth Anonymous (in 1994); and Internet & Technology Addicts Anonymous (in 2009).

An increasing number of people are also finding that going through the Twelve Steps can help with many life problems.

In fact, even as far back as the early 1950s when AA’s Twelve Steps And Twelve Traditions book was published, Bill Wilson wrote: “Many people, nonalcoholics, report that as a result of the practice of AA’s Twelve Steps, they have been able to meet other difficulties of life. They think that the Twelve Steps can mean more than sobriety for problem drinkers. They see in them a way to happy and effective living for many, alcoholic or not.”

How do the Twelve Steps work?

Many people who have gone through the Twelve Steps will say something along the lines of: it doesn’t matter how they work – what really matters is that they do work, so long as you work them.

Perhaps one reason for this is that although the Twelve Steps are simple, that does not necessarily make them easy. Also, it is difficult to explain exactly why they work.

Briefly, each particular Step could be said to have a theme. These can be seen as:

  • Honesty
  • Hope
  • Surrender
  • Courage
  • Integrity
  • Acceptance
  • Humility
  • Love
  • Responsibility and forgiveness
  • Discipline and maintenance
  • Awareness
  • Spiritual awakening and helping others

The Twelve Steps can also be interpreted as:

  • Admitting there is a problem. So no more denial – and as a consequence of that problem, admitting that life has become unmanageable.
  • Getting hope that there is a solution to the problem.
  • Vowing to commit to this solution – by getting out of the way and handing over to a power greater than yourself that can be anything you can believe in. This includes such as nature, the universe, God, or a group of other people in recovery.
  • Being totally honest to discover your weaknesses and excessive character traits, which you can begin to see is behind a great deal of your problems.
  • Becoming fearless enough to read out all your secrets and resentments to someone you trust. This helps remove feelings of anger, guilt and shame.
  • Having discovered what your weaknesses and excessive character traits are, you request whatever you consider to be a power greater than yourself to help take these away.
  • Finding humility to realize that your manner of living was clearly not working.
  • Making a thorough list of everyone you have caused physical, spiritual, financial or emotional harm to in any way during your entire lifetime.
  • Taking responsibility for this by asking – face to face wherever possible – for forgiveness (unless that would cause any further harm to the person or someone else).
  • Consider on a daily basis how you are behaving. If you’ve made a mistake or behaved in the wrong manner in any way, admit it and make amends as soon as possible.
  • Pray and meditate every day to develop a connection with whatever you are focussing on as a greater power than yourself.
  • Live in a manner that avoids slipping back into former ways – and help anyone you see struggling in life as you once were.

Step Twelve states emphatically that if anyone goes through the Twelve Steps they will experience a “spiritual awakening”. This is difficult to define but can be said to mean living through one’s true spirit or gut instinct without fear.

It could be seen as living by love rather than through fear. It means feeling protected in life – and being capable of protecting others. Life becomes manageable and with meaning, so consequently the person will know happiness too.

The Twelve Steps are usually undertaken with the guidance of someone who has been through the Twelve Steps themselves. There are aspects of them that you cannot do alone or without the help of someone who knows how to do them.

As part of our treatment, we often introduce the Twelve Steps to people staying with us. But we also realize the Twelve Steps are not for everyone – and there are other treatment options that we can offer as part of the personalized treatment here.

Whether you or someone you care about is struggling with alcoholism, addiction, depression, anxiety or any other mental health problem we can help. Call us today for a friendly chat.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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