How the Twelve Steps have evolved

Group therapy session sitting in a circle. Sunbeam background. Selective focus.

The Twelve Steps are widely considered to be the world’s most successful recovery program. For helping people with addictions, they have proven their effectiveness for more than 80 years now.

There are dozens of different groups using the Twelve Steps – to help with everything from addictions to shopping and gambling to overeating and sex. Even just considering Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), presently it has around two million members in 180 countries.

It is astounding to consider that it started with two alcoholics to grow so widely. In doing so, it has saved and turned around millions of lives.

From its modest beginnings, the Twelve Steps continue to evolve. Now, an increasing number of people are realizing that it is a recovery program that can also help with many emotional and mental health issues.

What are the Twelve Steps?

The 5 sure-fire signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse

They are guiding principles set out in twelve distinct stages to a course of action for recovery. These need to be run through with the guidance of someone who has already been through them for their own recovery. 

If it’s done through one of the Twelve-Step groups this person is called a sponsor. They are basically a guide or mentor.

As summarized by the APA (American Psychological Association), the Twelve Steps involve:

•     Admitting that one cannot control one’s alcoholism, addiction, or compulsion.

•     Coming to believe in a Higher Power that can give strength.

•     Examining past errors with the help of a sponsor (experienced member).

•     Making amends for these errors.

•     Learning to live a new life with a new code of behavior.

•     Helping others who suffer from the same alcoholism, addictions, or compulsions.

Many people due to their experiences and beliefs are initially put off because there’s mention of a “Higher Power”. But many atheists and agnostics have successfully worked through the Twelve Steps and gained their benefits.

A Higher Power can be anything the person believes, just so long as it is something that has more power than they have on their own. Frequently, this is their Twelve-Step group, the universe, nature, a creative intelligence, or it can of course be God.

How did the Twelve Steps develop?

In 1931, businessman Rowland Hazard sought treatment for alcoholism with leading psychiatrist Carl Jung in Switzerland. But after a year, Hazard started drinking again.

Jung told Hazard his case, as with other alcoholics, was virtually hopeless – and that his only hope might be a life-changing “vital spiritual experience”. So Hazard returned to the US where he found an Oxford Group meeting.

The Oxford Group was founded by Christian missionary Frank Buchman who believed that the root of all our personal problems was fear and selfishness. With the group’s help, Hazard stayed sober by gaining the spiritual experience that Jung had suggested was his only chance.

A spiritual conversion

The Oxford Group’s experience was that a new convert needed to win over others to preserve their own conversion. So, Hazard brought a man called Ebby Thacher to the group.

In keeping with the conversion suggestion, Thacher contacted his old school friend Bill Wilson, a New York stockbroker with a severe drinking problem. Although what Thacher said to Wilson made sense, when Thacher left, Wilson continued to drink excessively. 

Back in the hospital once more, Wilson was visited by Thacher and this time something clicked in him. After he was released, Wilson started meeting with other ex-drinking Oxford Group people.

After some sobriety, Wilson sensed he was going to drink again – unless he tried to help another alcoholic. He phoned a man he found out had a drinking problem called Dr. Bob Smith.

Both men realized they could stay sober if they sought to help other alcoholics. They found others and started regular group meetings.

By 1939, those at these various meetings numbered about 100 in total. They set down their guidelines and experiences in a book called Alcoholics Anonymous and nicknamed the “Big Book” which was mostly written by Wilson.

So this burgeoning group had a name and Alcoholics Anonymous was formed. In the Big Book, the Twelve Steps were written out for the first time.

Twelve Steps for “happy and effective living”

Stop alcohol concept. Person refuse to drink alcohol.

As well as spreading and being translated around the world, the Twelve Steps have been adapted and adopted by a great many people without a drinking problem. The first new group was Al-Anon, started in 1951 by the partners of AA’s recovering alcoholics.

Those partners realized they had something in common: perhaps it was an addiction to their partners – with all their previous calamities. They had also seen that not only had the Twelve Steps helped keep their partners away from alcohol, but it had also transformed them in a completely positive way.

Two years later in 1953 Narcotics Anonymous (NA) was formed. By then, Twelve Steps initiator Bill Wilson had already noted something remarkable. 

With the publication of AA’s guidebook to the Twelve Steps, Twelve Steps And Twelve Traditions, Wilson wrote in its Foreword: “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.”

Twelve Steps evolution

Also in the 1950s, the Minnesota Model was developed from the Twelve Steps. Sometimes called the “abstinence model, it was first used in a state mental hospital.

It sought to increase the Twelve Steps’ efficacy by including health care and psychiatry. By doing this it looked to reach more people too.

Soon after NA’s formation followed Gamblers Anonymous in 1957. Then, to name a few only, came Overeaters Anonymous (1960); Debtors Anonymous (1971); Emotions Anonymous (1971); Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (1976); Workaholics Anonymous (1983); Co-Dependents Anonymous/CoDA (1986); Internet & Technology Addicts Anonymous (2009); and Racists Anonymous (2015).

But there are many more Twelve Steps groups including Clutterers Anonymous; Crystal Meth Anonymous; Eating Disorders Anonymous; Food Addicts Anonymous; Heroin Anonymous; Love Addicts Anonymous; Cocaine Anonymous; Marijuana Anonymous; Neurotics Anonymous; Nar-Anon; Nicotine Anonymous; Pills Anonymous; Sexaholics Anonymous; Survivors of Incest Anonymous; and Underearners Anonymous.

Twelve Steps and the Hero’s Journey

Group therapy support

Increasingly, it is being seen that the Twelve Steps can help anyone suffering from all manner of emotional and mental health problems. More people than ever are interested in them.

It has been noted that one of the reasons for this is that the Twelve Steps take those doing them on their own personal  “Hero’s Journey”. The Hero’s Journey is a phenomenal storyline concept that nearly all of Hollywood’s most popular movies and the world’s bestselling novels are based on.

Hero’s Journey stories are about the main character who because of significant difficulties is able to discover their inner power. It’s their hero inside that was always inside them – but they didn’t know how to find it until their misfortune inspired them to find it once again.

This mirrors what a great many people need to do who are struggling with addiction and/or emotional and mental health issues. Recovery means: “a return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength.”

Even some people without any struggles have started to look into the Twelve Steps as a way to boost energy. Also, to increase their meaning and overall happiness in life.

Where can I do the Twelve Steps?

As well as going to Twelve Steps group meetings – such as AA, NA or whatever is suitable for someone’s particular problem – and finding a sponsor to guide someone through the Twelve Steps, there are a growing number of therapists, counselors, and coaches that are starting to utilize the Twelve Steps. 

Many people also find the Twelve Steps in a recovery center.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, in its National Survey of Substance Abuse Treatment Services from 2013, the Twelve Steps philosophy is made use of by 74 percent of treatment centers. A 2014 survey by AA discovered that more than 30 percent of its members were introduced to AA by a treatment center.

As part of our 30-90 Day Personalized Treatment Program at Tikvah Lake we go through Step One, Two and Three of the Twelve Steps. Our friendly experienced team has treated people with all types of mental health problems.

Call us today to have a chat about how we can help you or someone you love.

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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