An Alternative Approach to the 12 Steps

By Ken Wells - 02/09/2021


Series One: Blog One Hundred

“We took the position that AA was not the final word on treatment; that I might be only the first word.” — Bill W.

The 12-step program is legendary to the emancipation of literally millions of addicts. Dr. Bob and Bill W. are iconic examples of the transformation that those who embrace the Steps and live by the principles of the twelve steps experience. When you are lost in the woods and find a map that will take you to a place of safety, it makes sense that you would treat the map as Holy Grail. Working through the 12 steps has provided the liberation that millions have sought from the junkie worm that has destroyed their lives. I am one of them.

There are many alternative treatments. Gabor Mate insists on not asking why the addiction, but rather why the pain?” Exploration into attachment issues conflicting with authenticity creates confusion and uncertainty about self-identity that is often numbed out through addiction. There are many helpful approaches to resolving the inner pain that underlies addictive behavior. Essentially, no approaches undermine or are unsupportive of the 12-step approach to living. Debate about the efficacy of the 12 steps helping to overcome addiction rage on in many corners of discussion. Essentially, the 12-step program embraces the need for community. It was never intended to be Holy Writ— only a map out of hell.

The famous testimony from Alcoholics Anonymous cofounder Bill Wilson—who was describing the night he paced back and forth in a lobby of a hotel in Akron, Ohio, craving for a drink— emphasized the power of mutuality. He said the impulse to drink was pushed out of his mind with the idea that “No, I don’t need a drink—I need another alcoholic.” This thought soon led him to connecting with Dr. Bob Smith, another alcoholic. Wilson later stated, “I knew I needed this alcoholic as much as he needed me.” This need for mutuality comes from common shared flaws and weakness. It creates a powerful oneness. This power is nurtured in a 12-step group through community spirit.

The pedagogy of 12-step instruction was intended to be a lifestyle didactic. It is understandable that an addict who has made a million failed promises, who now faces one last effort to save self through the 12 steps, would become hyper vigilant toward completing each step in the way they were meant to be done. In this mindset, each step completed becomes a major milestone of achievement. For many, when all the steps are completed there is need for a quiet or even not so quiet celebration. The Steps can be powerful in the sense of radical change.

It is prevalent for 12-step work to be shrouded with fear and desperation. There is a mindset that with so much at stake, getting the work done right becomes paramount in importance. The idea is to have a sponsor lead you through this process. The essential role of a sponsor is to get the sponsee through the steps in a timely manner. Sometime, sponsors get off track and practice counseling over prioritizing step completion. This can be detrimental to the addict in need of working the steps. There are a myriad of workbooks and strategies that a sponsor might utilize as a tool to help the addict complete the step work. Usually, a sponsor will use the tool that helped him/her get through the steps.

Some addicts new to recovery look at the 12 steps thinking, “Ok, 12 steps in 12 days or 12 months and I will be good to go, right?” It becomes a sort of checking the box mentality. Other challenges I notice around step work is that addicts can focus on doing each step with emphasis on doing it complete, thorough and exhaustive. In this way when I am done I can say I have completed the steps so what’s next? It’s almost as if the step work might be the long-lost magic cure that I have been looking for.

Many addicts become mired in various steps. For them, working through a given step is like trying to work out of a pit of molasses. They become distracted with life and other priorities. Many addicts never complete the steps beyond step 4—really beyond step 3. It is common for addicts to wallow and wrestle with step 1, particularly when a sponsor is vague and not intent about helping the addict beginning in recovery to complete the step. Then there is the famous back log and gridlock of step 4. Some sponsors and many addicts drown in preparation and working step 4. I listen to addicts say they and their sponsors want to make sure they deep dive and do the step thoroughly and correctly. I wonder how can you do it wrong if your goal is to recognize the imperfect behaviors that have screwed you up. Whether that is one, two or a couple of dozen, each recognition is a step 4 completion. Then there is the infamous step 8 and 9 process that creates a bottleneck and impasse. If you know you hurt someone circle back and do an amends . . . make it right. When things get complicated put those on the shelf and make the amends that make sense. Step 8 and 9 are action steps. Don’t dilly dally around navel gazing at the complications of a difficult relationship breach when there are many past and present that you can make amends. Making amends provides a positive force for effective program work. It fuels recovery vitality. It is meant to be a lifestyle.

Step work is intended to be ongoing throughout an addict’s lifespan. You never truly complete the steps until your last breath. Would a religious person conclude that they now have read, understood and applied all the principles that could be achieved from the Bible, Torah or Koran? Rather, the aspiration is to make the 12 steps a lifestyle. For example, with step 1 once you share your addiction history, you need to review your history on an ongoing basis. At some point, it wouldn’t be helpful to keep saying the same words about your history. There are many avenues to explore step 1. You can begin to explore themes such as deprivation, entitlement, arrogance, inauthenticity, shame, abuses, insecurity, etc. Exploring how these themes impacted your addiction behavior is a powerful way to create healing from your story. It never ends. After many years of therapy and 12-step work, I still share my story through theme work. I have shared my story over 1500+ times and believe that my story is the most powerful healing story I have ever known.

The idea of thorough completion of each step is less important than establishing step work as an everyday lifestyle experience. The ebb and flow of everyday living requires that we go through the progression of step work on our feet as we engage each life experience. Being aware of how life story unfolds (step 1), humbly acknowledging a life force (step 2), acceptance and surrender of life as it is (step 3), being vulnerable about personal shortcomings (step 4), telling on myself (step 5), making amends (steps 8, 9) and spreading the spirit of service (step 12) are commonplace experiences that utilize the ongoing dynamic of 12-step work. Embracing the dynamic of 12-step living is crucial and takes priority over the attempt to get each step right when working the steps.

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