What is the 12 Step Program?

The 12 Step Recovery Program

One cannot talk about recovery without discussion about the 12 Step Program.  Even casual observers are familiar with the term. In essence, it is a set of tenets and guidelines to help move people through the process of recovery. In case you’re curious, here are the 12 steps.

  1. We admitted we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe 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 understand God.
  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 God 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 God, praying only for the knowledge of God’s 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 other addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

History & Origin

Bill Wilson was a successful stockbroker on Wall Street early on in the 20th century. Alcohol addiction ended his career and he became determined to turn his life around. For help, he turned to medical treatment at Towns Hospital in New York City, but was unsuccessful in his quest for sobriety.

A friend of Wilson’s named Edwin Thacher (who was known in Alcoholics Anonymous circles as Ebby T.)  once spoke with Wilson about the Oxford Group’s road map to self-improvement and how it helped him quit drinking. This helped to convince Wilson of the effectiveness of this approach. Little did he know that the 12 step recovery program would come to be the backbone of many a recovery program.

The Oxford Group, a Christian organization founded in the early 20th century, had based its core principles in spirituality, honesty and unselfishness. Wilson declined an invitation to join the group, but he eventually conceded the possible existence of a higher power.

Soon after re-entering treatment at Towns Hospital in December 1934, Wilson experienced a spiritual awakening that changed his life and made him give up drinking for good. Shortly thereafter, in 1935, he co-founded AA with Dr. Bob Smith, a physician in Akron, Ohio, who also struggled with alcoholism.

In 1939, Wilson published The Big Book, which details the process to help recover from alcohol addiction.

AA uses the 12-step formula outlined in The Big Book. This plan asks members to take responsibility for improving their behaviors and assisting others in their recovery. Ever since the AA began, many other self-help groups have incorporated the 12 Steps into their program.

Today, support groups use these principles to address addictions to cocaine, crystal meth, heroin, marijuana and prescription painkillers.

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Religion in Rehabilitation Program

Most 12-step programs traditionally follow a spiritual path to recovery that is not necessarily affiliated with a particular religion. Terms such as “God” or “Higher Power” may be used in the recovery process, while leaving it up to you to define what these terms mean. The basic concept is that people in recovery look to a higher power to help give them the strength and determination to remain sober.

Some people don’t identify as being spiritual, however and find that they are most comfortable in a program that resonates better with their own set of beliefs. It’s academic though, so long as the recovering person submits to a higher power.

One alternative for those not comfortable with having a spiritual component to recovery is to choose a non-12-step recovery program , such as SMART Recovery.

The 12 Traditions

Carrying the concept of the 12 step recovery program a bit further, there is something called “the 12 Traditions.” These speak to the members of Alcoholics Anonymous as a group, unlike the steps, which are focused on the individual. These traditions are defined in the Big Book, the main governing literature of Alcoholics Anonymous. Most 12 step program groups have also adapted the 12 traditions for their own recovery plans.

As a reminder, here are the 12 traditions:

  1. Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon AA unity.
  2. For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority–a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
  3. The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.
  4. Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole.
  5. Each group has but one primary purpose–to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
  6. An AA group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the AA name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
  7. Every AA group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
  8. Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever nonprofessional, but our service centers may employ special workers.
  9. AA, as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
  10. Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
  11. Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.
  12. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.

The Science Behind the 12 Step Recovery Program

The effectiveness of the 12 step recovery program has been studied by many professionals and academics. Their findings generally agree that the science behind it is sound as evidenced by the results.

There are some key elements that explain why a 12 step program is so appealing.

For starters, treatment providers have long expressed the wish for an easily accessible and affordable community-based resource that can supplement professional treatment by providing social and emotional support. This includes establishing what they call a “holding environment.” Such a resource would provide clients with opportunities to consolidate and sustain the gains they’ve made, both between counseling sessions and after the conclusion of treatment.

This holding environment is designed to provide a bit of a safe haven to those in recovery. This is necessary because no matter how high quality the behavioral health/addiction treatment services provided to clients might be; no matter how impressive the improvements people present in session are, it can be difficult at best to maintain those gains in the face of the stresses and challenges embedded in many family, social, neighborhood, and work environments.

The reality is that people naturally and appropriately spend much more of their daily lives in these unhealthy environments than they ever will in treatment. The functional improvements clients make are mitigated if not undone through contact with these frequently counter-therapeutic influences.

This increases the potential risk for a relapse of symptoms, or unhealthy behaviors—which for anyone struggling to recover from active addiction includes drug use.

Any 12 step recovery program relies on the recovering individual to take solace and refuge behind the protections of the group. It is this support network that helps those in recovery lean on not just guidelines, but support of others who are sharing their struggles.

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Refuge from Temptation

For people seeking recovery from addiction, a 12 step recovery program can provide a holding environment that gives shelter from the heavy weather of life, especially in early recovery, and supplies the support needed to withstand its most extreme storms. The public stigma associated with addiction taints its sufferers, magnifying existing feelings of inadequacy. The longer and harder someone uses mind- and mood-altering drugs, the more of his or her true self goes into hiding and remains hidden. Active addiction takes people further and further away from who they really are. The injuries addicts inflict upon themselves and others multiply, and deep down they fear inherently undeserving of the acceptance of others.

Consequently, for most, the genuinely warm welcome, empathetic understanding, and unconditional positive regard experienced in a 12 step program is emotionally corrective. It offers a sanctuary that encourages addicts to take the healthy risks intrinsic to learning new and different ways of relating to oneself and others, and grow beyond the limitations of that which is familiar. It changes how they see themselves, opening the door to self-acceptance.

If others can accept us for who we are, even after baring the most carefully concealed parts of our personas and the worst things we’ve ever done (with a sponsor and in twelve-step meetings), then maybe, just maybe, we are worthy of acceptance and can begin to practice self-acceptance. Self-acceptance is essential in order to heal from the ravages of addiction.

Get Help

At The District Recovery Community, we believe in the tenets of the 12 step recovery program. We’re committed to your recovery and are ready to help you become sober. Contact us today.

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