A Brief Overview of The Big Book and 12 Steps of AA
Disclaimer: Work all the steps, in order, with a person that has done likewise if you choose a 12 Step Program as your path to recovery.
For people new to recovery or those exploring recovery, (#sobercurious) the Big Book & the 12 Steps can be overwhelming. What do they mean? How do they work? Who wrote these? Why do they matter? Which steps are most important? Do they actually work?
Those are all logical and reasonable questions. In its most basic understanding, the 12 Steps are designed to connect you with a power greater than yourself that removes the obsession to drink and use drugs.
The basic text, the Big Book, was written in 1938-1939 and the language reflects the time period. AA is not a religious organization, but there are multiple references to god with a capital G and spirituality. Do not let this deter you from finding out what the steps mean for you. We think you'll find that the fellowship is pretty open and roomy when it comes to personal beliefs.
Here is our take on the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and what they mean:
We Admitted We Were Powerless Over Alcohol—that Our Lives Had Become Unmanageable
Let's look at Step 1, "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable." The big hangup for many newcomers is the idea of powerlessness or a "lack of ability, influence, or power." Early in our drinking careers we could stop or moderate, sometimes for weeks, months or years at a time. For the "real alcoholic," over any given period of time, we get worse, never better.
A quick run down memory lane should help you figure out if you have been or presently are powerless. Did you ever do something while drunk or high that you wouldn't have done otherwise? Has it impacted your health? Relationships? Career? Family? Friends? Finances? "If that be the case, you may be suffering from an illness which only a spiritual experience will conquer." This brings us to the next step.
Came to Believe That a Power Greater Than Ourselves Could Restore Us to Sanity
Step 2 says, "Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." For those of us that come into the rooms of AA/NA/CA with a sense of religion or spirituality, this isn't a particularly big hurdle. But what about those of us with a more atheistic or agnostic world view?
There is an entire book that could be written about Step 2, but essentially it's only a matter of being willing to believe in ANY power greater than yourself. That is all that is required to make a beginning.
Made a Decision to Turn Our Will and Our Lives Over to the Care of God as We Understood Him
Now let's examine Step 3. "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him." We can say with assurance and confidence that nearly all of us made this decision with very little understanding of what a Higher Power meant to us, our recovery, and eventually our lives. But it doesn't really matter. If the work (Steps) is done properly then they will become intertwined with your daily life. We have room to make mistakes and later on clear cut directions on how to address them. Again, this step is about action.
Made a Searching and Fearless Moral Inventory of Ourselves
Step 4 is about cleaning house and removing the resentments we feel have contributed to our failure, specifically, people, places, and institutions. This is not about the other person. It's about understanding what our role had been. Sometimes this is hard, especially when we're convinced that the other person has caused more harm than you, but nonetheless, "we take the bit in our teeth."
Resentment kills more alcoholics and addicts than anything else. The key themes in Step 4 are thoroughness and honesty. We set our resentments down on paper as a list. Who, why, and what did these resentments affect?
I'm resentful at John L. because he talks my girlfriend all the time and talks shit about me to my coworkers. This affects my pride, pocketbook, personal relations, and sex relations.
The Big Book gives direction on how to complete a 4th Step but here is what it doesn't say. There is no such thing as a perfect 4th Step and we will absolutely do more than one, but here is how to know if we're making progress. Was our most recent 4th Step shorter than the previous one? If we can say yes, we are well on our way.
Admitted to God, to Ourselves, and to Another Human Being the Exact Nature of Our Wrongs
Having made our personal inventory, what shall we do about it?
Step 5 can be a tough one. We've just admitted to ourselves - put down on paper - that our problems were of our own making and now you want us to tell another human being?! (#HardPass) This isn't as daunting as it may seem and we have a lot of room here. Step 5 is about humility and you don't have to do a 5th Step with your sponsor (although many of us choose to do so.) If you are religious, then a representative of your faith is perfectly fine. If you want to tell your best friend, that works too. Remember this is about shining a light on the darkness and fears in our lives so that we can recover. It is not about beating ourselves up over the past. Later on we will try and set right the wrongs we have done, using this list as inspiration, and learn to let go of the things we can't change.
Were Entirely Ready to Have God Remove All These Defects of Character
After we have taken the action of sharing our story with another person you will have ascertained in a rough way what defects of character are blocking you from being of service to others and fully enjoying a relationship with your Higher Power. We are getting ready to ask that power to take away these difficulties.
Humbly Asked Him to Remove Our Shortcomings
"My Creator (High Power, God etc.), I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad. I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows. Grant me strength as I go out from here, to do your bidding." This is the 7th Step prayer. The wording is entirely optional, remember this was published in 1939, but the idea is the same. We are asking God to remove everything that is blocking us from being of good use to our family, job, spouse, partner, children, etc. For many of us we have begun to have a spiritual experience.
Made a List of All Persons We Had Harmed, and Became Willing to Make Amends to Them All.
This list is the output of what we wrote in our 4th Step. If we've done our work honestly, then we will have examined and begun to see our part. This is what makes up our list of amends. Sometimes we are still too sore to go to the person that we are certain has done more wrong than we have. Pray about it - the answers will come if your house is in order. Other times it makes zero sense to make an amends especially if it will accomplish little or resurface troubles of the past. The guiding rule is that we remain willing and able to make these amends as the opportunity presents itself and don't shrink with fear over how that person might react.
Made Direct Amends to Such People Wherever Possible, Except When to Do So Would Injure Them or Others
For most people, when it comes to making amends, they fall into one of two categories. They either can't wait to admit their faults and rebuild the relationship or they avoid it at all costs our of fear. Fear of retribution, adverse reaction, loss of position etc. Neither of these are correct and the book gives concrete instructions on how to tactfully go about making amends.
"Good judgement, a careful sense if timing, courage, and prudence - these are the qualities we shall need when we take Step 9." - 12 Steps & 12 Traditions
The Maintenance Steps
Before moving into the remaining steps we want to point out that these are colloquially known as the "Maintenance Steps." It is through the continued practice of taking inventory, praying and meditating and helping others that keep us safe and protected from drugs and alcohol.
Continued to Take Personal Inventory and When We Were Wrong Promptly Admitted It.
The 10th Step helps ensure that we continue to clean our side of the street and stay out of the business of resentment. The book posits a few question that we often will address in our evening prayers:
When we retire at night, we constructively review our day. Were we resentful?
Were we selfish?
Were we dishonest?
Were we afraid?
Do we owe an apology?
Have we kept something to ourselves which should be discussed with another person at once?
Were we kind and loving towards all?
What could we have done better?
Were we thinking of ourselves most of the time?
Or were we thinking of what we could do for others, of what we could pack into the stream of life?
While many of us choose to take written inventory, it is not a requirement. There are also apps that do it as well such as MySpiritualToolkit, which can be equally as effective. The point is that we are in touch with what we are giving and taking in this world.
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
When we pray we are talking to our Higher Power. We are asking for good, orderly direction and intuitive thoughts on our life and how they would have us live it. When we meditate we are listening for the answer. Many of us have found that guided meditations are a simple way to stay focused and get started.
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
This is the primary purpose of the Fellowship and the greatest gift in sobriety - the ability to help others. Once a psychic change has occurred, once we've had a spiritual experience and recovered from drugs and alcohol, we carry our message to those that are still sick. This will ensure immunity from relapse. We have yet to meet an addict or alcoholic who was taking continued inventory, praying and meditating, and working with others relapse.
For many of us, when we came into recovery, we were inundated with what the book describes as the bedevilments:
"We were having trouble with personal relationships, we couldn't control our emotional natures, we were a prey to misery and depression, we couldn't make a living, we had a feeling of uselessness, we were full of fear, we were unhappy, we couldn't seem to be of real help to other people."
We have found that by grounding our programs of recovery in the work many of the issues we experienced while drinking/drugging seemingly vanished. Do we have problems and issues? Of course! And some of us to a considerable extent, but our experience shows that the manageability of those problems is significantly easier when we're sober.