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  • Writer's pictureYANA

I Tried the 12 Steps – It Didn’t Work

We’ve heard this from so many people over the years it’s crazy. The more a person is exposed to recovery, but fails to recover, the more they grow to resent the 12 Steps. Most say, “I tried the 12 Steps and they didn’t work” but almost none say, “I worked the 12 Steps and they didn’t work.” There is a fundamental difference between those two statements.

Ask any person claiming they don't work the following question, “Did you open the Big Book at its title page and read through to page 164 and do everything it asked you to do in between?” Nearly all, if they’re willing to be honest with themselves will say, “No.”

How does this happen?

Bad Sponsorship

Bad sponsorship occurs when people who weren’t addict or alcoholics to begin with, who have never worked the Steps with a Sponsor, decide to take an addict or alcoholic through the work. They believe they're being helpful but in reality it kills the real alcoholic or addict.

Perhaps, there is a better illustration. Imagine trying to perform open-heart surgery, but your only frame of reference was limited to what you’ve seen on Grey’s Anatomy. It probably wouldn’t turn out too well for the patient!

Helping others is the cornerstone for any person in recovery that want's to recover, but the Big Book is clear; we cannot transmit something we haven’t got.

Opinions, Not Fact

If what is being shared in a meeting can’t be reconciled with the first 164 pages of the Big Book take it with a grain of salt. More often than not it’s a persons well-intentioned opinion. For decades we lacked the data to determine the overall efficacy of AA as a program of recovery. That has changed.

The most recent research suggests that people engaged in a 12 Step program of recovery “Not only initiate but sustain abstinence and remission over the long term,” said the review’s lead author, John F. Kelly, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Recovery Research Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital. The best way to ensure that you hear a message that is based on our shared truths as recovered addicts and alcoholics is to find a literature-based meeting, often called “Big Book Studies.”


This always rubs people the wrong way, but if you’ve ever sat in a dimly lit room, listening to someone rattle off a litany of complaints and grievances, you’re not alone. For the people that are new to recovery or just coming back in our personal problems are of zero help.

Are these important to talk about? Yes, absolutely. That’s what the Fellowship (other AA members), sponsorship, and therapy are for. That is not what a 12 Step meeting is for. A properly formatted meeting stays true to our Primary Purpose, "to carry our message to the alcoholic/addict who still suffers." What is the Message? The 12 Steps!

War Stories

We can’t even remember our own war stories, so what makes us think that someone else will? There are two times that your story is important; one is when you’ve been asked to share your experience, strength, and hope in a meeting, i.e. a Speaker Meeting and two is when you’re trying to help someone else (Step 12.) They’ll need to know that you understand how they feel, what they’re going through, but most importantly how you found a way out.

As a Fellowship, we could all take valuable lessons from the lumps and low-points Dr. Bob and Bill W. experienced in the earliest days of developing AA. A 12 Step Program, at its core, is a spiritual program of action designed to connect you with a power greater than yourself that can restore you to sanity and remove the obsession to drink and use drugs. For most newcomers, this sounds like a bunch of pseudo-religious, New Age, weirdness, but that's where good Sponsorship is of the most value.

So, here’s the deal. If you’re sitting around saying, “I tried the 12 Steps and it didn’t work,” really look back at your experience. Did you read from the title page through 164? Did you get a sponsor? Did you finish your 4th Step? How many amends did you make? What did you do to help others? Remember what Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.” This is just as applicable to a young Padawan as it is to someone new to recovery. Before writing off or condemning the 12 Steps wholesale, look at your experience honestly. Ask your higher power to set aside everything you think you know about yourself, the disease, the Big Book, AA and the Steps so that you can approach them with an open mind and have a new experience.


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