By Matt Shedd
The Host of Stories of Recovery Podcast
“I truly believe that the Twelve Step program (also known as Alcoholics Anonymous or A.A.) will go down in history as America’s greatest and most unique contribution to the history of spirituality.”
A Common Solution
Many of the family members and community volunteers associated with our program are introduced to the Twelve Steps for the first time by witnessing our clients work through them. These onlookers are frequently surprised by the undeniable power of the Steps. Sometimes they even decide that they could benefit from engaging with them as well.
“Whether substance abuse is a problem or not, many people who sincerely engage with the simple process laid out in the Twelve Steps seem to be able to begin addressing issues that have been troubling them for years.”
As one of our community volunteers and participants in our family program stated: “We are all in recovery from something.”
Similarly, we consistently hear from surprised clients in early recovery that they never expected the Steps to have such far-reaching implications for their lives beyond their drinking and drug use.
As a treatment center founded in 1975, we have seen these stories play out time and again in various ways. Regardless of personal background, or whether substance abuse is a problem or not, many people who sincerely engage with the simple process laid out in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (The Big Book) seem to be able to begin addressing issues that have been troubling them for years.
How can such a simple system, developed by a group of newly sober alcoholics in the 1930s, provide such wide-ranging benefits to such a diverse group of people?
Brief History of the Twelve Steps
The Twelve Steps have a humble origin story. They were not published by a group of religious leaders, psychologists, or social scientists, but a man named Bill Wilson, who had worked in finance, and his group of alcoholic friends in 1939. Their new-found solution emerged from Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith’s participation in the Oxford Group, a spiritual community attempting to implement first-century Christianity.
The Twelve Step literature is not written in the grand tones of religious scripture or with the clinical precision of a medical textbook. Rather, the material is in the form of plainspoken, pragmatic instructions laying out “a few simple rules” or “suggestions.”
“It was not long after the Big Book’s publication in 1939 that people without substance abuse issues began using the Steps to help develop their spiritual and emotional lives as well.”
In laying out this approach, the Big Book makes a great effort to avoid absolute statements. It makes no claims of exclusivity on spirituality, stating “[u]pon therapy for the alcoholic himself, we surely have no monopoly” as well as denying any “monopoly on God.” The writers make their case for its effectiveness in their own lives, without attempting to coerce or force the reader into taking the same course of action. Their approach is direct in its description of alcoholism, but also gentle in its invitation to others.
It was not long after the book’s publication in 1939 that people without substance abuse issues began using the Steps to help develop their spiritual and emotional lives as well. By 1952, just 13 short years after the Big Book was published, there were already 87 groups of family members of alcoholics meeting together for mutual support to practice the principles of AA in their own lives. The Twelve Steps were also being used early on to address addictions other than alcoholism, with Narcotics Anonymous officially being formed in 1953.
In the years since Twelve Step fellowships have proliferated the world over in the form of many different “Anonymous” groups. Today there are Twelve Step fellowships addressing nearly any conceivable issue relating to chemical addiction, behavioral addiction, and the general struggles of being human. Whether it’s codependency, overeating, sex addiction, online gaming, difficult emotions, or racism, the Twelve Steps have been applied to countless psychological or spiritual difficulties that we humans encounter.
An Accessible Approach
The Twelve Steps provide this guidance while also using language that many find accessible regardless of their background. They are able to do this because they restate general spiritual principles in a neutral language not specific to a particular faith or tradition. The openness of the language also allows them to be applied in virtually any context. Practitioners have found they are able to use the Steps in conjunction with a wide range of spiritual traditions or no spiritual tradition at all.
Spiritual writers and leaders, who may not be in recovery from chemical addictions themselves, have recently been finding in the Twelve Steps another non-dogmatic way to restate what their traditions have been teaching followers for hundreds or even thousands of years.
“Throughout the Big Book, practicality takes precedence over particular spiritual beliefs.”
A recent prominent example is Richard Rohr’s book on the Twelve Steps, called Breathing Underwater. In giving context to his comparative reading of the Steps alongside Biblical passages, Rohr writes: “The Twelve Step Program parallels, mirrors, and makes practical the same message that Jesus gave us, but without as much danger of spiritualizing the message and pushing its effects into a future and metaphysical world.”
Practitioners of other faiths have found that this compatibility extends to their traditions as well. Buddhist practitioner Kevin Griffin describes the Twelve Steps enriching his Buddhist practice, stating “[t]he Buddha said that the cause of suffering is desire, and the Twelve Steps try to heal people from desire gone mad: addiction.” People have noted similar points of connection in other faith traditions, such as Islam, Hinduism, and Taoism, with the website Sacred Connections (http://www.12wisdomsteps.com) providing specific examples of these and other faith’s commonality with the Twelve Steps.
Similarly, agnostics and atheists have also found resonance with the Twelve Steps. AA historian, Catholic priest, and much-beloved friend of AA, Ernest Kurtz endorsed and wrote a foreword for Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life by Joe C. This text stands as just one example of recent attempts to try to make the Twelve Steps even more accessible to people who don’t identify with any other spiritual traditions.
Throughout the Big Book, practicality takes precedence over particular spiritual beliefs.
It’s difficult, and probably unnecessary, to understand precisely why and how the Steps work. They continue to be widely applied by people struggling with alcoholism and the wider world for a simple reason: people see the Steps working in the lives of others, and as a result, ask somebody to take them through the steps as well.
As the Big Book states, almost as if the writers themselves are somewhat shocked by the effectiveness of their simple program: “It works—it really does.”