Have Objections to the 12 Steps? I Did.

Many people I’ve known in AA felt at home in meetings from the first time they attended and took to the Steps right away. I wasn’t like that at all. I didn’t relate to the people at my first meeting and when I read the Steps that were posted on the wall, I was tremendously put off. I was suspicious of “the God thing” and couldn’t see how any of the Steps, even the ones that weren’t overtly spiritual, related to me. I decided there was no point in ever going to another meeting.

Then I found myself in rehab where they told me my very life depended on AA’s program of recovery. I was required to attend meetings no matter how much I would have preferred not to. It took us a long time for me to see that AA had anything to offer.

So if you’re resistant to 12-Step programs, I’ve been there and known plenty of others who were too. Following are some articles about my objections — focusing on my first meeting and the first three Steps — and how I got over them. Road to Recovery

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cover of A Whole Lot of Medicine

6 Responses to “ Have Objections to the 12 Steps? I Did. ”

  1. Excellent interpretation of the first three steps. Rather than ‘adapted versions’ however, these interpretations are an ‘expanded’ version. The steps, first codified around 1938, (although having retained the original language), have evolved into a living document that provides for a lifetime of study, interpretation, and spiritual guidance. Here is a further interpretation:


    I: We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol-that our lives had become unmanageable.
    • Fell in love with alcohol.
    • Had an insane urge to drink it.
    • Drinking it caused terrible problems.
    • The need to continue drinking resulted in delusional activity.
    • Alcohol will erase the discomfort, even temporally-a delusion.
    • Powerlessness! The firm bedrock to build a better life.

    II: Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
    • Alcoholism moves psychic/spiritual energy inward.
    • Creates an increasing dependence on ones own woefully inadequate resources.
    • Need for another resource.
    • Enter-Higher Power, a God of your understanding.
    • Possible definitions in the AA lexicon:
     An inner resource.
     A universal spirit who is unknowable.
     A supreme being who created everything.
     A verb, not a noun.
     A force for good.
     A spirit of the collective-Group Of Drunks.
     A process for organizing ones life-Good Orderly Direction.
     And the list goes on…-God as metaphor.

    III: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
    • A decision, an affirmation, not a completed action.
    • Enter TRUST/FAITH.
    • Dependence on HP vs. dependence on “ones own woefully inadequate resources”.
    • Which one leads to greater independence?
    • Promotes humility & gratitude

    IV: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
    • The beginning of a lifetime practice- an examined life.
    • Step 4 addresses instincts, needs, desires such as:
     Security.
     Ambition.
     Love
    • All necessary for fulfillment in life’s journey.
    • No absolute rule to avoid trouble in seeking fulfillment.
    • Trouble stems from misdirected instincts, needs, desires.
    • Add alcoholism for a gargantuan increase in such troubles
    • Troubles become increasingly fear based.
    • Enter a “fearless moral inventory”.

    V- Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
    • Step 5 is an attempt to stop living with personal torments.
    • “I am as sick as my secrets”.
    • Using judgment & discretion begin to cleanse the sprit.
    • We begin to discover a more welcoming world.

    VI- Were entirely ready to have God remove these defects of character.
    • Being ready is being aware.
    • Step 6 further fine-tunes self examination/self awareness.
    • Helps examine differences between:
     Ambition & Greed
     Self-confidence & Grandiosity
     Self-respect & Superiority
     Justifiable anger & Arrogant indifference
    • A new venture into open-mindedness.
    VII- Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings
    • Alcoholics generally want life’s satisfactions in large and frequent doses.
    • Never enough! The illness of more.
    • Frequently confuse means with ends.
    • Key word in step 7- HUMBLY. (Latin route: to be human).
    • Humility- the healer of pain.
    • Humility- the avenue to freedom of the human spirit.
    • The basic ingredient of humility-Do the right thing.
    • With humility as its guide, step 7 provides a path from the bonds of self centeredness’ to freedom of the spirit.

    VIII- Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
    • Further application of self-examination.
    • A reminder to avoid extreme judgments, of ourselves & others.
    • A method in the practice of TOLERANCE.
    • An experience in FORGIVENESS, both for ourselves and others.
    • Step 8- A fascinating adventure: learning to live in peace, partnership, and brotherhood/sisterhood with all people.

    IX- Made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
    • Take responsibility for past actions.
    • Employ courage, prudence, and a sense of timing.
    • Using judgment & discretion begin to clear the wreckage of the past.
    • Improve the capacity for moral judgment & decision making- executive levels of human functioning.
    • From delusion (step1) to executive ego function (step9).

    X- Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
    • An examination of self as a part of life.
     Inventory at the end of each day.
     Spot check inventory.
     Periodic review of spiritual condition.
    • Quick to admit, Quick to forgive- building blocks of character.
    • Reinforces the certainty of our imperfection.
     Progress rather than perfection.
    • Promotes courtesy, kindness, and justice-keys to living in harmony with God and nature.
    • From delusion, isolation, fear, mistrust (steps 1 & 2) to living in harmony with God & nature (step 10)

    XI- 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.
    • Contemplation, meditation, prayer- life sustaining nourishments.
    • Mechanisms for a disciplined life.
    • Self discipline enhances capacity to serve – a quality of life issue

    XII- Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principals in all our affairs.
    • Giving that asks no reward.
    • Love that has no price tag.
    • An experience in the joy of living.

  2. The 12 Steps, a manifestly religious pathway, implies that the addict has their condition because they are morally defective (“made a searching moral inventory….admitted the exact nature of our wrongs”). I think this is why so many people reject this approach. AA/NA were developed in the pre scientific era of addiction science and the 12 steps smack of a cure by religious conversion.

  3. I disagree my experience is that AA is NOT “a manifestly religious pathway.”

    First, The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous defines alcoholism as a disease “centered in the brain, not a moral defect.” Although it’s true that AA was developed before there was much knowledge about how the brain works, modern addiction researchers agree addiction is a brain disease.

    Second, AA’s view is that “moral defects” are the RESULT of alcoholism, not the cause. Neuroscientists agree.

    Third, I used to share your view that 12-Step programs required a “cure by religious conversion” and wanted no part in that. It took a while to change my mind, but my experience in AA led me to no other conclusion. I found that there is a huge difference between a “spiritual program” and a “religious” one. I routinely attend AA meetings with members of a wide variety of religions: Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and more, plus a whole lot of atheists. Yet we all see eye-to-eye on the spiritual nature of the program. What religion does that?

    Plus, there aren’t any priests, rabbis or imams in AA. There are neither central theological authorities nor local ones. Each group is autonomous. What religion does that?

    Finally, 12-Step programs aren’t for everybody. Some people take to the program, others don’t, for any number of reasons. That’s to be expected. What behavioral-modification program works 100% of the time for a 100% of people? Not one. 12-Step Programs help some people but not others. Before rejecting AA, NA, etc., however, people should give it an honest try. If they do, they might find that their negative preconceptions about 12-Step programs — including that it’s a religion — will prove to be wrong. That was my experience.

  4. Thanks very much for your thoughtful response to my comment.
    1. Yes, the Big Book has the statement that alcoholism is a brain disease and not the result of a moral defect. I completely agree. And at the time AA was developed, this was a very important viewpoint to express. So as our knowledge of the brain’s central role in addiction has advanced, why hasn’t AA incorporated this knowledge. For example, one of the 12 steps might be updated to say: ” I sought the help of a psychiatrist with a specialty in addiction medicine in order to find out if there are any medical interventions that might aid in my recovery”. But because AA is based on a fixed set of “spiritual” beliefs, this change, now part of the modern approach to addiction treatment, will never ever be made by AA. Since AA is the only option for most people trying to stop drinking, not making this change to the AA literature is unconscionable.
    2. Yes, the moral defects observed in most alcoholics are the result of the addiction. Then why are Steps 4,5,6,7,8. 9, and 10 focused directly on the person’s moral defects (termed “defects of character” in the AA steps.) If the moral defects of AA participants are the result of an alcohol addiction, in theory all the defects of character can be removed but the disease would still ravage us. As a practical matter, most people who turn against AA feel degraded and shamed by this emphasis on their moral defects, in spite of how you have framed the matter. An I would suggest this is because this emphasis is not addressing the primary source of the addiction
    3. In my view, saying that AA is a spiritual but not a religious program is a distinction without a difference. It’s quite true that AA’s focus on “God as we understand him” without a human mediator such as Jesus, Mohammad or Buddha is unusual for a religion. And although AA haters would said although there is no formal priesthood, the rigid, dogmatic 12 steppers that run and populate most AA meeting serve the same function. I would not go this far. But they certainly reinforce conformity and punish a questioning attitude.
    Finally, you point out the meetings are autonomous and therefore AA is not religious in essence. But I’ve been to dozens of AA meetings in different communities and they are all the same. They start with reading the identical “canon”. However, most damning of AA in my mind is it has made no changes whatsoever in its approach since the beginning. And woe to the person who suggests a change. For example, in my experience the rule “No cross talk” is something that gives AA a cult-like quality. Adults are expected to just sit and listen to painful sharing and not ask clarifying questions or offer input based on one’s own personal experience. Such a procedure fosters an infantilization of the AA members and fosters a childlike pathological dependency. And please don’t tell me that changing the “No Cross talk” rule would lead to chaos. It forms the centerpiece of Life Ring’s approach and people who have Life-ring in their community find it usually quite helpful.
    Thanks again for taking the time to respond to my post.

  5. 1. I disagree with your characterization of psychiatric help. AA is open to professional help. For example, the Big Book says, “God has abundantly supplied this world with fine doctors, psychologists, and practitioners of various kinds. Do not hesitate to take your health problems to such persons. Most of them give freely of themselves, that their fellows may enjoy sound minds and bodies.”
    More importantly, I think you have the cart before the horse. You shouldn’t expect AA to change. Why should it? The spiritual principles behind AA are common to most spiritual programs and religions. They’re what one counselor in rehab told me were “kindergarten rules.” These principles don’t change with the times, they’re transcendent.
    Furthermore, 12-Step programs work for some people, not all. AA has always recognized that. Those who don’t find AA helpful should look elsewhere, to other programs. If you prefer a different approach, say one that incorporates the proposed changes in the Steps you reference, what’s stopping you from developing a program that does that? Why not accept that AA isn’t a good fit for you and move on? There’s nothing unconscionable about AA recognizing it can’t be all things to all people.
    You say that AA is the only option. That’s not literally true, but AA is by far the most available. Why is that? In my experience, it’s because AA is free. It’s not primarily because AA discourages psychiatric or psychological treatment. Most people simply can’t afford it. How many drug addicts have health insurance? Not many that I’ve known (though Obamacare may help).

    2. As you agree, egregious moral defects result from addiction, from the pathological brain changes caused by substance abuse. The reason AA concentrates on them isn’t to browbeat people with how sinful they are, it’s to short-circuit the pathologic thinking that results from the addicted brain’s response to the negative emotions, like guilt and shame. Acting on those defects induce negative feelings that can cause cravings, and in turn, relapse. Refraining from acting on them can help prevent relapse. Again, if people feel degraded or shamed by the moral-defects aspect of AA, they should try a different program that suits them better.

    3. In my memoir, A Whole Lot of Medicine, I wrote something very similar to what you did: “Rehab’s insistence that AA was a spiritual program, not a religion, seemed [to me] like a distinction without a difference.” Over time, my experience in AA led me to conclude I’d been wrong. Others are free to come to a different conclusion.
    As to “cross talk,” I have attended support groups, like my rehab’s Alumni group, which encouraged cross talk and found it very valuable. But that’s not the custom at AA meetings, so again, look for that elsewhere.

  6. Thanks for your response. I think what you said is most important here: “You shouldn’t expect AA to change. Why should it?…The spiritual principles behind AA are common to most spiritual programs and religions. These principles don’t change with the times, they’re transcendent.” Yes, AA is a religious organization with the 12 steps the religious path. My issue is not with AA as a religion organization, but that’s it’s seen as the primary option for alcohol/drug recovery. This is an outrage, even though a few people do find sobriety through AA.

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