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The Twelve Step Model of Recovery

The Twelve Step approach offers a communal, abstinence-based model for recovery. Although it doesn’t suit everyone, it is the mainstay of recovery for millions of people the world over.

The Twelve Step approach to recovery was pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1930s and has since flourished, spread all over the world and has been used by millions of people from all walks of life to recover from many different addictions. The Twelve Step approach is also used successfully by many people who are directly affected by a family member’s addiction.

The philosophy of the Twelve Step model is based on abstinence from addictive activity and so may not be suitable for those who feel that they can control or moderate their addiction. This is explained further in my writing about the stages of addiction and recovery.

The most important factor in the Twelve Step model is that recovery is communal, through groups of people in recovery meeting regularly to support each other. This is not an approach that suits everybody; some people find that recovery through the support of friends, family or a counsellor alone is sufficient. For others, the community, friendship and sense of belonging that come with being a member of a Twelve Step recovery group are indispensable. If you are interested in finding out more about a Twelve Step recovery group in your area, take a look at my list of Twelve Step Fellowships.

The central idea of the Twelve Step approach is simple: Recovery is only possible when the addicted person admits that they are powerless over the object of their addiction (e.g. drugs, alcohol, etc). Correspondingly, Twelve Step fellowships advocate an abstinence-based approach to recovery. That is important because: It is up to you to decide if an abstinence-based approach is right for you. Nobody else can make that decision for you.

Let’s examine that further, taking alcohol consumption as an example: Imagine someone who drinks to cope with life, but every time they take a drink, they find they can’t stop and that bad things happen to them and others. They try to stop or moderate their drinking, but they find they are unable to cope with daily living without a drink. They are unable to stop themselves from taking the first drink, and when they do take the first drink, they are unable to stop themselves from taking the next, and the next etc. They get drunk and do things that are out of character and which they regret afterwards. This cyclical process continues ad infinitum – I have described it in further detail in my writing on the Cycle of Addiction.

The addicted person is powerless over the object of their addiction because, increasingly, they start, they can’t stop until something beyond their control forces them to stop – e.g. the drinker who falls into a drunken stupor, the gambler who runs out of money, the sexually addicted person who becomes physically exhausted, etc. I describe powerlessness as increasing because most addicts start from a position of being in control and slowly move towards less control until control disappears entirely. Along with powerlessness goes an unmanageable life. Consider what I said about the addictive activity being stoppable only by forces beyond the addicted person’s control – the person therefore has no way to manage their addiction. If they have reached the point at which abstinence seems the only real option, their lives are likely to be chaotic, and that chaos will probably have affected the lives of those around them too. Notice that I have deliberately used the word ‘unmanageable’, not ‘unmanaged’. It’s because the Twelve Step view is that a life in which addiction is present and active cannot be managed. The addiction will always win and keep the person’s life in disarray. The Twelve Step model holds that for the addicted person there remains only one option, which is expressed in the first step of the Twelve Step model:

We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable.

Notice the use of the word ‘we’ and remember what I said about Twelve Step fellowships being communal. In the philosophy of the Twelve Step approach, recovery is only possible once an addicted person admits their powerlessness and unmanageability in the presence of other people who were once similarly addicted but who are now in recovery. This is the first step in reaching out for help. Note also the use of the word ‘admit’, rather than ‘accept’. To accept that one is addicted can seem difficult or even impossible. To admit it – even grudgingly – is often much easier. The message of the first of the twelve steps is that a simple admission of powerlessness and unmanageability is all that is required to make a significant start on the journey of recovery.

The remaining eleven steps are intended a guide for living. This may at first seem strange, but consider that by the time an addicted person has reached the point where control is no longer possible, they have often lost the ability to live a productive and meaningful life. The Twelve Step approach provides such people with an essential structure for daily living. The aim of the program is simply to help the recovering person establish and maintain a good relationship with themselves, with other people and, for those of a more religious persuasion, a good relationship with the God(s) of their understanding. The experience of the majority who have found recovery through the Twelve Steps is that good relations with themselves and others has restored a sense of enjoyment and meaning in their lives.

The Twelve Steps are given below, as originally formulated by Alcoholics Anonymous. Many other Twelve Step fellowships have co-opted the use of the Twelve Steps, replacing the words ‘alcohol’ and ‘alcoholic’ with words that describe other addictions (e.g. ‘sex’ and ‘sex addict’, ‘drugs’ and ‘drug addict’, etc).

1.We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.

2.Came to believe that 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 understood Him.

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 Him 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 Him, praying only for knowledge of His 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 alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

The Twelve Steps are used with permission of Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. (“A.A.W.S.”) Permission to discuss the Twelve Steps does not mean that A.A.W.S. has reviewed or approved the contents of this website, or that A.A. necessarily agrees with the views expressed herein. A.A. is a program of recovery from alcoholism only - use of the Twelve Steps in connection with programs and activities which are patterned after A.A., but which address other problems, or in any other non-A.A., does not imply otherwise.

To learn more about each of the Twelve Steps, see my page The Twelve Steps Explained.