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Drug & Alcohol Counselor/Therapist

If you are new to 12 Step programs or are coming back to the program, this two part series takes a closer look at the 12 steps of AA, breaking things down and showing you how, with a little work, it can support you to live a clean and sober life.

Before we get started on looking at the 12 Steps of AA, there are a few things I'd like to touch on, as they could be potential blocks to you doing the work needed, so let's get them out of the way early:

Moving The Road Blocks

1. It is NOT a religious program.

Yes it does mention GOD in 4 places in the steps description. However, GOD can be interpreted as an acronym for Good Orderly Direction. It can also be understood to mean anything we want it to mean within the context of the program.

We do not have to be religious or have any affiliation with a particular religion in order to succeed at working this program. If we do have an affiliation of some kind of faith, good for us, as it becomes a strength that we can use, but it is not necessary in order for us to be successful.

2. We are not broken with a need to be fixed.

We are not sick either. We are not so far gone that we can't help ourselves live more fulfilling lives. It will be and is our choice. Always has been. What we are, however, is human.

We are likely to be...

We see others doing well and wonder why can't that be us. It can be if we are willing to do the work.

3. We don't get to re-write this program to suit ourselves.

We need to commit ourselves to the program as it is written. That's the only way this works. It was written in 1935 by two men (Dr. Bob Smith and Mr. Bill Wilson) who both had problems with alcohol but somehow understood the benefits of supporting each other when the other wanted to run or hide.

4. We need to understand that alcohol is a drug.

The 12 Steps were developed to help us deal with alcoholism primarily but works just as well for those who suffer from drug addiction. The program can be worked and lived by anyone.

In the end drug and or alcohol use will most likely take us to the same place(s) - those being jails, institutions or funeral homes unless we intervene in that destructive process.

5. This is a plan that becomes a way to live our lives each day.

Some days we will live it better and do a better job of living it than others. We need to understand that as long as we don't pick up a drink or a drug we'll be OK. This is not something you do once and then see yourself as 'cured'. It becomes a lifestyle that you adopt. Most who give this program a chance agree it is much better than the one they left behind.

Lets get started -- real life awaits:

When We Surrender We Win

Step 1

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

In my mind this first one is the toughest one to deal with. This one requires us to look at ourselves in the mirror and say 'hey man we fought the good fight but we can't beat it.' One of the main tenants of this program is: "when we surrender we win."

Drinking As Others Do

Our problem seems to be that we can't seem to figure out how to drink or use AND live a normal life like everybody else, all at the same time.

We tried:

  • using every other day;
  • just on the weekends;
  • stopping at a particular number or
  • amount or picking a time of the day that keeps us from becoming intoxicated while our kids are still awake.

We said that we could quit any time we wanted to. I use to say that I had quit hundreds of times. Proving what? Looking back I was saying that I couldn't stay 'quit' but I could stop for a short period of time. I was powerless beyond that.

Any one can quit -- for a while. The trick is staying quit and that's when we struggle. It cannot hurt you or any of your loved ones if you don't pick it up.

Restoring Sanity

Step 2

Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

This means that we need to challenge the idea that we are the most important and intelligent people who have all the answers to all the issues on the planet. This step is about us restoring a sense of sanity to our lives. This isn't about what other people are doing or not doing to help us. This concerns us making poor decisions about how we choose to live our lives.

If we want to stop being overwhelmed with life's issues then we need to stop what we are doing that adds to the confusion. The common denominator in all of this mayhem is our substance use.

If we continue to do the things that drove us to the edge we will continue to experience the same outcomes -- chaos, hurt, disappointment and defeat. Where is the evidence that supports any other explanation? 

Seeing a Higher Power

Regarding the 'a Power greater than ourselves' statement consider these questions:

  • When could we stop the sun from shining or the wind from blowing? These are powers greater than we. We can't always see them but we can feel their presence all around us.
  • The consciousness of our AA group says that those in attendance are collectively smarter than we are. How can they all be wrong and we be the only one in the room that has it right?

If we look around there are many examples of things that are greater and more powerful than we are. That 26 oz bottle of rye or that case of beer could make us do just about anything no matter how hard we wanted to stop. It also means that we can now recognize there is strength in numbers.

The primary issue here is realizing that, with the help of others, we can regain a sense of control over the choices we make. We do not and often cannot do it all alone.

Making a Committed Decision

Step 3

Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.

This step is about being willing to make a decision first and foremost. Just the decision to become willing to look at or consider another approach to changing our lifestyle is immense. Without it, making any kind of move or change in our lives is extremely difficult at best if not impossible.

This could easily mark the first time in a very long time that we made a decision that was in our best interest and we were not under the influence of a drug at the time. This willingness shows a move to allow others to help us re-take some essence of control of our lives from the drugs and alcohol that nearly killed us. We are not sure what a 'power greater than ourselves' looks like but we are beginning to see that there are some things that are bigger than we are - more influential - more powerful. The 2nd and 3rd step allows for the possibility that there are forces in our lives beyond our influence. 

Exploring Our True Selves

Step 4

Made a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves

Now the work becomes more personal. This step is considered by many as the 'turning point' in most recoveries. The first three steps are vital to the success of the rest of the program. If we can understand and feel that there is some hope for a better life out there and if we are willing to take the risk of seeking it out then we become ready to tackle Step 4.

This is where we get to look at ourselves under a microscope of sorts. We begin to see that our approach to managing our lives has flaws in it. We need to take a 'fearless' look at how we have gone about trying to get what we want and ask ourselves how successful we have been to date. The willingness that we have begun to accept in our lives in step three will help us look at what we are doing that isn't working well for us and will help us consider some different approaches.

A Trusted Someone

This is a step that is best done with the help and support of someone we trust in the program -- a sponsor but not a family member.

We have to be willing to hear an 'outsiders' opinion about what we are doing, how we are doing it and the apparent outcomes from our efforts. The idea here is for us to check our behavior and change those behaviors that are not working out with regards to getting us or keeping us more connected to the world we want to be a part of. It is a building step and not a step that is meant to be critical, guilt ridden or demeaning in any way. My sponsor told me to 'keep the good stuff and get rid of the stuff that isn't so good'.

Ownership Of Our Wrongs

Step 5

Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

Up to now most of the work we have done or needed to do was within ourselves. It was between me and me. Now it's time for us to begin to trust in others and their desire to help us get better. I recognize how difficult this can be for many of us. In the past trust has meant pain, heartache, betrayal, abandonment and isolation.

Now the work that needs to begin is about including those, so called, trusted ones and allow them into our circle of influence. We need to share with these few folks some of those secrets we have been carrying for a long time. But we become concerned that if others really knew certain things about us they may not like us any more or want to share their lives with us.

This step takes a great deal of courage and risk. Always, when sharing who we are with others, we need to weigh the value of complete disclosure with how much they need to know -- to what depth. There is a fine line between honesty and full disclosure. One of the future steps (Step 9) we will cover says that 'we disclose certain things but not if it hurts ourselves or others.'

When we do this step we might want to share our information and our insights of who and what we are with someone connected to the clergy. You may or may not believe in 'God' but we know that ministers are sworn to confidentiality and there can be a great deal of comfort and safety attached to a relationship of this type. In any event we need to feel sure and be sure of the confidants we encourage to be a part of our process with doing Step 5.

Removing Our Character Defects

Step 6

Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

It may have taken us a long time to get here -- to arrive at this place where we are feeling as though we may just be able to do this. We need to be reminded that working through the steps is not about how fast we can do it. It is not a race or a sprint but rather a marathon. It doesn't take a specified number of weeks or months or years to work through the program. There is no right or wrong way to do this work. It does however take perseverance, dedication and a willingness to spend the time to achieve times of peace, prosperity and happiness. The important part is that you never give up trying to find a way that makes sense to you. I've worked with clients in the past who spent months just dealing with Step 1. I admit that I struggled here for a bit. 

Change Your Thinking

How could someone or something 'take or remove' these defects of character from me? I still was questioning what my 'Higher Power' was. I didn't understand how to involve my Higher Power in my life. What role was he to play? I had finally identified what behaviors and attitudes I had to change and so I depended on the strength and support of my home group to help me with this step. Actually this part was quite easy once I got by the arrogance of thinking that I was just fine and that it was the rest of the world that had a problem. I had to change my way of thinking about my defects of character and once I had done that they were no longer an issue -- they were gone. Many folks in A/A struggle here so I can only suggest that by giving up something or changing it -- a belief or a mind set for instance -- you take away its power and influence. 

Building a New Future

The remainder of the steps are about the transition from where you are to where you want to be and I will describe and discuss their significance in Part 2 of this article (published on ChooseHelp.com, next week). It is important you get the basics of the first part so that the second part is more easily understood and therefore can have a much greater impact on your life choices. Obviously you are free to do whichever steps you want when you want but it is more meaningful to do them as you come to understand them and to incorporate them into your lifestyle on a daily basis.

I had mentioned previously that this is a 'way of living' program. These are the basics most folks who enjoy their lives try to live by each day. It is what they are conscious of daily and what they eventually come to do each day in order to manage themselves effectively.

For those who are ready to jump into the next phase of their recoveries,
continue with Part 2 (Steps 7-12) of this series.

About the author James Cloughley:

My experience would include the lessons taught by over 20 years of active use, leading to 23 years of sobriety and what I consider to be a state of quality living. I learned many things in a practical sense from attending A/A, C/A and N/A. Sometimes the best education can come from the most unlikely sources. I graduated from College and completed the Addiction Studies Program at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. I also completed a variety of courses concerning mental health issues and gambling addiction, family systems and relationships.

I welcome any comments both pro and con. You can ask me anything you like by contacting me through the ChooseHelp.com site or by emailing me at: [email protected]. You can also learn more about where I come from and what I have learned on my journey by going to jamescloughley.com. All the best, Jim

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Page last updated Jan 08, 2023

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