The 12 Steps of AA: Everything You Need to Know

The Essentials of AA and the Iconic 12-Step Approach to Sobriety

The topic of AA and its founding, literature, and lore have been the subject of much discussion for decades. To aid those seeking more information, the team at Find Addiction Rehabs has put together a definitive resource for those seeking to gain a better understanding of Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12 steps of AA.

If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol abuse (or drugs for that matter) you have come to the right place!

Even if drinking or substances are not an issue, we think this guide will be an informative look into a program that has helped (and intrigued) millions worldwide. Keep reading to learn more now!

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AA and Foundations for Sobriety

12 Steps Programs

Most of us have heard of the recovery fellowship Alcoholics Anonymous. It is the largest and most recognized recovery fellowship in the world of addiction medicine. It has helped change the way that addiction and alcoholism are treated, and it not only changed the entire thinking of the general public about what these illnesses are, but it also created an effective and duplicable way to help those struggling with alcoholism and addiction.

Before the advent of Alcoholics Anonymous, the only real way that we knew of to treat alcoholism was to stick an individual in jail or lock them away in a mental institution. As arcane as this sounds, before the 1930s this was the common treatment for alcoholics and addicts, because, for the most part, doctors, family members, and members of law enforcement were at a loss as to what to do with the alcoholics and addicts in their cities and towns.

Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1935 by Dr. Bob Smith and Bill Wilson in Akron, Ohio. The AA fellowship, which has saved the lives of millions of people and helped to birth the 12 Step Based Treatment model, came about almost by chance, as Wilson, who was six months sober at the time, was away on a business trip and was struck with the urge to drink.

Bill stood in the hotel lobby that he was staying in after his business deal fell apart and looked into the bar where he saw people drinking with total impunity.

The Origins of AA

At that moment he was faced with a decision. He could either join them and throw away his sobriety, thereby repeating the same cycle he had lived so many times before, or he could pick up the phone and try to find another alcoholic that he could help. This notion of helping others was instilled in him during his time with The Oxford Group, a group that was a precursor to Alcoholics Anonymous, and lucky for all of us, Bill decided to phone a local church, which put him in touch with Dr. Bob Smith.

The two men sat down together and over time they created what is known as the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Alcoholics Anonymous is partially credited with the “disease theory” of alcoholism and the program is based on the idea that an alcoholic cannot just simply remain absent from alcohol and live a happy and productive life.

They believe the alcoholic has to change their way of thinking and have a “spiritual awakening”, which is something that can be accomplished by completing the 12 steps of AA.

Since this method proved to be so effective in the treatment of alcoholics and addicts, over the years many substance abuse treatment centers adopted the twelve-step model themselves, into what is now known as 12 Step Based Treatment.

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Alcoholics Anonymous and 12 Step Based Treatment Centers

A man attends an AA meeting for his recovery 

When Alcoholics Anonymous (or Narcotics Anonymous) is integrated into a treatment facility it is often referred to as the Disease Model of treatment or 12 Step Based Treatment centers. Many facilities follow the 12 Step based treatment structure. But with that said, this does not mean that the program is entirely based on the 12 steps. All it means is some of the teachings of A.A. will be part of the treatment plan.

In most facilities clients will not be forced to find a “God of their understanding”, nor will they have to complete the 12 steps in order to graduate from the program.

Are All Treatment Programs Based on Stepwork?

Some programs will be stricter than others when it comes to this, but for the most part, many of these types of addiction treatment centers simply follow the 12 Steps as a basic outline for their treatment methodology. However, one thing that they will all have in common is the disease theory. They view addiction and alcoholism as a disease of the mind, and they will be treated as such.

Many private and state insurance companies recognize the Disease Model and the 12-step Model as fact-based recovery. This means that they are more willing to help someone enter into one of these programs. Treatment can become quite expensive without the help of insurance, so having them help out financially is very beneficial.

12 Step Based Treatment Centers and Therapies

The First Step from the book Alcoholics Anonymous is a very important one, and most people in a rehab center will have completed this step before they even enter into treatment. The Step states, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.” Chances are if you are in a rehab center your life got a bit out of control and unmanageable.

Deciding to get help is a big part of Step Two and Step Three. So just by going into a treatment center and being willing to change you have already completed one-quarter of the 12 steps.

Doing Stepwork While in Treatment

Some people will decide to continue to work on the 12 steps while in a rehab facility, this is sometimes suggested against but will vary from program to program. In order to do the 12 Steps the way the AA Big Book suggests you need to have a sponsor and be able to see and make amends to the people you’ve harmed, which sometimes is not possible to do until after completion of the treatment program.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has conducted research on whether Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is evidence-based, and found a correlation between frequent meeting attendance and long-term abstinence.

Why Do People Keep Talking About the Steps?

No matter where you are in your recovery, you know there are certain tools in the proverbial “recovery toolkit” that you can rely on to keep your sobriety strong and moving in the right direction. One of the sharpest and most effective tools you have in that toolkit is the 12-step framework.

For the better part of eight decades, these mutual self-help support groups have provided countless millions of addicts worldwide with the structure and support they need to address and overcome their particular substance abuse issues.

If you are just starting your recovery journey, you may approach 12-step meetings with a certain degree of uncertainty and reluctance. The very thought of sharing your addiction story with complete strangers can seem rather frightening. While those feelings are understandable, the fellowship and empowerment that you gain can go a long way in helping you maintain your hard-earned sobriety.

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Diving into the Anonymous Programs: Step One First!

12 Steps Recovery Program

Here we will begin to break down the 12 steps and explain them in modern terms. If you are an addict please just replace the word “drink” with “drug” or “alcohol” with “heroin or pills”, do the same with any similar words so it applies to you.

The 12 Steps of AA: Modern Translations

With AA’s lengthy history, some of the initial wording can begin to feel dated. With this in mind, we have compiled a more contemporary translation of the 12 steps of AA here. These are not to be confused with the Twelve Traditions (which are designed to protect Alcoholics Anonymous as a whole).

  • We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable. – Pretty much this means that when you drink you don’t have control. You don’t go out and have one beer you have 12. You find yourself drinking even when you don’t want to drink, you have had consequences due to your drinking and it hasn’t made you change. Alcohol dictates your day, you have no control over your drinking. Step One and the necessity of surrender go hand in hand.
  • Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. In Step 2 of AA this doesn’t have to be “God”, it can be anything greater than you. It can be the group of Alcoholics Anonymous, it can be a close friend or family member, or just anything, or anyone that is greater than you. You need to know that you are not all-knowing and all-powerful, there is something or someone out there that can help you with your alcoholism. Give a little faith and put some hope into that person/thing.
  • Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. The Third Step is ‘coming to believe,’ and as I said before, you don’t need to find a “God” in the religious sense, this book was written in the 1930s a lot has changed since then. Just give up trying to do what you think is best and let someone or something help guide you in your decisions.
  • Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. This isn’t going to be easy but once you’re done you’ll feel better. Write down all the people that have hurt you or angered you in the past. You don’t need to scavenge the deepest parts of your memory, just focus on people that you still think of on a weekly/monthly basis. Write those things down and figure out what your part was in that situation. We’re not perfect, figure out the flaws in yourself that made that situation come about
  • Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. You know that list you just made of all the people that upset you or pissed you off? Good, take that list and read it out loud, either to a person or just out loud to the higher power you chose.
  • Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. Hate to break it to you but you’re not perfect, you may be close to it but you’re not there yet. You should’ve noticed some character defects or negative attributes about yourself while going through the 4th step. You’re ready to try and change those things. This won’t happen overnight, it may not happen over the next 365 nights. It’s about trying to make a change to better yourself and those around you.
  • Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings. – Find your higher power and ask them to help you remove these shortcomings from your life.
  • Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. During your alcoholism, chances are you have done some damage to many personal and professional relationships. It’s time to make another list, this time of the people you harmed. This can be physically, mentally, emotionally or financially. If you were a negative force of destruction in this person’s life then chances are you owe them an amends. An amends is a fancy word for an apology, you need to be ready and willing to approach these people and admit your wrongdoings.
  • Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. You made your list of amends and now you are starting the amends process. It’s always best to do this face to face if that’s not possible a phone call or something similar will do.
  • Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it. Once again you’re not perfect, you will continue to make mistakes because you are human. What is different now is that you will try to notice your mistakes faster and right your wrongs as fast as possible.
  • 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. Yes, I know, a lot of mention of God in these 12 steps. Step 11 is about you becoming closer to a higher power but more importantly closer to yourself. You are continuously working on becoming a better person.
  • 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. If you’ve completed 11 out of 12 of the steps, you should feel a lot better, and you may even feel like a whole new person. It’s time to give back. When you started these 12 steps you were probably lost and hopeless, there are millions of people out there who still struggle. With your solid spiritual foundation in place, it’s time to go help them!

It’s strongly suggested that you get a sponsor to help guide you through the 12 steps. Going about this alone can be difficult and can get a bit confusing. Get involved in your local fellowship, AA Meetings are held in every state in the United States and in hundreds of other countries throughout the world.

Working a Program Based on the 12 Steps of AA

12-step programs are free to those suffering from substance abuse, and the only requirement for membership is that an individual has a desire to stop using drugs or alcohol. The structure of these programs lies in a series of Steps which are a set of principles that are highly spiritual in nature and are practiced as a way of life.

Each of these twelve steps centers on a particular theme, and when an addict works these steps sequentially they can eventually break the vicious cycle of addiction in their lives.

In addition to the Steps, these sober support groups also feature a list of 12 traditions that serve as guidelines for living and working together both within and outside of the group.

Where Are 12-Step Programs Held And What Types of Meetings Are Available?

12-Step Addiction Meetings

While these groups can meet anywhere, the most common settings where meetings take place are public places such as meeting halls, church basements, and schools. There are two main types of meetings those in 12-step programs can attend. The first meeting type is an open meeting in which everyone is welcome to attend, whether or not they have a substance abuse issue.

Open meetings are a great way for people to know more about AA, NA, or other similar groups and people can determine if it will be the right recovery group for them. There are also closed meetings that are open only to AA members and those prospective members who wish to join the group. Those who attend closed meetings have expressed the desire to stop drinking or using drugs.

The Typical Formats of AA Meetings

There are also specific meeting formats these recovery groups utilize within the open/closed meeting format. There are speaker meetings where members share their experiences, how they found the program, and how the program has helped them in their recovery.

There are also discussion meetings where one member speaks briefly about their own struggles with their addiction, then leads a discussion about recovery pertaining to a certain one of the Twelve Steps, or a topic related to addiction. Additionally, there are specific Step meetings in which discussion revolves around one of the 12 Steps.

What Happens During An AA Meeting?

While the format of a particular recovery meeting can vary depending on the type of meeting and group, each group roughly follows the same steps. After the chairperson calls the meeting to order, they introduce themselves and open the meeting with the Serenity Prayer or other similar prayers.

The chairperson of the meeting will then go into a short description of what the particular group is and mention that the group is non-denominational and self-supporting and that the AA group doesn’t engage in specific causes or wishes to engage in any controversy.

There also may be specific readings that group members will read aloud to the group. The group leader will also ask if there are any newcomers to the meeting or specific recovery group. Newcomers will be asked to raise their hands and be acknowledged by the group.

Knowing When to Speak During an AA Meeting

Depending on the meeting, each member of the group will have an opportunity to speak on the meeting topic.

It is important for other group members not to engage in any form of cross-talk or offer those who are speaking advice. If someone doesn’t want to speak, they can simply say “I will pass”. Once the meeting is concluded, the group will come together and recite a prayer or other reading.

12-step groups are self-supporting and will “pass the hat” during a meeting in order to solicit donations. These donations will be used to pay rent on the meeting room, pay dues to the state and national chapters, and get books and other items.

Literature materials and guidance on group matters are taken from the Alcoholics Anonymous World Services group, which forms an overarching governing body for the organization.

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Get Started on a Lasting Path to Sobriety Now!

If you or a loved one is suffering from alcoholism or addiction, understand that you are not alone in your struggles! If you are ready to change your life and finally be free of your addiction, then Find Addiction Rehabs can help.

Our representatives can give you the jump-start you need in order to experience the recovery you have always wanted. Whether you are looking for a 12-step based program for your personal recovery or seeking an alternative, we can and will assist with a treatment center matched to your needs.

Reach out today for a confidential discussion of how we can support you or your loved one now!

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