For those seeking to break free from addiction to drugs and alcohol, one of the most widely used — and easily accessible — tools has been the Twelve Steps, first published in 1939 in the book,”Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered from Alcoholism.”
Not much has changed since 1939, in what the Twelve Steps require of individuals, in order to regain control of their lives. The process, known to its adherents as “working the steps,” involves taking individual responsibility for one’s actions, admitting that one is powerless to control the addiction, and seeking the help of a higher power in order to heal
The benefits of the Twelve Step method are widely known: acceptance into a fellowship of non-users who regularly attend meetings to discuss their addictions, face their actions, and atone for them through spiritual practice and forgiveness.
Although Alcoholics Anonymous and its many offshoots do not conduct or allow others to conduct research into the effectiveness of the methods, the military has produced studies that show individuals who attend meetings are 60% more likely to achieve sobriety than those who do not.
Millions of men and women around the world have used the Twelve Steps to break free from a wide variety of addictions and compulsions. More than 200 self-help organizations around the world have adopted twelve-step principles for help with compulsion for, and/or addiction to, gambling, crime, food, sex, hoarding, debting and over-working, among others.
Where did the Twelve Steps come from?
According to an article published by AA co-founder Bill W. in 1953, there were three primary sources of inspiration: the Oxford Groups, Dr. William D. Silkworth of Towns Hospital, and the famed psychologist, William James, widely considered the father of modern psychology.
The Oxford Groups, an evangelical movement which became popular in the 1920’s and early 30’s, preached concepts like absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness and absolute love.
They also practiced a type of confession, which they called “sharing,” the making of amends for harms done they called “restitution.” They believed in the value of “quiet time,” a form of meditation and seeking of God’s guidance, practiced in both group and individual settings.
Dr. Silkworth spent years helping alcoholics dry out at Towns Hospital in New York City. One of his core beliefs, which he often spoke on, was the disease concept of alcoholism — defined as an obsession of the mind combined with an allergy of the body.
William James’ major contribution to the philosophical underpinnings of AA was his book “Varieties of Religious Experience.” In his book, James provided scientific validation for the concept of spiritual experiences, which he said could transform people and enable them to overcome personal defeat and find recovery.
The Twelve Steps could be considered a personal roadmap for achieving sobriety and serenity and living a life of freedom from addiction to alcohol and drugs. Each of the steps is only one sentence in length, but each one contains enough universally applicable wisdom and power to fill a book.
While the 12 steps have provided a path to recovery for countless alcoholics, drug addicts and others seeking to break free from addictive or compulsive behavior, they have also sparked controversy and debate over the decades.
The major source of controversy is AA’s longstanding emphasis on a belief in God. AA supporters point out that, in the AA context, that means belief in “a higher power,” a belief in something larger than the self. The phrase was coined in the early years of AA. Those who use the steps are free to interpret that as they see fit.
A higher power doesn’t necessarily have to mean a deity, and that those who use the steps are free to interpret “higher power,” as they see fit, based on their personal beliefs. The phrase could be applied to mean the power of the group, or nature.
Some AA members around the world who don’t accept faith in a god as a necessary tenet have formed their own agnostic AA groups. More than 90 unofficial, self-described “agnostic AA” groups now meet regularly in the U.S., according to Patheos.com.
The debate continues. Some think the 82-year old organization has drifted away from its core principles and become too lenient, Lee Ann Kaskutas, senior scientist at the Public Health Institute’s Alcohol Research Group in Emeryville, Calif., told CharismaNews.com. “Others think it’s too strict, so they want to change AA and make it get with the times.”
Newcomers to AA are often advised to “take what you need and leave the rest,” Kaskutas points out. That flexibility allows participants to put together a recovery program that fits their needs. It’s one of the reasons AA still works for people, eight decades after its founding.