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Understanding the Twelve Steps

An Interpretation and Guide for Recovering



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About The Book

Millions of people have transformed their lives by working the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Their success has come from their ability to truly understand these principles and to apply them in their daily lives. Yet for many embarking on the road to recovery, the Steps can seem vague, even confusing.
This practical, no-nonsense guide takes the mystery out of the Twelve Steps, presenting a straightforward explanation of what each step means, as well as examples of how it translates to real life. Written by a certified alcoholism and drug abuse counselor with more than twenty years of experience, it offers a wealth of wisdom, knowledge, and genuine support for anyone in recovery.
Understanding the Twelve Steps features:
—Clear, easy-to-understand interpretation of the Twelve Steps—the vital building blocks of recovery
—Checklists that summarize the tasks and objectives of each step
—The Twelve Promises -- the positive changes you can expect in your life if you follow the Twelve Steps
—What happens at Twelve Step meetings and why it is important to have a sponsor
—The experiences, strength, and hope of other recovering people


Chapter 1


This book describes the single, most effective program for the treatment of alcoholism. That program, of course, is Alcoholics Anonymous, best known as A.A. Alcoholics Anonymous is a worldwide fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength, and hope with each other in an effort to recover from alcoholism. It is a voluntary fellowship. No one is forced to belong, but millions of voluntary members benefit greatly from their involvement. If you want to make Twelve Step programs work for you, you need to understand the fellowship of A.A. and how to work with it. This book is intended to help you do just that.

Many people find the miracle of sobriety by working the Twelve Steps. Since nothing else has worked for them, many believe that the Steps are mystical and magical, and, as a result, these same persons fail to search for and identify the underlying principles that make them work. Working the Steps can create the miracle of sobriety, but the miracle isn't magic. The miracle occurs because working the Twelve Steps allows people to use powerful principles of recovery. Those who are willing to dig beneath the surface and truly understand the principles upon which the Steps are based are better able to use the principles in their lives.

The primary purpose of A.A. is to help alcoholics stop drinking. It was never intended to be all things to all people; however, A.A. recognizes that the Twelve Steps can help people with other problems. Thus, it allows organizations such as Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Marijuana Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, and others to use its Steps and principles. These related fellowships are developing as separate organizations so that A.A. can keep its primary focus on helping alcoholics to stop drinking.

A.A. is based upon a program of Twelve Steps to recovery that act as a personal guide to sobriety, and Twelve Traditions that act as guiding principles or bylaws for A.A. as a whole. Knowledge of the Twelve Steps is of critical importance to all recovering people for two reasons: (1) The Steps work if you work them, and (2) Twelve Step programs are inexpensive and readily available in most communities. As a result, they are the most widely used lifeline for people recovering from chemical dependence, codependence, and other compulsive or addictive disorders.


As a result of the Traditions, A.A. is and shall forever remain nonprofessional. There are no medical professionals, as such, involved in designing or running A.A. or other Twelve Step programs. Although medical professionals do join as members, they have no more or no less influence on the organization than other members. Twelve Step programs do not provide medical or psychiatric treatment or psychotherapy. If you are involved in any Twelve Step program that has a psychotherapist in charge who runs it like a therapy group, be cautious. You are probably not at a Twelve Step meeting. This situation rarely, if ever, occurs in A.A.; however, it does happen in some of the newer Twelve Step programs.

If you are attending a Twelve Step meeting that is run by a psychotherapist who individually counsels the members, it is not a Twelve Step meeting; it is a therapy group. It is important to learn the difference, because Twelve Step meetings are based on the Twelve Steps of A.A. and the leaders act in a nonprofessional role.

A.A. members help themselves and others to stay sober. Members can be assured that they are not going to be solicited for donations or asked to get involved in anything else. Individual members of A.A. do have the right to participate in any religion, political forum, or cause that they wish. There are no restrictions. But they are not allowed to present themselves as A.A. members or to bring the name of A.A. into any controversy.


Nobody is forced to do anything in A.A. It is one of the few organizations I know that supports the inherent constitutional right to do what we want. There is no coercion to participate on any level. If you want to belong, that's fine. You are welcome to attend meetings and work the Steps. If you don't want to belong, that's also fine.

For most members, however, their involvement progresses through a number of levels. At the first level, they attend meetings. At the second, they read Twelve Step literature and discuss it with other members of the program. At the third level, they get a sponsor who can show them how the program works. At the fourth level, they start working the Twelve Steps. As members start to grow and change -- a result of attending meetings and working the Steps -- they are ready to move to a fifth level of involvement and begin sponsoring others. After they gain experience as sponsors, they are then ready for the sixth level of involvement, general service work, guided by A.A.'s Twelve Traditions, the set of principles that act as bylaws. General service work is designed to benefit A.A. as a whole. Notice the progression: Individuals help themselves first, then they help other people in the program, then they help the program as a whole. In summary, the levels of involvement are as follows:

1. Attending meetings

2. Reading and discussing A.A. literature

3. Getting a sponsor

4. Working the Twelve Steps

5. Sponsoring others

6. Service guided by the Traditions

Attending Meetings

You start working a Twelve Step program by regularly attending meetings. In A.A. it is said, "If you bring the body, the mind will follow," because the Twelve Step program rubs off on people if they hang around long enough. Attending meetings isn't a passive process. Working a program means you need to get actively involved, participating at the meetings you attend. The easiest way to take part is to say, "I pass" -- a perfectly acceptable remark. No one in a Twelve Step program is obligated to say more. Most people, however, want to say more because they find it both enjoyable and beneficial. The more open and honest your comments, the faster you get well.

There is a joke that asks, "What is the difference between a drunk and an alcoholic?" Answer: "A drunk doesn't have to go to meetings; an alcoholic does!" A.A. stresses the importance of attending meetings, especially during the first three months of sobriety. Many members suggest attending ninety meetings in ninety days. By doing "ninety in ninety," beginners receive an intense exposure to the Twelve Step program and the people who use it. The principle that underlies doing "ninety in ninety" is a simple one -- the more meetings you attend early on, the greater your chances of long-term recovery. There is no rule, of course, that you have to attend exactly ninety meetings in the first ninety days; go as often as your lifestyle allows. But keep in mind that the more meetings you attend, the faster you will get well.

Many members complain about having to attend meetings, but those who recover keep going even when they don't feel like it. You don't have to like going to meetings, you just have to keep going. Meetings are the lifeline to sobriety. When you attend meetings, you take a needed time-out from an alcohol- and drug-centered world and remind yourself that you are an alcoholic, cannot safely use alcohol and other drugs, and that you need the fellowship of other sober alcoholics to stay sober.

Reading Twelve Step Literature

The second level of involvement is to read Twelve Step literature and discuss your reactions, both positive and negative, with other members. The early members of A.A. identified the basic principles needed to get sober and stay that way. They compiled that information in two books -- Alcoholics Anonymous (often called the Big Book) and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. Both books are available from the central office of Alcoholics Anonymous in New York City. These books provide the basic principles needed to begin living the sober life.

Getting a Sponsor

After you feel comfortable going to meetings, making comments, and reading the basic literature, the third level of involvement is to get a sponsor. A sponsor is another member of the Twelve Step program who has more experience at recovery than you do. In order to get a sponsor, you must have participated in the program long enough to get to know people. Listen to the comments of others. Try to find someone you respect and admire, someone who knows more than you do about the program and can show you the ropes. In the business world, a sponsor is called a mentor.

When you find such a person and ask him or her to be your sponsor, you are in essence asking, "Would you be willing to spend time with me and teach me how you work the program?" There's a slogan in the Twelve Step program: "If you want what we have, you do what we did." And it's primarily in the sponsorship relationship that this principle comes alive. You find a sponsor who has the type of recovery you would like to have, ask him to teach you what steps he took, and then try to do those things in your recovery.

A therapist does not take the place of a sponsor. You need a Twelve Step sponsor even if you have the best therapist in the world. A good therapist will encourage recovering people to become involved in Twelve Step programs and to get a sponsor. As a therapist, I don't mandate Twelve Step attendance, but I do strongly encourage it. If someone refuses to attend even one meeting to see what the organization is all about, I may say, "If you're not willing to go to Twelve Step meetings, I'm not willing to treat you. Why? Because if you're not willing to go and find out what Twelve Step programs involve, I don't think you really want to do what's necessary to recover." I base this attitude on an A.A. slogan: "We must be willing to go to any lengths to get sober." If you are not willing to clear a few evenings and attend some meetings, I question your willingness to do what is necessary to recover.

Work the Steps

Once you have a solid relationship with a good sponsor, you move to the fourth level: working the Twelve Steps. Step work under the guidance of a sponsor is literally the heart and soul of most Twelve Step programs, and the bulk of this book deals with how to work the Steps. Members who go to meetings but refuse to work the Steps are not really working the program. To quote the Big Book, "Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path." People who genuinely want to recover do more than just go to meetings: They work the Steps under the guidance of their sponsor. Those who are not serious about recovery don't work the steps. It's just that simple.

Sponsoring Others

By attending meetings, reading Twelve Step literature, talking frequently with sponsors, and working the Steps, you begin to grow and change. The program will start to transform you. As you learn and grow, you need to reach out and start giving back to others what has been given to you so freely. In short, it is time to move onto the fifth level and begin sponsoring others.

Sponsorship has two purposes: to help yourself and to help the person you sponsor. It is important to remember that you sponsor others in order to help yourself. You are in no way responsible for the recovery or relapse of the people you sponsor. The primary goal is to share freely your own experience, strength, and hope, and by doing so, you help yourself and may help the person you are sponsoring. But there are no guarantees. A.A. is a selfish program: Recovering people help others in order to help themselves. This attitude is clearly summed up in an A.A. slogan: "In order to keep it, you have to give it away."

By pairing with someone who is less experienced with the Twelve Steps than you are, and by trying to help him or her, you gain new insights into your own recovery. When I first started teaching courses on counseling, I realized how much I didn't know. I became motivated to learn more. The same is true in sponsorship. When you try to answer the questions of a newcomer, you become aware of your own ignorance. You gain the courage to stretch and to grow. When someone you are sponsoring asks you a question and you don't know the answer, it is time to go to your own sponsor. By helping others, we have been forced to learn. The formula is simple: Attend meetings, work the Steps, have a sponsor, and sponsor others.

Service Guided by the Traditions

The sixth level of involvement is service guided by the Traditions. Every organization needs bylaws, and Twelve Step programs are no exception. The twelve fundamental bylaws that govern the operation of Twelve Step programs are called the Traditions. There is a need to maintain the organization of a Twelve Step program in order to make sure that the program continues to be available to help others. It is important to keep first things first. Service work is secondary to working the Steps and learning how to stay comfortable in recovery. But once A.A. members have a firm handle on their own recovery, service work is important to ensure the survival of the organization as a whole.


Father Joseph Martin, the creator of the film Chalk Talk and cofounder of the Ashley treatment center in Havre de Grace, Maryland, told me this story of A.A.'s cofounder, Bill Wilson. Bill tried to stay sober all by himself for a long period of time, but he could never manage more than a few weeks of sobriety. Then he had this crazy notion that maybe he could help himself stay sober by helping other people to stay sober. The first approach Bill tried was what I call the "scrape them off the bar stool" approach. He talked to all of his friends with drinking problems and tried to convince them to stop. Basically, he went on a crusade to sober up drunks. Six months later, he told his wife, Lois, "I've failed. I've been trying to help alcoholics now for six months, and I haven't helped one person to get sober." Lois looked at him and said, "Bill, you're wrong. You have helped someone. You haven't had a drink in six months." Thus, one of the first principles of A.A. was born. It is summarized in the slogan, "In order to keep it, you have to give it away." The benefit of A.A. is that its members, recovering people in Twelve Step programs, get well by helping others to get well.

By trying to help others, people in recovery transcend their own selfishness; they interrupt the self-centeredness that is central to most addictions and compulsions. By trying to help others, addicts no longer remain the central part of their own personal addictive network. They begin to expand their world beyond the tip of their nose. In doing so, they find new values to govern their lives.

A.A. provides a number of crystal-clear guidelines: Don't drink, go to meetings, get a sponsor, work the Steps. Beyond these basics, there is a lot of ambiguity. After reading A.A. literature or attending a meeting, it is common for a member to scratch his or her head and ask, "What does that mean?" Part of the power of A.A. lies in this ambiguity, which forces people to provide their own meaning when working the program. Recovering people must make up their own minds and decide what the A.A. principles mean for them. One of the hallmarks of A.A. is that it's a "selfish" program. Members decide for themselves what they take out of the meetings. Nobody tells them what their experience is. They take what fits them and they leave the rest.


Knowledge of the Traditions is important because these simple bylaws protect A.A. as a whole.

The First Tradition reads: "Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon A.A. unity." If the Fellowship of A.A. is destroyed, nobody gets sober. So when any decisions are made about A.A. as a whole, the common welfare of the organization is the primary concern.

The Second Tradition is: "For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority -- a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern." There are no leaders of A.A. Each group is governed by group conscience, the consensus of the group. The leaders in A.A. are but trusted servants of this group conscience. Since there is no centralized leadership, anyone who chooses to become active can influence the group. The organizational structure has but one purpose: to determine what the group conscience is and to act accordingly.

The Third Tradition is: "The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking." Anyone who says, "I want to stop drinking" can get in. That's the only requirement.

The Fourth Tradition reads: "Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole." Each group is autonomous and operates based upon its own group conscience. If you attend an A.A. meeting and don't like what is going on, you can call a group conscience meeting and discuss the situation. If you are in a minority and nobody else wants to do what you want to do, you have a right to go and start your own A.A. meeting someplace else.

The Fifth Tradition states: "Each group has but one primary purpose -- to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers." Notice that the Tradition specifies "alcoholic"; it doesn't say "chemically dependent person." There are other self-help groups, such as Narcotics Anonymous (N.A.), Cocaine Anonymous (C.A.), and so on, to help people whose drug of choice is something other than alcohol. A.A.'s primary purpose is to help alcoholics. Although many A.A. members are addicted to other drugs as well as alcohol, A.A.'s only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking, and its primary purpose is to carry the message of recovery to alcoholics who still suffer.

The Sixth Tradition is: "An A.A. group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the A.A. name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose." A.A. groups don't endorse, finance, or lend the A.A. name to any outside causes to avoid being diverted from their primary purpose of helping other alcoholics. In some communities, members of A.A. and nonmember friends of the program form nonprofit corporations or foundations that may purchase or rent buildings that they use as social clubs and meeting places. These clubs are not affiliated in any way with A.A. That's why A.A. has survived for so long. A.A. does one thing -- it helps alcoholics achieve sobriety. And that's what it does best!

The Seventh Tradition states: "Every A.A. group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions." Each group supports itself through the contributions of its own members and declines contributions from any outside source.

The Eighth Tradition states: "Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever nonprofessional, but our service centers may employ special workers." Although A.A. is nonprofessional, most large cities do have a small service office with a telephone number for people to call who need help. Local A.A. groups contribute part of their weekly donations to support these typically modest facilities. Service centers can hire staff if that seems appropriate, but most of them are manned by volunteers.

The Ninth Tradition is: "A.A. as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve." A.A. is not a traditional organization whose leaders control it from the top down. It is a network whose members run it from the bottom up. A.A.'s "government" is kept simple to avoid building a self-serving bureaucracy. This simplicity keeps control of the organization where it belongs -- in the hands of the recovering alcoholics who are attending meetings.

In various areas there are regional elected officers and regional service boards designed to meet the needs of local groups. Groups elect representatives, who meet to plan and coordinate such activities as public information workshops and regional conferences. They are not a required or mandated part of the Fellowship, and they can be voted in or out of existence.

The Tenth Tradition states: "Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy." A.A. has no opinions on anything except A.A. If somebody says A.A. thinks this or that, they are wrong -- unless they are saying that A.A. thinks there should be Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions and that alcoholics should not drink. Those are stances that A.A. takes for the benefit of its members. A.A., as an organization, has opinions only on the issue of helping alcoholics.

The Eleventh Tradition reads: "Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films." A.A. does not advertise or promote its program of recovery in any way. Instead, it attracts new members by the example set by the thousands of people who are sober as a result of participation in the fellowship. To avoid advertising or promoting A.A., members should never disclose in the press, on radio, or in films that they are members.

The Twelfth Tradition states: "Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities." The maintenance of anonymity is very important. The goal is to avoid having the A.A. program associated with any single personality or celebrity. A.A. as an organization is bigger than any of its individual members. The goal is to put principles before personalities.


Twelve Step groups are everywhere -- or so it seems. Alcoholics Anonymous, starting with its quiet beginnings in 1935, has emerged as a major influence that is shaping the future of America. John Naisbitt, a man who earns his living by analyzing future trends, confirms that A.A. and other self-help groups are part of a major national trend from professional care to self-care.

In the past, most Americans turned to professionals for help and support when things went wrong. But all that is changing as people take control of and responsibility for their own lives. Growing numbers of people are turning to self-help support groups as their primary source of assistance when trouble hits. Many of these groups are based upon the Twelve Steps of A.A.

There is a "statement of responsibility" in A.A. that says, "Anytime, anyone, anywhere reaches out for help, the hand of A.A. will be there, for this I am responsible." The incredible thing about this is that most A.A. members mean it! Any alcoholic who calls A.A. is referred to another member who gets that person to a meeting and orients him or her to the program. There is no charge for this highly personalized service. It happens because one alcoholic who feels that A.A. has saved his or her life is returning the favor to another alcoholic. The same is true in most other Twelve Step fellowships. Why? Because it is part of the program. Remember: "In order to keep it, you have to give it away!"

The popularity of A.A. and the Twelve Steps is not a fad. The Twelve Step philosophy is emerging as a powerful social trend. The Twelve Step movement is slowly creating a new way of thinking -- one person at a time, one day at a time, in a very "easy does it" manner. The number of A.A. spin-off groups that use the Twelve Steps is growing every day. Al-Anon was the first such group designed to help people who were affected by the alcoholism of another. Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoA) is another major spin-off of A.A. As America moved into the age of "better living through chemistry," a number of other drug-addiction recovery groups, such as Narcotics Anonymous, Marijuana Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, and Pills Anonymous, were begun for people whose primary drug of choice is one other than alcohol. There are also Overeaters Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Families Anonymous, Emotions Anonymous, and more than 200 other Twelve Step recovery groups. We are seeing a very powerful self-care movement that is readily available in most communities throughout the world.

In order to recover, chemically dependent people need to understand how to access the power of this movement to recover. Twelve Step groups provide a powerful source of information, courage, strength, and hope. And even though they will never totally replace professional care, these Twelve Step programs can be an effective, low-cost, and readily available adjunct to professional treatment.

Because A.A. is the single, most effective way to recover from chemical dependence, I strongly recommend it to all recovering people. If someone were to say to me, "I am only willing to do one thing for recovery. What should I do?" my answer as a professional counselor would be: "Go to A.A." Why? Because A.A. as a single, stand-alone source of help, is the most effective means of getting sober. There are more people sober as a result of attending A.A. and nothing else, than there are people who participate in all other forms of counseling and therapy combined. A.A. is by far the most powerful and most readily available recovery resource.

Copyright © 1998 by Terence T. Gorski

About The Author

Terence T. Gorski, MA, N.C.A.C. II, is the president of CENAPS® Corporation, a consultation and training firm that specializes in alcoholism, drug dependence, and mental-health services. He lives in Flossmoor, Illinois.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Touchstone (April 15, 1991)
  • Length: 208 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780671765583

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