Twelve Steps: A Path to Sobriety?

I was a guest at the meeting. As typically happens, there was a welcome from the leader followed by a prayer. Other people read from scripts: the Twelve Steps followed by the Twelve Traditions. The readings were followed by a speaker sharing his story of recovery from addiction that was attributed to the Twelve Step formula.

I attended the meeting to be of support to a friend who was marking one year of sobriety. I’m glad for him. He’s done a great deal of work on himself and his long time friends can see it. It’s been a great transition.

When someone finds a group or process that helps in personal growth and leads to a better life, I’m generally glad. But with Twelve Step programs, I’m generally cautious. I’m aware that numerous studies have found that the Twelve Step approach to recovery is effective for only 24 to 28% of people who try it. Interestingly, another group of addicts seem to recover on their own. Research suggests that’s about a quarter of all addicts. I’m not saying that those trying to break the cycle of addiction on their own works as well as the Twelve Steps. I think some people find AA and similar programs helpful for them but that other people recover on their own.

Despite its claim to be a spiritual program, the Twelve Steps follow a pattern found in a particular form of Christianity. Reformed Christianity, articulated by John Calvin, and evident in today’s Evangelical Christianity, teaches that on our own, our lives are a mess. (Calvin described it as “depravity.”) In this theological perspective, it’s only by belief in Jesus as a personal Savior that one can find salvation from life’s depravity. This tenet of Reformed Christianity finds a parallel in Steps 1 and 2 of Alcoholics Anonymous: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Because of this, I do understand what makes some people uncomfortable with the Twelve Steps. It’s a real stumbling block for some, which leads them to decide that Twelve Step programs are not for them.

There’s also something about the repeated statements among Twelve Step adherents that the program only works if a person works it. That could be viewed as a recipe for inspiring guilt when someone relapses into addictive patterns.

Acknowledging those criticisms that I take very seriously, I think that Twelve Step programs can be very significant for people. Further, the criticisms also lead to the consideration of possible strengths in the program.

There’s something profoundly important that occurs when a person recognizes that a problem has grown so significantly out of proportion that a person just can’t manage the problem any longer. It’s a moment of truth in saying, “I need help. I can’t do it alone.” This recognition doesn’t need to lead to magical thinking, a belief that an external deity will save me from self. Instead, it can be an opportunity to let go of trying to manage addictive patterns on one’s own, which can be very isolating, and open self to the care and support of others. Many people who have developed addictions have done so to soothe some other pain. The only way to move beyond such pain is to move through it. The best way of doing that is with others.

Further, to believe that a Power greater than self can empower me to overcome an addiction is to say that I believe that the addiction can be overcome. Believing that there is something that can be of help is the foundation for hope and a reason to work toward living in a new way. Somewhere out there is something that will empower me to break this cycle.

In a culture in which personal responsibility is routinely avoided, Twelve Step mantra that the program’s effectiveness is based on a person’s engagement in the program focuses an individual to consider the role of personal responsibility for one’s own well-being. Unless a person decides to do what it necessary to overcome a life obstacle, the obstacle won’t be overcome. One needs to believe it can happen, trust that the tools are available to make it happen, and be determined to make it happen.

Despite the criticism, I know that Twelve Step programs have helped some of my friends, colleagues, and numerous acquaintances find hope in the midst of very difficult times in life. They’ve learned how to take responsibility for self and to find a way out of very challenging circumstances. In that, they’ve come to understand that life is a process of growth that can take time and often requires effort. From these things comes the possibility of living in a way that appreciates and savors life as a precious gift rather than as something from which to escape.

For those who have found that Twelve Step programs aren’t a good match for them, perhaps other options like Rational Recovery groups, individual therapy, or specialty programs like the Red Road to Recovery developed by and for Native American people will prove to be a better fit. To think that one program will meet everyone’s needs is a bit naïve. However, there are foundational truths in all recovery programs: one has to want to be better and be willing to take responsibility to get better. Few people can do it by themselves, but there are ways to move forward and live more fully.

© 2013, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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