12-stepping into the 21st century
By John Christensen
For the ©Atlanta Journal-Constitution
October 19, 2008
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.
Editor’s note: Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all of the traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, according to the organization’s literature. For that reason, we have chosen to identify by first name only the AA members quoted in this story.
On May 16, 2004, Bob awoke at 2 a.m. in the driver’s seat of his car with a
bottle of vodka in his lap. He was in the parking lot of a convenience store,
but he had no idea where the store was.
“I had developed a tendency to get angry and drink and drive and be gone for a couple of days,” Bob says. “This was one of those crazy excursions. I could have been in Arkansas or Minnesota. I figured it would seem stupid to stagger into the store and ask where I was, so I drove around until I figured it out.”
He shakes his head. “Great logic.”
Luckily, he was in Conyers.
“When I got home, my heart was pounding, I was sweating and the room was spinning, like a thousand times before. But I’d scared myself so much that the fear of continuing to live like that overcame my fear and reluctance of turning my life and will over to God.”
Bob was willing to admit that he was powerless over alcohol and prayed to God to take the burden from him.
“It sounds stupid, but I felt the presence of something in the room,” he says. “I could feel it, and then it felt like an elephant had been sitting on my chest, and it got up and walked away. Something big and good had happened.”
Bob hasn’t had a drink since, and attributes his abstinence to the five Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings he attends every week.
“Every time I go, I’m reminded that I’m an alcoholic and I have a problem,” he says. “But it can be overcome, and I am overcoming.”
It’s been 73 years since AA began, and the 12-step concept it fathered is more popular than ever. Twelve-step programs now treat millions around the world for everything from drug addiction, gambling and overeating to clutter, sexual compulsion and workaholism.
“Twelve-step programs are very helpful for a lot of people, especially when it comes to substance abuse issues,” says Dr. Tommie Richardson, a staff member of the Ridgeview Institute. “They are the most successful modality we know of right now. The fact that they’ve been around so long and continue to thrive tells you that.”
“It’s a brilliant program,” says Tere Tyner Canzoneri, a minister and pastoral counselor at The Emmanuel Center for Pastoral Counseling in Atlanta. “There’s not a person on the planet who couldn’t benefit from working the steps.” Robby Carroll, a minister at Shallowford Presbyterian Church and a marriage and family therapist, regularly refers clients to 12-step programs because “they’re the only programs that understand the challenge of addiction.”
Addiction has resisted the best efforts of science, medicine, psychiatry, social workers and social pressure before and since the providential meeting in 1935 of Bill Wilson, a New York stockbroker, and Dr. Bob Smith, an Akron, Ohio, surgeon.
Both were alcoholics, but Wilson used spiritual principles and the insight that alcoholism was a disease to get sober. After he persuaded Smith to follow suit, they began working with other alcoholics and started the first AA group that same year.
Favorable publicity and the publication in 1939 of Wilson’s book “Alcoholics Anonymous” anchored the program’s status and popularity.
Today AA is the largest of the 12-step programs (followed by Narcotics Anonymous and Al-Anon) with an estimated worldwide membership of 2 million. Experts, citing the difficulty of estimating anonymous fellowships, believe the numbers are much higher.
There are more than 400 groups and 1,100 AA meetings a week in the Atlanta area alone. Dr. Steven Lee, medical director of Summit Ridge Hospital and director of Addiction Services in Gwinnett County, estimates addictions affect 15 to 20 percent of the population in Gwinnett alone.
“We’re just touching the tip of the iceberg that needs treatment,” he says.
The 12 steps are a rigorous program of spirituality, self-examination and self-renewal that Smith, affectionately remembered as “Dr. Bob” by 12-steppers, summarized as “Trust God, clean house and help others.”
Trusting God doesn’t come easily, however. Many participants either don’t believe in God or blame Him for their difficulties, which is why the steps refer to “a Power greater than ourselves” and “God as we understood him.” Mention of religion during meetings is forbidden, and rigorously enforced.
Nevertheless, therapists say that some find spirituality of any stripe objectionable and don’t return. Nor do 12-step programs always work with those in the early stages of addiction.
“I see folks who have gotten into treatment after a DUI or who think it’s an aberration,” says Bob Fredrick, a clinical social worker and therapist in Atlanta. “They say ‘I just don’t connect there’ or ‘I’m not as bad as them.’ There’s a lot of denial with addiction.”
Lee says there is an organization for physicians that relies on conventional therapy and medication rather than meetings. “I disagree,” he says, “but they’re not the core of the recovery community. It’s hard for them to admit they’re powerless.”
There are other recovery groups, says Scott Maddox, an addiction counselor and executive director of Alpha Recovery in Atlanta and Brunswick, “but all the evidence shows that the 12-step approach is the most successful.”
And while individual therapy gets to core issues faster, he says, 12-step programs are superior because, “You have people who have common problems and experience with solutions to those problems. They provide a support network for ongoing recovery that therapy doesn’t provide.”
“They’re one of the few places that folks really feel understood,” AA member Frederick says. “Folks ready to deal with addictions find kindred spirits who understand that they’re dealing with a disease, and it’s not a willpower or moral issue.”
Bob says he thinks the steps are pure genius.
“When they started to take hold,” he says, “I realized it wasn’t about stopping drinking, it was really about living sober.”
The program, he says, offers a systematic formula for living life.
“It’s a toolbox,” he says, “to get me through life. Before, I had one tool, and that was a bottle opener.”
AL-ANON HELPS SPOUSE DEAL WITH DISEASE
Peggy knows how long she’s been in Al-Anon by calculating how long her husband’s been sober: 25 years.
“I’ve been in 27 years,” she says. “In the beginning I didn’t really want it, but I needed it. Then I realized I really wanted it, that it was good for me. I knew what was going on. He couldn’t con me anymore. I went to a lot of AA and Al-Anon meetings, so I was very aware of the disease.
“The alcoholic is drinking, and we’re hugging the alcoholic. We’re perfectionists, sensitive, fun and caring. It’s almost the same disease, except we’re not allergic to alcohol.”
She attends two or three Al-Anon meetings a week, and accompanies her husband to AA meetings a couple of times a month.
“It’s a miracle,” she says. “I’ve learned so much, but I don’t know it all, so I keep going. I think it’s for all people, not just those with alcohol problems. It just makes for a better life.”
‘YOUR PART IS THE ONLY THING YOU HAVE CONTROL OVER’
Karen, a single mother with a 9 1/2-year-old daughter, is a recovering alcoholic who’s been sober and attending AA meetings for 22 years. Two years ago, she began going to Al-Anon as well.
“I was dating a crack addict,” she said. “It was the most insane thing I could do. I knew I loved alcoholics; that’s the gist of it. They’re fabulous people, exciting. In Al-Anon, you learn to focus on yourself because your part is the only thing you have control over.”
Karen’s daughter attends a weekly meeting of Alateen (for children and teens affected by alcoholism in a family member) and “loves it. She’s never known me to drink, but she gets a lot of help with what she’s going through with her father.”
Karen says the meetings “taught me to apply spirituality in a way I didn’t learn in church. I have freedom to do anything I want to do, to be anything I want to be… .”
FORMER GAMBLER LEARNS TO LIVE WITH INTEGRITY
Mike went to his first Gamblers Anonymous meeting in 1974, but he didn’t take the program seriously until 2000 when he lost $400,000 in one night.
“Gambling is one of the most insidious addictions because your own mind is the drug,” he says. “Gambling produces endorphins and adrenaline, so you don’t need to put anything into your body.”
Mike began overeating in the mid-1990s, topping out at 330 pounds, but it was 2001 before he attended an Overeaters Anonymous meeting.
“It was wonderful,” he says. “That was 27 years after my first meeting, and it was the first time I got what the steps meant, and how to apply them to my life.”
He now attends GA and Al-Anon meetings, crediting them with helping him live “a life of integrity. GA helps me not to gamble, but there’s a lot more life lessons in Al-Anon. I learn how to live with people who are broken, and with the brokenness in myself, too.”
THE 12 STEPS OF ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol —- that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11. 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.
12. 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.
Note: Other 12-step groups have adapted AA’s steps, sometimes changing the wording to accommodate the needs of their constituents. Al-Anon, for example, changed one word, replacing “alcoholics” in Step 12 with “others.”
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