When we first start drinking or abusing drugs, it might take some time before we see any real consequences. Many of us begin with simple experimentation, and everything appears just fine. But as our use continues to increase, we gradually find ourselves slipping downhill. Before we even realize what’s happening, our lives no longer resemble what they once were. This is the point at which we hit rock bottom. Perhaps we thought that we were fine before, but we come to realize that we need help if we are to salvage the life we’ve so recklessly wasted on drugs and alcohol. Upon making this realization, we may turn to a 12 Steps recovery program for guidance.
The 12 Steps are essentially the same for both Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA), although we will use the AA wording here since it is more commonly known. Below, you’ll find a paragraph explaining each of the 12 Steps in brief. In each paragraph, you’ll find embedded links. Each of these links will take you to a page containing a more thorough breakdown of the step in question. This should help those who find themselves especially interested in a particular step. But if you’re entirely new to the concept of the 12 Steps, this brief overview should satisfy as an introduction.
Don’t worry too much if any of the 12 Steps seem difficult at the moment. They are ordered for a reason. Nobody expects you to do all of the 12 Steps at once. Recovery should always be taken one day at a time. We hope, however, that the following outline will give you faith that recovery is possible with a bit of sincere effort.
“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.”
Many say that Step One is the most important of all the 12 Steps. By accepting that we lack control over our substance abuse, we establish a necessary foundation of being honest with ourselves. This foundation then informs the rest of our work in recovery. If we can’t accept that substance abuse is ruining our lives, the rest of the 12 Steps will do little to help us. We must learn to see that our actions bear consequences, and that continued substance abuse will only serve to ensure that our lives remain unmanageable. Upon complete acceptance of this fact, we are ready to move forward.
“Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”
Some addicts and alcoholics wince at Step Two, believing it to be religious in nature. This, however, is something of a misconception. We don’t need religion to find spirituality. Whether our Higher Power is God or something else, the most important thing is that we learn to see outside of ourselves. The insanity of addiction often stems from our belief that the world exists between our two ears. If we can come to believe in something greater than ourselves—be it God, fate, science or simply our AA/NA group—we can begin to humble ourselves and regain our capacity for rational thinking.
“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”
Now that our Higher Power is defined, we must begin putting faith in it. Step Three requires us to let go of control. For years, our best intentions failed to reap many positive outcomes. By the time we enter recovery, we usually know from experience that willpower wasn’t enough to keep us sober. We tried to control everything and everyone around us, often resorting to substance abuse when things didn’t turn out the way we wanted. By accepting our lack of control, we actually gain quite a bit of power. Things won’t always work out the way we want, and this is okay. The only thing we can control is our own course of action. This action begins as we continue moving through the 12 Steps.
“Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
Step Four refers to a moral inventory, which usually boils down to a basic list. We begin by listing our resentments against others, detailing why we held these resentments in the first place. Many also recommend that we make a list of our fears, noting how they affected our substance abuse. Some may wish to make a list of their sexual conduct as well. When making our inventory in Step Four, it’s usually best to ask a sponsor or other spiritual advisor for guidance. We’ll need their input, since we’ll be working with them closely in the rest of the 12 Steps.
“Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”
Step Five follows directly from the step before it. With our inventory in hand, we seek out our spiritual advisor and share every item on our list. It is important that we leave no stone unturned, no matter how uncomfortable we may feel. When going over our inventory with a sponsor, we often find that we were afraid for nothing. Our sponsor likely had a similar inventory when they were working the 12 Steps themselves. This gives us a bit of relief. More than anything, however, the honesty required in Step Five will remove the burden of secrecy that we carried for so long during our addiction.
“Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”
When working the last two steps, we likely uncovered many character defects that presented themselves during our addiction. We discovered that we often played a part in our long-held resentments, be it due to control issues or other shortcomings that we exhibited while abusing drugs and alcohol. Upon reaching Step Six, we must become ready to relieve ourselves of these burdens. If we are certain that the last two steps are complete, then we already know precisely which shortcomings require the most immediate attention. Having confronted our past, we should be more ready than ever to continue our journey of spiritual growth.
“Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”
Much as Step Five connects to Step Four, we find that Step Seven acts as a continuation of Step Six. Now that we are ready to let go of our shortcomings, we say a humble prayer with this goal in mind. We pray to be unfettered from any defects of character that drive our addiction. The goal of this prayer is to state humbly that we wish to become more useful in recovery. Not only do we wish to let go of our defects, but also to replace them with more positive attributes. As we continue working the 12 Steps, our goal becomes to exhibit these attributes in our thoughts and behaviors.
“Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.”
Step Eight is precisely what it says on the tin. We must make a list of people who are deserving of amends. This might mean financial amends, or simply a humble admission of guilt. When making our list, we often find that many of the names coincide with the names on our resentment list from Step Four. As much as we blamed these individuals for unfortunate encounters in the past, we must examine our own part. Leave no name off the list, no matter what your reason for wanting to do so. You might not make amends to everybody, but for now the goal is just to take inventory.
“Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
Upon reaching Step Nine, we may end up removing some names from the list. After presenting our list to a sponsor or spiritual advisor, we tell them why each person deserves amends. In some cases, they might suggest that we not approach a certain person. Many people might actually be emotionally hurt by hearing from us again. In some instances, we might hurt ourselves. For instance, it would be unwise to make financial amends to a drug dealer, as we might be tempted to buy from them in the process. As for everyone else, we must make our amends with utmost sincerity. Not everyone will accept our amends, but this is no excuse for shirking our responsibilities. The 12 Steps are not about getting a free pass from everyone we harmed. They are about spiritual growth. We must therefore keep our focus on cleaning our own side of the street.
“Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”
Step Ten marks a new chapter in the 12 Steps. At this point, no step can technically be fully completed. Instead, we begin practicing the principles of recovery every single day as part of a new way of life. When we reach the end of the day, we should look back over the past 24 hours. We then identify moments in which we harbored resentments or did harm to others. If our character defects presented themselves at any moment, we must seek to rectify the situation as soon as possible. In other words, each of the 12 Steps is present in our lives from this point forward. By taking our inventory daily, we enable ourselves to consistently practice the principles learned in Step Five and Step Nine. In doing so, we are able to grow a little more with the passing of every day.
“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.”
Continuing this last leg of the 12 Steps, we should be praying and/or meditating on a daily basis. We use our prayers not to ask for something we may not deserve, but rather to ask what is right. This requires the same sense of humility learned in the first three steps. Step Eleven reminds us that we cannot control everything. Perhaps we will not know the will of our Higher Power until that will has already been carried out. This is okay. What matters now is that we don’t become stubborn, seeking to impose our willpower on other people and situations in vain. We learn to see that everything happens for a reason. Perhaps we don’t love the way that things were meant to work out, but we must accept them nonetheless. There is great freedom in realizing that we don’t always hold the reins.
“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.”
Working the 12 Steps should lead us toward great spiritual enlightenment. Step Twelve encourages us to share this light with others. We do so in two ways. First, we seek to help other addicts and alcoholics. We become sponsors to others who might be struggling in early recovery. Just like us, these individuals might not comprehend the 12 Steps with great ability. Fortunately, we are there to help them. Not only do we work with them, but we lead by example. Newcomers see the 12 Steps reflected by our own behaviors. In many cases, this encourages them to stay sober for at least another 24 hours, so that they may one day experience the joy that we feel in sobriety.
This ability to help others by simply living our lives to the fullest is a wonderful gift. If you’re new to the 12 Steps, it may seem far off. To some, it might even sound impossible. But worry not. With enough dedication, we can all get there in time.