My good friend in recovery Keith Bray (he is also a recovery coach by the way) brought up the idea recently that the 12 steps are fundamental to recovery.
In other words, his argument is that all people who are recovering from drug and alcoholism are inherently using the 12 step process, whether they realize it or not. That is an intriguing idea so I felt it was worth further investigation. Let’s have a look.
The arguments for and against 12 step fundamentalism
12 steps is a lot to look at, so let’s back up for a second and just consider the first 3 steps of the 12 step program. It could be argued that all addicts and alcoholics who get clean and sober go through at least the first 3 of the 12 step program. These can be summarized loosely as:
“Admit to our problem of addiction, come to have hope for a new life, and make a decision to pursue sobriety.”
So could it be that the first 3 steps are fundamental to recovery? This would mean that anyone who gets clean and sober must go through them….even if they have never even heard of a 12 step program.
I believe step one is fundamental. Every struggling alcoholic and addict that I have worked with, including myself, all go through a process in which they resist the idea that they are a true alcoholic. We resist the idea and fight for control and eventually we have to surrender to this idea if we are going to make any sort of change in our life. Therefore I am convinced that the first step is fundamental to recovery. Every addict and alcoholic has to reach the point of surrender and face their disease head on and fully admit to their self that they cannot drink or use drugs successfully. If you don’t face this fact then you remain in denial and cannot change. Step one is fundamental.
I believe step two is fundamental. Now any addict or alcoholic who has reached this point will either have a shred of hope remaining in their life or they will not. If not, they will continue to drink or they will self destruct. If they do have a shred of hope for a new life then they have the ability to try to make a change. Without this hope there can be no motivation for change. Sometimes an addict or alcoholic can get this hope from seeing others who have been successful in recovery, but my personal belief is that this is not a great motivator, because we all think we are unique when we are trying to get clean and sober. We reason that others might not like drugs and alcohol and getting messed up as much as we did, so therefore they are able to be sober and happy and we will not be able to. When we take step two and find the hope to try a new way of life, it is like letting that idea slide so that we can give ourselves permission to try and change. If we never reach this point of hope and the idea of change then we cannot go any further in our recovery. Step two is fundamental.
I believe that step three is fundamental. Step 3 says: “Made a decision to turn out will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.” In early recovery, this step is a continuation of the surrender that brought a person in to recovery to begin with. The fact is that we do not know how to live without self medicating. We need direction and instruction to learn how to live a new life. We are giving up the reigns and taking direction from others. If we don’t do this then we will revert to what we already know, and that will lead us to relapse.
Recovery is a learning process. Learning how to live sober is an act of faith. Just facing life without medicating ourselves can be terrifying.
Some will get hung up on the word “God” in step 3 and say that this step cannot be fundamental to recovery, because many have recovered without coming to believe in a higher power. While this is basically true, I would challenge people to forget about the actual words used and realize that “God” in this case just means “higher power.” We have all heard the spiritual/religious debates within the fellowship and everyone knows that “God” can be taken as “the universe,” or “nature,” or whatever else someone believes in (or even nothing at all…many atheists have succeeded in recovery without changing their beliefs).
If you honestly believe that only one interpretation of God can keep people clean and sober then you need to get back in your time machine and go back to the stone ages.
Once you get past the “God” word in step 3, I believe it is still fundamental for recovery. The idea remains the same: “Made a decision to start doing something different with my life.” That is the essence of step 3 and it continues on with the surrender from step one and the hope for a new life in step two.
In other words, if we interviewed several people who have been living in recovery for several years, we could hear different stories about how they each worked step 3 in their own unique way. This would be true even if the people had never heard of a 12 step program. They all would have made a huge decision to change their life on a massive level. Step 3 is fundamental.
So the first 3 steps are fundamental for recovery…what about the rest of them?
I know this will ruffle some feathers out there but my stance is that steps 4 through 12 are not fundamental to recovery.
People who frequent a 12 step program will cry out at this, saying that everyone who works steps one, two and three without going any further are doomed to relapse. They cite examples of those who relapsed because they delayed doing a fourth step. I am well aware of these arguments.
I do not entirely disagree with these arguments, either. But the fact is that steps 4 through 12 could be completely rewritten to include different actions and different ideas, and people could (and would) still recover. Each step can be correlated to a spiritual principle but even those principles are not fundamental to recovery itself, in my opinion.
What is more important after steps one through three is action. Yes, those who delay doing a fourth step generally relapse, but it is not because they did not do a fourth step. It’s because they did not do anything. The key is action. We have to do stuff in order to recover.
There are other programs out there that are not 12 step based and do not even contain the same spiritual principles that the steps are based on, and people can and do recover using these alternate programs as long as they put in the footwork. You still have to take action.
Steps 1 through 3 are fundamental. If you got clean and sober, then you went through them. But there is no magic in steps 4 through 12. They are one path to recovery, but they are not the only path. They are not fundamental because many have recovered and are living a life of recovery without using those steps at all, or even practicing the spiritual principle that those steps are based on.
Just my 2 cents of course, and I would love to hear some opposing viewpoints in the comments to explore the idea further.
The solution: do what works for you!
Ultimately, you should do what works for you. How do you find this out? Testing! Try different things. Try working the 12 step program. If it works for you then this is great, you have your solution. Run with it. If it feels lacking, then explore other avenues of growth.
Remember, you are ultimately responsible to find your own path in recovery. You are responsible for finding a solution that works for you.