I would like to begin this interpretation of the 12 Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous with a brief explanation of the origins of its philosophy.
The 12 Step philosophy of AA, is an integration of the medical model of Alcoholism, basic Christian principles, philosophy and psychology. Bill Wilson, co-founder of AA, who in collaboration with the early members of the fellowship wrote the 12 Steps and the book Alcoholics Anonymous,(AKA the Big Book, first published in 1939.) was influenced by these disciplines and certain individuals.
The origin of AA’s concept of recovery from alcoholism by means of a ‘spiritual experience’ can be said to have begun with the famous Swiss psychiatrist Dr Carl Gustav Jung, who suggested to one of his patients, Rowland Hazard, that the only solution to his hopeless condition was a spiritual or religious conversion experience. Rowland Hazard, then sought out this experience in the non-denominational Christian Oxford Group. He then passed this message onto Ebby Thatcher, who was a drinking friend of Bill Wilson. The Oxford Group placed emphasis upon the spiritual principles of Surrendering, self-survey, admission of faults, making amends, asking God for guidance and witnessing. Wilson adapted these tenets and added Steps 1, 2, 6, 7 and 10. This is how the 12 Steps came into being as the method of change required in order to bring about the solution to the problem of alcoholism. Wilson had gained an understanding of the ‘problem’ while being treated for alcoholism in hospital.
While in the Towns Hospital in New York, Bill Wilson received his understanding of Alcoholism as an illness of the mind and body from his physician Dr William Silkworth. The Medical Model of Alcoholism suggests a mental obsession combined with a physical sensitivity/allergy. The medical view of the time considered advanced alcoholic addiction to be a pathological craving condemning the sufferer to death. In the ‘Doctor’s Opinion’ at the beginning of the Big Book, Silkworth suggests that the only hope for the chronic alcoholic was an ‘entire psychic change.’
The Liberal and pragmatic principles of AA, were strongly influenced by the American philosopher and psychologist William James. James’s book ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’ had a profound effect upon Bill Wilson, while he was in the Towns Hospital. The book is a study of the diversity of ways individuals experience the spiritual, divine or God.
William James was famous for developing the ‘philosophy of pragmatism,’ which suggests that in matters of faith, rather than fact, it’s how helpful the belief is to the individual that’s important. In AA, it is often paraphrased as “what works for you.” In the ‘12 Steps & 12 Traditions’, Wilson states that ‘Alcoholics Anonymous does not demand that you believe anything. All of its 12 Steps are but suggestions.’ (P.26 Step Two.) AA is truly against dogmatism and only requires an open minded attitude, hence the freedom to choose a God or Higher Power of one’s own understanding. Individuals of an Atheist, Agnostic or Humanist persuasion often use the AA group and the Steps as a collective Power Greater than themselves which can help bring about psychological and behavioural change.
I would also like to suggest that American society in which Bill Wilson and AA originated had a strong influence on the liberal principles of AA philosophy and its ‘traditions’. American society was the first major modern Liberal Democracy, with public matters being based upon liberal, humanistic values and religious belief being a private matter.
Some of the early members of AA, were agnostic or atheist and Wilson himself had walked away from his Christian upbringing throughout his drinking career, only renewing his belief in God when he became sober and involved with the Oxford Group. The founding members of AA had to make compromises between those who were religiously minded and those members who were agnostic or atheist. The desire for an inclusive fellowship and program of recovery led to the suggestions of a “Power Greater” and “God as we understood Him” contained in the Steps and also Tradition Three states that “ The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.” Members are welcome regardless of faith, gender or any other differences.
The variety of beliefs within AA necessitates the importance in the fellowship placed upon the Liberal values of tolerance and acceptance of difference. The primary common purpose of helping each other to recover from addiction being the focus of the AA group which binds those differences together. The AA historian Ernest Kurtz, referred to this principle as “joyous pluralism” in his book ‘Not-God, A History of Alcoholics Anonymous.’ (P. 151, Hazelden Press, 1979)
It is worth mentioning at this point that several empirical research studies between 2002-2007, have shown that positive drinking outcomes are achieved due participation in AA, regardless of religious or spiritual belief. Tonigan, Miller and Schermer’s (2002) study of atheists and agnostics in AA, demonstrated that AA attendance was strongly correlated with greater abstinence, regardless of God belief. Research has not been fully conclusive in regard to the relationship of spiritual beliefs in AA and outcomes and more research is necessary.
I would now like to offer an understanding of the 12 Steps of AA, which can be viewed as a set of principles and actions to be practiced in order to bring about changes in one’s thinking, behaviour, self awareness and moral/spiritual awareness. These guiding principles, if practiced over time, have been found by AA members to facilitate deep inner changes and awareness sufficient to recover from alcohol addiction and live a more satisfying life.
“ We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable. ”
This first step is all about inwardly understanding and admitting one’s lack of power or control in relation to one’s drinking/addiction and accepting help. Knowing and accepting the problem and being willing to receive help and support for it are fundamental to the rest of the program of recovery.
AA understands Alcoholism as an illness of the mind, body and spirit. It is not a scientific explanation but a perspective based upon experience and has proved to be useful. Step One in AA, involves members sharing their experience of the problem ie the lack of control in relation to drinking, which manifests in the mental obsession/addiction which keeps the alcoholic returning to drink regardless of the pain and misery caused by it and the physical compulsion to keep on drinking once the addict starts. This disorder causes problems for the alcoholic mentally, emotionally, physically, socially, financially and spiritually. The pain of these consequences is what brings the addict to a point of surrender and willingness to change.
Hopefully by listening to experience of the problem of alcoholism and the actions taken in order to recover, the new member to AA, identifies the problem within him/herself and gains hope for the possibility of recovery from addiction.
The problem of a lack of power and control in relation to drinking suggested in Step One leads to an unmanageable life. This is manifested in various unintended consequences such as health problems, accidents, ruined relationships, criminal convictions, financial difficulties, employment problems, psychological, emotional and physical harm to self and others.
In addition to the above type of unmanageability, when understood in the context of the remaining Steps the second part of Step One can be interpreted as indicating an unmanageable life due to self-will or self- centredness. The principles and actions contained within the 12 Steps are intended to diminish the ego and provide the power, guidance and awareness necessary to free the addict from their active addiction and enable a manageable life.
The concept of being ‘ Powerless ’ over one’s addiction can be viewed as unhelpful in other models of addictive behaviour and as encouraging a lack of responsibility for the problem. My experience of the AA program of recovery is that I am responsible for practicing the principles and actions contained in the Steps and engaging with AA and recovery practices in general. (e.g., service, phoning a sponsor and attending meetings.) Recovery activity enables the alcoholic not to take the first drink.
My understanding as a layman is that addiction interferes with the rational choice and decision making ability (one’s will) within the sufferer due to its effect upon the individual’s biochemistry and brain function.* This results in an obsession and compulsion in relation to the addictive behaviour, which is very difficult to stop. Step One is fully and wholeheartedly admitting this lack of control and need for help. The obsession and compulsion accompanying this lack of control is quite often hard to understand in people who’ve not directly experienced it. (* See appendix 2, Professor D. Nutt ’ s scientific explanation of addiction.)
Step One outlines the problem of addiction, lack of control or power and Step Two suggests the solution, a power greater than oneself.
“ Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. ”
Step Two is referring to the insanity of addiction and its mental obsession. In other words the lack of whole thinking or truth that precedes taking the first drink or drug, regardless of past experiences that would prevent a sane person from doing so. On a deeper level AA understands addiction to be a spiritual illness with self-centredness at its core. This self-centredness expresses itself in various forms of character defects, which manifest in insane thinking or in other words a lack of whole thinking. The result being harmful consequences to oneself and others.
In AA it is suggested in relation to Step Two, that members only need willingness and an open minded attitude. A closed minded, literal attitude can often be a barrier in relation to this Step and I have found that a little imagination really helps.
A great quote from the Big Book (p. 570 3rd edition.) sums up the effects of a closed mind, “There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance - that principle is contempt prior to investigation.” (Herbert Spencer)
When listening to AA members experience of the mental obsession to drink despite past consequences it is easy to hear the common insanity that rationalises taking the first drink, the addiction denies the truth. The common experience in AA, is that the alcoholic is powerless to control this mental obsession/dependency and once commencing to drink the compulsion to keep doing so. The alcoholic at certain times seems to lack the will power, as the will is addicted, not to drink and therefore needs help or power beyond themselves.
Step Two suggests believing in a Power greater that oneself that can restore the alcoholic/addict to sanity or whole thinking in relation to alcohol and drugs. Willingness and an open mind is all that is needed for this Step and I suggest that being willing to believe in the collective power of the AA group and principles contained within the Steps are a good place to start.
Atheists, agnostics and humanists can have difficulty with this Step if they are closed minded and lacking in imagination. I am myself an agnostic/humanist and have managed to adapt my views to this Step in accordance with reason. The collective therapeutic power of a group of people coming together for a common purpose can definitely inspire change within the individual.
I also believe in the transformative power of the moral, philosophical or spiritual principles contained in the 12 Step program. Virtues such as honesty, willingness, humility, courage, acceptance, unselfishness, love and kindness are essential to and products of working the Steps and when practised regularly bring about deep changes in awareness and attitude towards oneself and others. They restore the will to wholeness/sanity by diminishing self-centredness. This view accords with the theory of Cognitive-Behavioural psychology, in respect of, by adopting certain beliefs (moral principles) and practising them regularly one’s thinking and behaviour changes. It’s also in agreement with Aristotle’s ‘ Virtue Ethics.’ (see Part 2)
Belief in the power of the group and the principles contained within the Steps can be understood from a humanist or spiritual perspective dependent upon one’s own beliefs or philosophy of life, the nature of which is a personal matter. The freedom to choose one’s own understanding of a Power greater than oneself is the subject of Step 3.
“ Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. ”
As a result of understanding Step One and a willingness to believe in the Power of the fellowship of AA and the 12 Step program, a Power greater than oneself, the alcoholic/addict is ready to take Step 3.
Step 3 is making the decision to surrender one’s will and life over to the care and guidance of the fellowship of AA and the Steps or a Greater Power of one’s own understanding. This sounds very daunting but by breaking the Step down it is not that intimidating. When we understand that one’s will just means one’s thinking or decision making processes and life means one’s actions and that alcoholism is characterised by irrational thinking and actions, it is reasonable to commit oneself to the support, guidance, principles and actions contained in AA and the 12 Steps.
As with all the Steps humility is needed for taking this Step and contained within it. It’s realising that one’s own thinking and actions are not whole or sane in relation to drinking/drug taking and other areas of life and that guidance or direction is needed from outside of oneself. In other words trusting in a greater wisdom than one’s own.
How is Step 3 applied? It depends upon one’s understanding of a Power greater than oneself. Based upon the fellowship of AA and the 12 Step program of recovery being a Power greater, I would suggest the following:
Fully participating in AA meetings and commitment to working through the rest of the 12 Steps. This means choosing a ‘home’ group as a foundation of meeting attendance, regularly sharing at this meeting, getting involved in the running of the group, taking phone numbers and building relationships with group members. This then allows the therapeutic power of the group to provide support and guidance.