One need not believe in a Higher Power to experience recovery through the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, nor is it necessary to have a spiritual experience. It is possible to achieve and maintain sobriety in AA through an entirely secular experience. The religious verbiage of the original 12 Steps written in 1939 is the result of AA’s spiritual beginnings, but those of us who practice the AA program today, need not adopt the vocabulary of AA’s founders. We can describe our recovery in our own words.
The original First Step is in language that doesn’t always translate well for people today, but it is really nothing more than an admission that we have a problem with alcohol. We suffer from what today is known as Alcohol Use Disorder or AUD—a condition characterized by compulsive drinking, loss of control over alcohol consumption, and feelings of anxiety or other negative emotions when not using.
It often takes a crisis before we can experience the First Step. Perhaps we are arrested for drunk driving, or we are fired from a job because of our drinking, or we find ourselves strapped into a hospital bed—terrified and alone. Whatever the case, if we are to have any hope of doing something about our problem, we need to accept that we can’t control our drinking and the only solution is to give it up completely.
After conceding this liability, we soon come to understand that we can be helped. One source of help is the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous where other people who have also experienced AUD will support us in our desire to remain abstinent. A secular interpretation of AA’s 2nd Step could read, “We came to understand that we could be helped.” However, it’s probably better that we allow individuals to describe the process using their own words.
Once we understand that we can find help, we make a commitment to our recovery, which can be considered the Third Step. Probably the most important commitment we can make is to attend AA meetings. The meetings provide a safe space where we meet new friends and establish a support network that is vital to our continued sobriety. While attending meetings is important, it’s even more critical that we participate by honestly sharing with the group about what is going on with us. This allows others to connect with us and we with them. We will learn about AA’s program of recovery, and over time, we can decide how we will approach it.
Getting honest with ourselves and others is an important part of the 12 Step process. In Step Four, we undertake an honest and balanced review of our lives. We start by examining memories that extract a feeling from us. These are often events that we sometimes relive in our minds, and use to justify our drinking. We list these memories either with pencil and paper or by typing into a word processor, whatever tool we use is unimportant. What’s critical is that after making a list, we review it carefully to gain an understanding of ourselves and to learn what may have contributed to our drinking. It’s a good idea when reviewing this list to not be too judgmental. We are trying to learn the truth about ourselves. If we find ourselves getting depressed by the process, then we should stop, take a break and perhaps list some positive characteristics.
In the Fifth Step, we share our story with another person. This could be an AA friend, a therapist or any trusted person who understands what we are doing. From this process, most of us feel a sense of relief and a release of guilt.
After learning the truth about ourselves, we move onto the character building process of 12 Step recovery. Steps Six and Seven in the original language may seem out of reach to a secular person, but really, they are nothing more than a commitment to build character. We persistently work at eliminating those personal traits that cause us difficulty, and we try to live ethical and purposeful lives.
We understand the harm we have caused others through our drinking, and we make amends to these people, except when to do so would cause further harm. Many in AA find the best amends are “living amends.” Often our loved ones don’t wish to rehash the past, but they are happy to see that we are sober and again part of the family. Experience has shown that it is best not to make amends if there is any chance of causing harm.
We maintain our sobriety by continuing the practice of self-honesty and acknowledging to others when we are wrong. In time, this becomes a habit, a natural part of living, and our improved self-awareness becomes one of our greatest strengths. Continuous sobriety requires vigilance, so we develop our awareness of these principles and the presence of mind to carry them out.
Having been changed as the result of this process, we try to help other alcoholics in whatever way we can.