What Works and What Doesn’t Work in 12 Step Recovery

What Works and What Doesn’t Work in 12 Step Recovery

12 Steps – What Works & Doesn’t Work

When I was first introduced to the 12 steps as a potential solution to my chronic relapses, I was skeptical of what works.  It took me awhile to realize that I had a lot of preconceived notions about the 12 steps.  I had a lot of prejudice about 12 step recovery.

Because I was in so much emotional pain and suffering greatly (not to mention what I was putting my loved ones through), I became willing to at least listen.

Suffering can be a great persuader.

I quickly learned that there are elements of 12 step recovery that have saved me from relapse.  Some of the 12 step tools are absolutely amazing in helping me overcome barriers to sobriety.

And there are elements that make me want to run the other way.

Two Elements of 12 Step Recovery That Work

Here are two of the elements of 12 step recovery that work. What works

The first element is that 12 step recovery provides a formula in which to appropriately deal with what pisses me off, hurts my feelings, or interferes with the outcomes that I want.

This formula is begun in the 4th step and maintained in steps 10, 11, & 12.

The instructions for understanding and implementing this formula are found in the first 103 pages of Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book.  I tried reading this on my own and while I found it interesting, I did not change a lick.  Once I began to read it with someone else who knew and lived the formula, I began to change. I stayed sober and even began to be happy more often.

Learning to be free from suffering is an awesome relapse prevention tool.  Applying the 12 step formula into my life has been so effective that problems do not pile up on me. I am no longer so burdened by life that I have to numb myself by picking up a drink or a drug.

There is a system in place to help transform from me from the chaotic individual I once was to being able to find glimpses of peace and serenity.  Essentially, I stopped living in drama and I put up the surrender flag on chaos.

My life immediately got better.

The second element of 12 step recovery that works is by the end of the 12 step process I am now focusing more on you than I am on me.  It used to be all about I, me, and mine.  I sought only to fill my own needs and find comfort for me.

Now my focus is usually on the greater good.  I began to see that I am the happiest when I am seeking happiness for others. Sounds cliché but it is true.

This is not a once and done endeavor.  The 12 step recovery process must be practiced regularly.  In the beginning it is best to practice the steps daily.  And to ask a lot of questions of people who are living it.

Some call these shifts in behavior, perception, and attitude a spiritual experience.   That may be true.  My lived experience shows that it helps keep me stay clean and sober and to be happy most of the time.   

What Works and What Doesn’t Work in 12 Step Recovery

Two Elements of 12 Step Recovery That Are Less Than Desirable

These two aspects of 12 step recovery make me want to give up on the whole damn thing!  They are very uncomfortable and are undesirable for me.  Yet they go with the gig of 12 step recovery.

The first aspect of 12 step recovery that makes me want to run the other way is people who are rigid to the extreme.  They will tell you this is the only way to recover.

You know them when you hear them. They are the “my way or the highway” type that espouse a mentality that feels like a cult.  They believe that recovery has to be done one way and one way only.

When I hear these folks my antennae goes up and I want to run out of the room.  Then I remind myself that some 12 step people really do believe that this is the only path to recovery.  My experience shows me that for some people other things like church, yoga, and therapy work too.  For most people,  it is likely a combination of things.

The second element of 12 step recovery that makes me uncomfortable is that it is hard to tell who is actually living in the solution of the 12 steps.  Sometimes I hear a speaker that says all the right things but whose life is actually in shambles.  I once heard a 12 step guy say he was arrested more times in recovery then he was when he was drinking.  Yikes!  If that is sobriety then no thanks.

The problem is it is really hard to tell at first who is walking the talk.  This makes trusting what people say difficult.

The real test of 12 step recovery is my own direct experience.  The Buddha taught his students not to rely on his words. He encouraged his followers to examine their own direct experience.  That is to take the instructions and actually apply them to day-to-day living and then assess their effectiveness.

Now that is a formula I can trust.

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Seven Myths about Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve Steps

Seven Myths about Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve Steps

When I first got clean and sober the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous seemed like a huge scary thing to me.  I had a lot of bias and confusion about the twelve steps of AA.  Below are seven myths about the twelve step that I wish I had known in my first year of recovery.  Perhaps then I would not have waited so long to find the healing path that the steps offer.

Seven Myths about Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve Steps

1. I have to wait a year to start the steps

Yet I could never quite make that one-year of sobriety. It was so elusive.  I kept relapsing and could not figure out why.  I was told not to begin the steps too soon. Too wait until I had more sober time.  This is a total myth!

Start the steps as soon as possible to relieve yourself of the bondage of the past. Particularly if you experience chronic relapse like many of us do.  How exactly do you start the steps?  Find someone who has gone through the steps as they are outlined in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.  The best place to find this person is at an AA meeting designated as a Big Book; 12 & 12; or Big Book Step Study meeting.

2. The fourth step is the most difficult and has to be repeated from time to time

This is a total twelve-step myth! Everyone thinks the fourth step is like the big bad boogey man.  Yes it does take awhile to write out and it is true that what is revealed is not always comfortable.  But it is a once and done step!  If you use steps ten, eleven, and twelve on a regular basis then you never have to repeat a step four!

3. The third step is once and done

This could not be further from the truth and is a total twelve-step myth.  The third step is where we turn our will and our lives over to the care of a higher power as we understand that higher power.  If only this was a once and done deal!  It actually has to be repeated several times each and everyday.  Some people like to have a mantra that says “Your will not mine be done.”  Others like to remind themselves to “just let go.”  While still others repeat the Third Step Prayer found in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous over and over again throughout the day.  The third step is about realizing and accepting that things do not always go my way and I do not have to try to control everything. It is about giving up my will (read ego or selfishness and self-centeredness).

The best method I have found to realize that I have taken my will back is when I get frustrated, impatient, hurt, or feel any negative feeling.  That means I am not accepting the current moment exactly as it is.  Once I realize this then the next step is to go to the acceptance stage.  Acceptance comes from again and again, several times a day, turning my will over to the way things actually are and finding contentment in the current moment.  That is, being at peace with things exactly as they are rather than how I think they should be.  This is a practice that takes time to develop.

4. The ninth step is about saying you are sorry

No the ninth step is not about saying you are sorry.  The ninth step is about repairing the relationships that our addiction has damaged.  It is a myth that it is a mere apology.  My amends to my Dad was about how I had not been the kind of daughter I wanted to be to him.  I asked him how I could make it up to him.  As a result of starting the conversation off this way, my Dad and I had an amazing honest and heart-felt talk that repaired decades of damage – literally!

5. The steps are all about how I suck and about all the bad things I have done

This is a complete and total myth!  The twelve-steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are a path to healing. There are many paths to recovery and this is just one.  Doing the steps as they are outlined in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous with a Big Book sponsor helps to create a new relationship with yourself, those you love, and a higher power that you define.  If this was only about looking at how much hurt I have done to others then I have missed the point.

Healing occurs when I see how to repair the damage my addiction has caused.  It is a shift in perception, emotional healing, and a way to clean the slate so that I can start anew.  This is true freedom from the wreckage of my past.

6. I have to believe in God in order to do the steps

Myth number six is perhaps the most misunderstood of all the Alcoholics Anonymous concepts.  You do not have to believe in God!  You only have to believe in a power greater than yourself.  It helped me to articulate that I knew I was not holding together the universe, making stars, or changing the seasons.  Yes there are natural laws that are in charge of all this.  I do not need to make this complicated.  I just need to know I do not have to understand it completely.

I am one hundred percent sure that love, kindness, empathy, and compassion come from the greatest of sources.  Maybe that is in the human heart.  Maybe it is an energy that we just have to tap in to.  I am relieved to know that I do not have to know exactly what this higher power is.  All I need to know is that I am not it!  Keep it simple.

7. I have to have a lot of sobriety to work with another alcoholic or addict

The seventh myth is what we tell ourselves when we are too afraid to fail.  It is a complete and total Alcoholics Anonymous twelve-step myth that you have to have a lot of clean time in order to help someone else.   If you have one day of sobriety you can absolutely help that person who cannot put together twenty-four hours.  It is in this spirit of service and a deep desire to help those who still suffer that you will find the greatest of healing!  Giving away your own personal experience about what happened to you, how you came to truly surrender, and what you do on a daily basis to stay clean and sober is the greatest asset you have.  This is one of those paradoxes: I have to give it away in order to keep it!

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Using the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous to Prevent Addiction Relapse

Using the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous to Prevent Addiction Relapse

To achieve long- term sobriety it is necessary to understand and be skillful at addiction relapse prevention.  There are many ideas about relapse. There are also neurological studies regarding the activation of centers in the brain relative to relapse (see Dr. Judson Brewer).  For many people in recovery, using the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous as form of relapse prevention is highly effective.

In early recovery we are told that in order to avoid relapse we have to go to ninety meetings in ninety days.  Or we have to change the company we keep.  Some of us are told we need medication to deal with the anxiety that accompanies early sobriety.  We also hear that it is necessary to get a sponsor; suit-up, show-up, and shut-up; and take the cotton out of our ears and put it in our mouths.  It may be that there is some wisdom in these edicts however what most of us need are practical skills for relapse prevention.

The necessary skills to avoid relapse are knowledge, action, and service. All three aspects can be realized by using the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous to prevent addiction relapse. Let’s drill down on the specific characteristics of each skill.


The skill of knowledge in relapse prevention includes knowing important information about the disease of alcoholism and drug addiction and an understanding of what the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous calls the “inner workings of the mind.”

The important information about the disease of addiction is that our bodies are different than the non-addict.  Once we put the substance in our bodies, we have to have the next one and the next one and so on.  Most normal drinkers start to feel the buzz and what do they do? They stop drinking.  Alcoholics start to feel the buzz and have to have more.  One is one too many and one more is never enough.  Accepting that our reaction to the substance is that we require more is important to considering how to prevent relapse.  This is described in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous as an “allergy” in the chapter titled The Doctors Opinion.  The bottom line is that if I do not take the first drink or drug, I will not need the next one.

The Big book of Alcoholics AnonymousUnderstanding that our very own minds are not well equipped with relapse prevention techniques is essential.  In fact, my own thinking works against me and leads me right back to the horror and misery of that first drink or drug. After a brief period of abstinence, my mind will eventually tell me that I can drink or drug again in safety.  That somehow this time will be different.  I tell myself this, and I believe me.  Then I act accordingly. The knowledge that I will one day convince myself that it is ok to use is critically important for preventing a slip. Additionally, once I put that drink or drug in my body – Game On!  I am totally obsessed with getting the next one – at all costs. The Big Book refers to these mental twists as an “obsession of the mind.”  This is a phenomenon that occurs when I am totally fixated on when the next time is that I will be able to use, where I put it, who knows that I have it, and on and on.  The obsession of the mind is a crippling loop that creates blinders for knowing and acting upon the truth and it prevents us from living clean and sober.



Using the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous to prevent addiction relapse means that action must be taken. This is where steps four through twelve come in.  These are the action steps.  Of course steps one through three are just as important and build a critical foundation to do the steps that follow.  However, the focus of this blog is on the actions necessary to prevent relapse. Using the Big Book of AA we begin the action steps with step four.  This is about cleaning out the psyche of all anger, hurt, and resentment.  It begins with writing down in detail everything that is bothering me including my part in it.  This is a deliberate process in which more is revealed as each phase of step four unfolds.  It requires intentional action to sit down and write, write, write.  Then in step five we share that inventory with someone we trust.  That person unearths a little more truth that perhaps we did not see in our inventory. Step six and seven are only a paragraph each.  These are known as the God steps because it is more prayer than power that will relieve us of those patterns of behavior and character habits that create and fire the cycle of suffering.  The action involved in steps eight and nine involve making a list of those people we have harmed then going out to make it right.  Often that means sitting across the table and making a direct amends.  Not an apology.  Rather an expression of a change of heart and a deep willingness to heal the wrong.  It is authentic and from the heart; not a simple action to just check off that it was done and not a cerebral activity done from the thinking mind.  This is an action from the heart’s deep well of compassion and empathy. Steps ten, eleven, and twelve are known as the maintenance step.  After step nine, the Big Book promises we will “know a new freedom and a new happiness.”  This freedom and happiness comes from the change in motives, attitudes, and ideas I once had are now replaced by what I have learned and experienced in steps four through nine.  How do I maintain this new spiritual footing?  Steps ten and eleven have specific practices to keep me rooted in my new found freedom and happiness.  These include doing a daily review of my thoughts and behaviors and “keeping my side of the street clean.”  I pay attention to how I am being toward others and myself.  When the old habits and patterns pop-up, which they will, I quickly do a correction and immediately get back on my spiritual beam.


Step twelve is all about service.  Isn’t that actually where all spiritual paths lead?  Being of maximum service to those who still suffer.  This is a universal destination for freedom from the suffering rooted in the human condition. Rather than a step that gets done this is actually a way of life.  Being of service to others is the best defense against the next drink or drug. There are so many ways to be of service that it is literally impossible to list them all.  My sick neighbor may need a meal.  The suffering alcoholic in the meeting needs a solution to be free from the ravages of addiction.  I can help.  Maybe I can give a ride, volunteer at the local soup kitchen, or let in an annoying and impatient driver without malicious or hard feelings.  A simple smile or holding a door for someone can be great acts of service.  What is the emotional wake I leave in my path?  How do others feel after an encounter with me?  With the intention, reflection, and action of service, relapse is held at bay for another day.

Using the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous to prevent addiction relapse is a tried and true effort.  Many have traveled this path successfully.  The skills described above, when practiced – not perfected – daily, will result in happily living clean and sober.  Now that is effort that is well worth it!

Addiction Relapse Prevention, Addiction Relapse Help, Addiction Relapse, Addiction Relapse Support