The 12 steps: Much more than just a program

Mica Quintana

Mica QuintaThe only references to 12-step programs that I hear in everyday life are lightly jabbing comments that point out the programs’ ridiculously rigid, prescribed quality. Someone will say in a satiric tone, “Hi, I’m Jo and I’m an alcoholic,” and someone else will respond in an equally exaggerated tone, “Hi, Jo!” Most people probably don’t know much about the content of these spiritual recovery programs, but they still have heard about their silliness.

Twelve-step programs are in fact outrageously prescribed. Just look at the name: “12-Step Program.” When anything has a precise number of steps, you’ve got to get worried. I immediately think of a book one of my parents’ friends gave me in high school called “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens” that reduced the complexity of living well to checking off seven boxes. The word “program” itself has connotations of an almost scientific procedure that is meant to “fix” you. As you might expect, the 12 Steps are accompanied by exactly 12 “traditions” that govern the legal conduct of the groups.

Whenever I go to a 12-Step meeting, I feel like I’m about to explode with the sappiness of the refrains. At some meetings, members go beyond saying just “Hi, Jo” when someone has introduced himself; they chime in unison, “Hi Jo, glad you’re here, keep coming back!” The idea of an en masse, prescribed expression of affection carries insincerity along with it. I would feel ridiculous if I actually felt consoled by something the members were required to say.

However, the content of the 12 steps is actually quite complex. It is on an utterly different level than that of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens.” The steps are based upon the experiences of two men who found sobriety together through an experience of spiritual awakening. Thus, they are more a description of how they found sanity than a prescription for “success.” The wording of the steps reflects this. For instance, step one reads descriptively, “admitted we were powerless over our alcohol and our lives had become unmanageable.”

The steps involve ideas of relinquishing control and giving oneself over to a “higher power” that address subtleties about dealing with desire. Sometimes, I think, we need to tighten up and discipline ourselves when we find ourselves consumed with desire. But, sometimes, a sort of opening and surrendering can connect us to a source of peace that takes away the desire of its own accord. When rigid self-discipline fails, we can turn to this presence and drink it in instead of the beer.

The 12 steps refer to this presence as a “higher power” and urge members to define that power in whatever way they choose. Many call it God, but many do not. I do not believe in God, nor do I believe that this “presence” necessarily exists, especially not as any sort of supernatural being. I do think, however, that this presence exists as a feeling to which human beings have access. I cannot explain it to you if you have not experienced, but I am sure that you have. It is the feeling that comes over you when you hear a complex chord, the feeling of depth and expansiveness that gives you hope when you drink it in.

The 12 steps work, which is a sign that they have some profound access to truth, whether or not I agree with their specific tenets or appreciate their style. Once the prescribed portion of the meetings has passed and people start speaking from their hearts, I become totally engrossed in their stories. The program changes people’s entire way of life, raising them from the depths of selfishness and hopelessness to a life of purpose and joy.

This spiritual transformation cannot be achieved through something called a “program.” I prefer to call it by its other name: a “spiritual fellowship.” In fact, people do not view it as a program to be completed, but as a practice to be continued for the remainder of their lives. Working the steps is a way of living the examined life and sharing the struggle with others.