A Point of Order

While I was out on hiatus, I happened to meet up with two guys who are recovering.  I was telling my story, you know, how I’m recovered from alcoholism and yadayadayada.  When I mentioned the part about not taking the steps in order, they both looked at me strangely, then at each other.  After a pause, one of them offered an interpretation that I’ve heard often, “Well, you probably aren’t a real alcoholic, then.”

As far as being a ‘real’ alcoholic, all I can say is that I’ve passed just about every written, verbal, practical, and on-line test for it with flying colors.  There are also a couple of psychiatrists, a few doctors and directors of rehabs, as well as countless laypersons who would be astonished that they were wrong in diagnosing my condition.  But that’s not the point of this entry.

This post is about the order of the 12 Steps.

Common sense and conventional wisdom tell us that the Steps should be taken in the order written.    They’re numbered 1 through 12, after all, and most of us have been trained to go through a numbered list sequentially from the first to the last item.  That’s what I tried to do.  I really did try to take those Steps in order.

It just wasn’t going to happen that way for me.  I couldn’t get past Step 3.  The first step was pretty easy (it seemed.)  And the second step went well after I learned that all it was asking from me was that I have a willingness to believe, that the actual belief could come later.  Cool!

But then Step 3 came, and I was stuck.  I stayed stuck, too.  I agonized over that step for close to two years, with a couple of slips thrown in.  Finally, after one of those slips and a return through Steps 1 and 2, I became desperate enough (the gift of desperation) to think it over a bit.  I realized that I was running out of time, that I was going to die much sooner than later if I didn’t do something.  It seemed my choices were that I could either keep slavishly plugging away trying to find some kind of mental gymnastic routine that would allow me to “turn my will and my life over to the care of” a God or higher power in which I couldn’t believe, or I could skip that Step for the time being and get on with the rest of them, with the intention to return to it later.

“If I dood it, I get a whippin’….I dood it.” —Tweety Bird

I skipped Step 3.  I dove right into Step 4, followed, in order, by Steps 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. (I’ll touch on the last three steps in a moment.)  Somewhere in the neighborhood of three months after starting Step 9 (it’s a work-in-progress for this alkie) I experienced what I call a paradigm shift, what the founders of AA called a “spiritual awakening” and “spiritual experience.”  My obsession with alcohol vanished, the problem was removed, I recovered.

My work with Steps 4 through 9, along with the experience of the paradigm shift, brought me full circle back to Steps 1, 2 and 3—I came away with a deeper and more abiding understanding of the first step, a belief in a higher power of sorts, and the determination to live my life intentionally, in accordance with my values.   Steps 10 and 11 maintain and further the progress made in Steps 5 through 9, and 1 through 3, respectfully.  Step 12, service to others, brings purpose and direction to my life today.

Similar to Dr. Bob, who condensed the 12 Steps into three–Trust God, Clean House, Serve Others–I break them down into four groupings:  1, 2 and 3 (trust the process); 4 through 9 (clean house); 10 and 11 (maintenance); and 12 (service).  Of these groupings, the steps that really need to be taken in the order written are 4 through 10, simply because the work of the prior steps is used in the following steps.  Step 11 can be started at any time, the only requirement being to have some idea of your higher power.  Steps 1, 2 and 3 should be completed first if possible, but as I’ve demonstrated, that’s not going to be the case for some of us.  And rudimentary actions for Steps 12 can be started at any time.  In fact, newcomers attending their first-ever meeting are being of service to others without even knowing a thing about AA or the program!

The Steps will work in their own way (and in their own time) for each of us.  You need not be overly concerned if, at the outset, you have problems/doubts concerning belief in a Higher Power.  If you get stuck somewhere in the first three steps, jump ahead to Step 4 and start your personal inventory.  The act of going through the Steps with rigorous self-honesty should be enough to bring you to some kind of understanding, bring enough faith, if you will, to get the promised result.

Thanks for being here!

If you’ve taken the 12 Steps, please tell us your own experience and thoughts about this topic in the comments section.  If you haven’t had experience with the Steps, share your thoughts, anyway!

  1. What about the “Proactive” 12 Steps?

    Step 1:
    I get it: What I’ve been doing is self-destructive. I need to change.

    Step 2:
    I see the big picture: The way to stop relapsing into self-destructive behaviors is to build a healthier sense of self.

    Step 3:
    I have an action plan: From now on, I am squarely facing everything that is in the way of feeling really satisfied with my life.

    Step 4:
    I honestly look at the effects of my actions on others and myself.

    Step 5:
    I take responsibility for my actions.

    Step 6:
    I see that my knee-jerk reactions have to do with being in the grip of more or less conscious fears.

    Step 7:
    I strive to find my motivation in a deeper sense of who I
    really am, rather than fear and defensiveness.

    Step 8:
    I stop blaming and feeling blamed, with a willingness to heal the wounds.

    Step 9:
    I swallow my pride, and sincerely apologize to people I’ve hurt, except when this would be counterproductive.

    Step 10:
    I live mindfully, paying attention to the motives and effects of my actions.

    Step 11:
    I stay in touch with a broader sense of who I really am, and a deeper sense of what I really want.

    Step 12:
    A growing sense of wholeness and contentment motivates me to keep at it, and to share this process with others who are struggling.

    I am still working on my courage to begin the journey of being sober. But these steps feel like I am taking responsibility. I believe there is a Power out there, and It will help guide me as I make the right choices.

    God doesn’t enter the equation.


    • Hi, Heather. Thanks for dropping in. Those sound like solid, intelligent recovery steps to me. I had never heard of them until now, and took the time to find a source of further info. I’ll likely be writing a post (or more) about them in the near furture. Again, thanks for being here and thank you for the comment!


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