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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A Minute to Learn

Go Game

The Game of Go

When I was a teenager, I discovered the game called “Go.”  It originated in China, and came to the US via Japan.  The set I bought came with a small instruction pamphlet with the following thought:  Go, a game that takes a minute to learn, and a lifetime to master.  It really was true.  There are exceedingly few rules to the play, and those can be memorized within a few minutes.  But learning how to apply those rules to your advantage takes years of practice.

The same can be said of the 12 Steps.  They can be read in about a minute, give or take, and they are written in ordinary, quite understandable language.  It just doesn’t take all that long to learn what the Steps are and where they’re going.  Mastering the Steps, however, internalizing and learning to use them to your advantage in this game of living, takes quite a long time; a lifetime, to be exact.

So how long should it take to do the Steps?  I’ve heard the question countless times.  And I’ve heard answers ranging from 1 day to 12 years (based on 1 year per Step!) given by folks who may or may not have personal experience with the program.  It’s all hogwash.  The answer, as with most of the answers we’re exploring here, will be found within each individual.  I can’t tell you or anyone else how long it will take before you start seeing results such as those listed in the Promises.  No one else can tell you, either.

The Steps are not a “magic bullet,” one-shot cure; they are not an exercise we do once and then we’re done.  They are a design for living based on universally recognized and nearly universally accepted principles for living a life well lived.  As such, there is no end point or completion date.  I’ve seen people angry, despondent, or simply bewildered over the fact that they’ve “finished the Steps and nothing has happened.”  One person asked me, “OK, I’m done with the Steps, now what happens?  Do I just sit on my ass and wait for the problem to go away?”  Well, no.  This is an on-going process.  We continue to apply the principles to all aspects of our lives, not just the alcohol-related aspects, and the time will come, sooner or later, swiftly or gradually, when the problem does disappear.  Such was my experience, and the experience of thousands of others who went before me.

Share your experience/thoughts on this topic in the comments.  Thanks!

photo credit:  Julio Martinez

  1. I played Go for over a year with a Master and one day realized, “Wow. I do NOT have any idea how to play this game!” I had gotten ‘pretty good’ and here I was after a year; a novice again.

    I love this analogy. the steps are like Go.

    I have known people who did their steps in months. My sponsor had a weird notion that the steps take a lifetime. (she was right) I took well over a year to work my first 4th and it is now in 4.5 HUGE binders in my closet. I am a type A kinda gal . I am glad my sponsor was a nutjob about the 4th. It was hard and it was fruitful.

    I have seen folks spend a week on their 4th and it worked. Me, not so much. I needed to go deep deep deep.

    20 years in the program and I am a novice. Just like playing Go.

    Peace, Jen


    • Yep. I’ll always be a work in progress. Wherever did you find a Go master? I only met a handful of folks who even know about it. Maybe if I’d had time while I was in Japan, but alas, that was all work and little play at a time when ‘play’ meant bar-hopping.


      • I was working on an anti nuke movement in Boulder Co. One of the main donors to the cause was a psychiatrist who was from Japan. It was an honor to study and play with him. He told me early on that I would reach the point of ‘unknowing’ about the game and that was when I would BEGIN to understand the game! He was right. I gave it up about 6 months later and went back to chess. I wish I had not.

        Why were you in Japan? I would LOVE to go to Japan!


Step 0

This comes from chapter five in the book Alcoholics Anonymous (the Big Book, or BB):

“If you have decided you want what we have and are willing to go to any length to get it—then you are ready to take certain steps.” (The ‘certain steps’ are, of course, the Twelve Steps of AA.)

“If you have decided you want what we have…”

What exactly did the founding members and those who followed have?  Bill Wilson did a reasonably good job explaining it in the BB.  They each had a personal experience with a Higher Power (HP) of their understanding, and I would note this was an experience and understanding as individuals, not a ‘group consensus.’  They had a way of living, and a set of principles to follow, that allowed them to live happy, joyous and free without alcohol.  Even more importantly, they were living without fear; they were neither fighting to remain sober, nor avoiding temptation.  For them, the problem had been removed!  And as I looked at and listened to folks in the AA meetings I could see and feel that there were some here and there, though not many, who were also living happy, joyous and free.  That all sounded pretty good to me.

None of the above was mentioned in the various groups I had attended over the years; I had to pick it up by reading the BB.  Without question, my experience was that most of the members attending those groups had found a way of living abstinent of alcohol, but with fear of (often a morbid fear of) relapse.  They seemed to be living reasonably happy lives unless and until life threw them a change-up, whereupon they would more likely than not go back to drinking.  They did not seem to be able to “intuitively know how to handle situations that used to baffle” them.

I didn’t want that.  I wanted what the founders claimed they had.  And I got it! —that’s what this blog is all about.

How Long is a “Length?”

“…are willing to go to any length to get it.” Aye, there’s a big rub!  How much was I willing to do, go through, put up with, do without, add to my load….and change?  To be honest, I didn’t know; didn’t have a clue.  Just what length was my limit?  Nobody could tell me any specifics, because they had no idea.  So I thought to myself, “I want it really bad, and I can always bail if the cost gets too high.”  The cost actually did get too high for me, several times.  The fashionable term for this is ‘relapse.’

Eventually, I became willing to do whatever it took to get what they had.  Where had I heard that before?  Any length, whatever it was going to take, that’s what I became willing to do.  Because by that time, the pain of continuing to drink was surpassing the pain of stopping.

I had identified with Step 1 long before I became willing to go to any length to make it to the promised life of happiness, joy, and freedom.  Step 1 wasn’t much good without the rest of them, though, and for those I did have to go to extraordinary lengths.  At least at the time I considered them to be extraordinary.  I’ll be writing about those Steps as we go along.

Thus, Step 0—Made the decision that I wanted what they had, and became willing to go to any length to get it.

  1. I so agree with you on today’s groups and the members that attend them. luckily i was fully capable of reading and comprehending Bill’s writings and consider my self so blessed to have experienced that “vital spiritual experience”. Life’s not great by any means but i now know how to face my problems rather than hide from them with alcohol.


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