I don’t understand the 12 steps.

I am not an alcoholic. In fact, I rarely drink. I don’t take drugs (not even marijuana, which is perfectly legal where I live). I have never had a substance abuse problem, unless you count a former addiction to nicotine (I quit smoking 25 years ago) and a lifelong addiction to caffeine (do NOT get between me and my morning coffee).

I am also an atheist.

So forgive me, but I don’t understand the 12 steps. 

I am not disrespecting any friends of Bill W. Really, I’m not. I am saying that, at least from my perspective, taking the 12 steps for recovery from alcoholism or other addictive substances or behaviors and using them as a panacea for all emotional problems makes no sense. The whole idea of co-dependency (unless you’re talking about an enabler, in which case we should just call them enablers) makes no sense to me, but that’s a subject for another post.

The John Bradshaw Center where I received treatment in the early 1990s was not an alcohol or drug rehab facility. Yet the program there revolved around the 12 steps of recovery. We were required to attend 12-step meetings — Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Codependents Anonymous (CoDA), Al-Anon, Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA), etc. — every night and we were expected to “work the steps.”

I spent untold hours in meetings and educational sessions under the direction of the Bradshaw therapists trying to make sense of how this program could help me. The 12 steps are based on the concept of first admitting powerlessness. In the Codependency context, this is written:

Step 1. We admitted we were powerless over others – that our lives had become unmanageable.

OK, maybe my life had become unmanageable, or rather, maybe I could be managing it better. I wasn’t sure about the rest of the wording in Step 1, and I didn’t know who these “others” were supposed to be.

But Steps 5, 8, and 9 really threw me for a loop:

Step 5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being, the exact nature of our wrongs. 

Step 8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.

Step 9.  Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

I’m not saying I am perfect (ha!), and goodness knows I have made my mistakes, but I don’t really have a list of transgressions to confess. I rarely lie (see? I said rarely because I’m being totally real here), never steal, don’t cheat, and can’t recall purposefully harming anyone pretty much ever.

The other steps, about turning things over to God, I just tried to accept as metaphor. As an atheist, though, the G word always kind of jars me since it has so much power (politically and otherwise) in our western culture. And I’m not sure the whole “turning over thing” (Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God as we understood God.) comports with my worldview.*

For those of you in recovery, do you see a problem with using these steps in the codependent/Al-Anon/ACOA context?

If anyone has had experiences—either good or bad—with 12-step recovery, I’d also love to hear about them.

*excerpts from the 12 Steps of CoDA, Copyright © 2010 Co-Dependents Anonymous, Inc.

It is my intention to be respectful of all paths to recovery. If you wish, you are welcome to post comments here anonymously.

9 thoughts on “I don’t understand the 12 steps.

  1. Nancy Manley

    1.The others in #1 is the substance. In other words powerless over alcohol.
    5. Often ( almost always )people in addiction harm many people. Higher power is used in place of God.
    8,9. Again, people in addiction apologizing for the wrongs they did.
    I believe these 12 steps are very useful for people in addiction recovery. In behavioral therapy not do much.


  2. Laurie Ausley

    AL Anon teaches that your higher power can be anything. Your dog, the wind, the other people in the room. Whatever you feel comfortable with.
    You don’t have to believe in God, although God is the word they use for higher power.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. kimnorthrop

    I think the 12 steps are fine for some people. Having said that, if your addiction is the result of an untreated & undiagnosed medical condition (bipolar, etc…), the 12 Step programs solely propose treatment through faith, and faith is not going to heal a medical condition.

    Even more damaging–the idea that you ‘fail’ the program–not that the program fails you. That’s like blaming the victim. Plus the idea that the 12 Step programs are the ONLY thing that’s going to work. So, so, dangerous. I know of two suicides who put their faith in well…faith ahead of science-based methods. I know of several other dead people that I’m relatively sure that was also the case.

    Also, even belief in a higher power is still not a solution for an atheist. Non-atheists don’t get that. And here’s another thing…do Buddhists have a word for non-buddhists? Hindus for non-hindus? Because the word atheist only exists in terms of Christianity.


    1. I look at it as there are theists (those who believe in a deity or supreme being) and a-theists, those (like me) who don’t. I think of Buddhism as more of a philosophy than a religion, since there is no deity per se. I think Hinduism, however, does have deities.

      Anyway, your point that faith alone cannot heal a medical condition is well taken. So sad when people are encouraged to embrace DIY resolutions like 12-step programs when medical intervention is needed. Ironically the opposite also happens.. People can also be over-served, improperly (or fraudulently) diagnosed, and damaged under the medical model. That’s what happened to me.

      What we need are mental health professionals with better discernment and who have no financial interest or emotional stake in a patient’s treatment plan or outcome.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting blog, Nancy!
    I haven’t been thru any 12-step programs but know several folks who have. One was a young woman who struggled with substance abuse. We were part of the same Buddhist group, and she often shared with me how hard it was to buy in to the 12-step process that was part of her court-mandated recovery “program,” because in our form of Buddhism we pretty much believe in the opposite of powerlessness and turning one’s stuff over to an external God. She did complete the program from what I know, and I believe that, for her, the program gave her a community of folks with similar struggles, a community of support and honesty and accountability. But philosophically, she drew much of her other strength from her own community of practice, her studies and her personal spiritual practice. I think that while AA’s attempt to be inter-faith by allowing the definition of “God” to include a “higher power,” this still doesn’t encompass Buddhist practices like ours which teach that you actually have power over everything you’re experiencing, since you created it to begin with — and the journey is about first admitting that, taking ownership and full responsibility, and then using your practice to shift whatever you need to in terms of beliefs and resulting actions so your life can be different.


    1. The issue of a court mandating that a defendant follow/adhere to a religion/belief-based program opens up a whole separate can of worms. I am thinking this will be the subject of a separate blog post in the not-too-distant future. (It will do me good to put my lawyer hat on again…it’s been a while — thanks for the inspiration!).


  5. Kim Foster

    I think 12 step programs are helpful in some ways to some people. I attended Al-A-non when I was in a relationship with an alcoholic. I didn’t comply with the program, I don’t believe in airing dirty laundry with just anyone. I have outlets personal to me for that. I do think that there was a great deal I DID learn from the program. I am powerless over persons, places, and things. What others say, do or think about me is none of my business. When I expect something, I set myself up for disappointment. I wanted to think I could control things that were just not in my grasp. I used to get my feelings hurt by things others said or might have thought about me. Why? I can’t control others……and I always expected people to be honest, thoughtful and kind. Talk about disappointment! I went to a meeting because I thought someone else had a problem. The problem was me. I needed to get out of that toxic relationship. I haven’t been back, but these are the things I took with me while leaving the rest of that nonsense.

    Liked by 1 person

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