What is the difference between the 12-steps of recovery, and Alcoholics Anonymous?

What is the difference between the 12-steps of recovery, and Alcoholics Anonymous? This is the third in a 5-part series of articles in which I discuss various aspects of 12-step recovery programs, and how you may utilise counselling alongside them. This particular article looks at the difference between the 12-step program itself, and the various 12-step fellowships that accompany it. However, across the whole of these articles however, I will also:

As with the other articles in this series, I wish to make absolutely clear that what follows is not sanctioned by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Cocaine Anonymous (CA) or any other 12-setp fellowship. Instead, what follows are my own thoughts having been involved with the 12-step recovery and its associated fellowships both personally and professionally for over 30 years.

So, just what is the difference between the 12-step program of recovery, and the various 12 step programs that accompany it? If you look back at the first article in this series, you’ll remember that the 12 steps were written by Bill Wilson as part of his task in writing the text book Alcoholics Anonymous. In doing so, Bill took the 5 steps to salvation used by the Oxford Groups of the time and, after removing the need to accept Christ as one’s savior, operationalised the rest to come up with the 12 steps as we know them today.

Looking next at the second article in this series, you’ll know that the 12 steps themselves are a mixture of ideas one must accept as being true for one’s self, and a series of actions one must take in order to achieve a psychological change by way of a spiritual experience in the same manner as the original 100+ alcoholics who’d recovered from alcoholism when Bill Wilson wrote the book.

The various 12 step fellowships that now exist are essentially evolutionary off-shoots of the “house parties” used by the Oxford Groups in the 20s and 30s (See part 1 of this series). “House parties” offered Oxford Group members an opportunity to meet for a mixture of socialising and giving personal testimony to each other. Giving personal testimony is the term used to denote the telling of one’s own spiritual story, and how that individual’s relationship with God helped them. If you think of the song “Amazing Grace” and the line “I was blind but now I see”, you’ll get a sense of what giving personal testimony means. The difficulty was that when the original 100+ alcoholics attended house parties and told their stories, they only seemed to want to talk about their recovery from alcoholism and listen to the stories of other alcoholics who’d had the same experience. The rest of the Oxford Group members, over time, kind of got fed up with this. The alcoholic members of the Oxford Groups therefore found themselves more and more on the side-lines, standing alone at house parties talking to each other rather than mixing in with the overall fellowship.

By the time the book Alcoholics Anonymous was published in 1939, the alcoholic members of the Oxford Groups were pretty much a segregated community within the overall movement. It was only a short step from there for these recovered alcoholics to begin setting up house parties of their own where they could talk about recovery from alcoholism to their heart’s content. In these alcoholic house parties, a pattern and a rhythm for how to conduct things began. As time went by, these slowly evolved into the numerous 12-step fellowships we see today.

Each 12-step fellowship, whether it be AA, NA, CA, Overeaters Anonymous (OA), or any other specific variation, began in much the same manner. In the 50’s, heroin addicts of the day found they were not all that welcome in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and so they started meeting on their own – hence Narcotics Anonymous (NA) came into being. In the 80s, cocaine addicts didn’t feel welcome in NA, so they started meeting on their own in Cocaine Anonymous meetings (CA). Each subsequent anonymous group (and believe me, there are many!), opened its doors so that it’s members could talk about that specific problem without being judged. This can be seen in an old saying in AA: “Alcoholics look down on heroin addicts. Heroin addicts look down on Cocaine addicts. Cocaine addicts look down on Marijuana addicts, and everybody looks down on glue sniffers!”

But where do the 12-steps themselves come in within all these fellowships? Well, the truth is, they don’t much really. The actions one takes in working one’s own 12-step recovery program are things done away from the meetings of the fellowship that that individual chooses to attend. Oh sure, people talk about the 12-steps in 12-step fellowship meetings all the time, but that’s about it. The biggest problem that besets these various fellowships is that there is no policing as to what somebody says about the 12-steps. Nor is there any attempt to check or verify the accuracy of any individual statement (or opinion) about the steps against the steps themselves as described in the text book Alcoholics Anonymous. Attend any fellowship for just one meeting and you’ll quickly see a very wide range of interpretation as to what the steps mean, how they should (or shouldn’t) be worked as well as how quickly or diligently one should do them.

The insights and changes one gains by taking the actions of the 12-steps of recovery, one actually gains working with their adviser, or “Sponsor” away from any fellowship meeting. In 12-step fellowship speak, a “Sponsor” is a member of that fellowship who has worked through the 12-step program themselves and has had a life changing experience. New members to a fellowship are encouraged to seek out an older member who has experienced the kind of change that they, too, would like to achieve for themselves. Once found, the new member asks that individual to be their sponsor, and this sponsor freely assists the new member in going through the steps – away from the fellowship meetings themselves (thereby working their own step 12 in doing so).

At the time of writing the book Alcoholics Anonymous, the manner in which the steps were spoken about at alcoholic house parties (early AA meetings), and worked with a sponsor matched each other, and the text book perfectly. Over time however, this has changed and what is heard in a 12-step fellowship meeting, or seen in how sponsors work through the steps with newcomers rarely match in the same manner. This is one of the reasons seeking counselling alongside attendance at a 12-step fellowship meeting can be so helpful. Just make sure you chose a therapist who understands what the steps are, and what it is you are trying to achieve. Next week’s article will discuss the role of the 12-step recovery program at inpatient hospital facilities/recovery centres.