It was a long journey from 1934 when Bill W. was diagnosed as a hopeless alcoholic by Dr. Silkworth to the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935 almost a year later. In that time, Bill W. met Dr. Bob, his lifelong friend and companion, on the journey to sobriety. They discovered early on through the lessons of others that one of the most important keys to sobriety was sharing their experiences with another. In fact, that is how Bill W. and Dr. Bob met. Bill was in Akron on business and needed to talk to another alcoholic. After much searching he connected with Dr. Bob. An immediate and strong kinship developed and these two men forged a path that, with the help of many others, has been a gift to millions seeking recovery.
Dr. Bob and Bill W. discovered the mutuality of their predicament when they met for the first time in the home of Anne S. in May of 1935. Carrying the message of Alcoholics Anonymous was to be the work of Dr. Bob, Bill W. and an army of others for years to come. Even today the message of AA passes from one alcoholic to another as they share their stories and work the 12 Steps with the support.
The First Steps
The Twelve Steps began as “six chunks of truth” (Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, p. 161) in an effort to pass on the message of AA, but Bill W. had the foresight to understand that the “literature would have to be as clear and comprehensive as possible… There must not be single loophole through which the rationalizing alcoholic would wiggle out” (Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, p. 161). The purpose of the steps was to ensure that every alcoholic who picked up AA literature would be able to understand the severity of the disease and the necessity for following the steps as they are written. By doing so, the alcoholic experiences the spiritual movement that is within the steps.
Step One. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol-that our lives had become unmanageable. The first of the Twelve Steps is about recognizing one’s powerless in the face of alcohol. Dr. Silkworth’s work on the dilemma of alcohol as both an obsession and an allergy proved to be foundational for this step. This disease which is both obsession and allergy takes over and leaves one devastated.
Step Two. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. This second step is headed toward a path of surrender which happens more fully in Step 3. This is a difficult reality for alcoholics who have depended for a great deal of time on their own failed efforts to restore themselves. And yet, an important step to take because alcoholics who work the steps begin to see that relying on something or someone greater than oneself makes recovery attainable.
Step Three. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. Letting go and letting God means that the alcoholic is able to “lose our fear of today, tomorrow or the hereafter.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 63) because he or she recognizes they do not have to run the show.
Step Four. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. This step is about looking at one’s own life and laying claim to wrongs done to self and others. Without the assurance of the presence of a High Power from Step 3, this would surely be an impossible step to complete thoroughly. Writing down resentments gives them less power and allows the alcoholic the chance to begin to let them go. Trusting in an infinite Higher Power makes this step easier because the alcoholic knows that he or she is not alone on the journey.
Step Five. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. This step requires trust in a Higher Power that another will hear the story of the alcoholic with compassion and grace, sans judgment. For many this is when a cloud is lifted and a spiritual experience begins (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 75).
Step Six. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. This step rests between full disclosure of one’s self to another and the moment when the God of one’s understanding removes all those defects that once buried the alcoholic. Willingness is key because without the willingness to ask for their removal, these defects remain.
Step Seven. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings. The gift of humility is one learned and accepted by the alcoholic in recovery. Faith in something greater than one’s self means having the courage to let yourself be changed for the better.
Step Eight. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. Just as Steps 6 and 7 are intricately woven together, so it is true of Steps 8 and 9. This step is about preparing for the work to follow. It is important to take time to reflect on the amends to be made and be sure to include one’s self in the list.
Step Nine. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. Step 9 puts recovery into action. This is the opportunity to take a deep breath of the faith the alcoholic has in his or her Higher Power. Trusting in the system and in the process of letting go, the alcoholic faces the ones who have been hurt and offers amends. This is done with care for the other individual and for the self and no one should be put in danger in this endeavor.
The Maintenance Steps
Step 10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it. The next three steps work together to maintain the recovery of the alcoholic. They lead to a spiritual awakening that comes slowly to some and quickly to others. Step 10 requires vigilance in the process of recovery. Humility again, comes into play. Being able to admit one’s wrongs promptly saves a person from walking away with guilt, anger and resentment.
Step 11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out. Authentically working Step 11 maintains a connection with one’s Higher Power. Asking for help, praying when one wakes up and lies down, giving thanks, meditating-these are all means by which the recovering alcoholic remains humble and relinquishes control to their Higher Power.
Step 12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs. In brief, this step is about passing the message on to others who need it, too. This is a spiritual practice because it intertwines one person to another. One individual’s story becomes a part of the tapestry that blankets the recovery movement of Alcoholics Anonymous. As was mentioned in the introduction, Bill W. and Dr. Bob recognized the importance of sharing their experiences as a means by which to maintain their own recovery. This is a critical step in the AA legacy.
There are three legacies of Alcoholics Anonymous born out of the early years: Recovery, Unity and Service. The Legacies were handed over to the movement known as Alcoholics Anonymous on July 3, 1955 at the 20th Anniversary Convention in St. Louis, MO. This was a passing of the torch, so to speak. Those who had built this movement and allowed their recovery journey to be shared by so many-the old timers-passed on their gifts to the newest among them.
The first, the Legacy of Recovery, offers the lessons learned and the Steps to be taken to those who have yet experienced the spiritual journey of recovery and to those who may experience it anew. The Legacy of Unity ensures that the focus of Alcoholics Anonymous stays on recovering and sharing that recovery with others. The first of the Twelve Traditions says that “Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon A. A. unity” (Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, p. 78). No one person is the face or the voice of A. A. Finally, the Legacy of Service is focused on sharing the message of recovery.
The Alcoholics Anonymous movement is a movement toward recovery. The historical founders and contributors, both alcoholics and non-alcoholics, laid a path for others to follow that encourages surrender, honesty, humility, and faith in something bigger than one’s self. When an alcoholic follows the Twelve Steps and gives themselves over to the journey, they generally find healing and experience powerful spiritual change in their lives that most will say is due to their work in the program and their faith in their Higher Power.
By Charlsi Lewis Lee
Alcoholics Anonymous comes of age: A brief history of A. A. (1985). New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.
Alcoholic Anonymous (4th ed.). (2001). New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.