What is so special about 12 steps?

The innovative rehabilitation program was devised to treat alcoholism – but is equally helpful in treating other addictions.

A glass of white wine [Illustrative] (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
A glass of white wine [Illustrative]
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
What is so special about 12 steps? Anyone who has been in recovery for an addiction – whether to drugs, alcohol, food, gambling, Internet or cyber-sex addiction – would likely have a good answer for this question.
It all started back in 1935, when two alcoholics helped each other stop drinking by talking to each other about their alcohol addiction.
Bill W. and Dr. Bob, as they are known in the annals of Alcoholics Anonymous, created AA.
In 1939, these two men published Alcoholics Anonymous, the “big” book that became the “bible” for the movement.
Today the principles of AA are used in all types of 12-step programs. The definition of addiction has expanded from the original emphasis on alcohol and/or drugs to an expanded focus, which includes food, gambling, sex and Internet addictions.
How do 12-step programs work? Participation begins when an addict is ready to attend a 12-step meeting. The only requirement is that he has a desire to change the addictive behavior.
This is a big step for many addicts who for long periods of their lives have denied that they have a problem.
Denial is a major element of the addiction.
When the addict turns to his addictive demons to escape dealing with life or some aspect of himself, the denial is working. The instant gratification that an addiction provides is rewarding, but it rarely satisfies the person’s real needs.
Joe, a man in his 30s, was addicted to cyber- sex sites on the Internet. Joe could not stop his addiction. He was so out of control that he often missed important meetings at work while he stayed at home viewing porn and masturbating.
One day, Joe was fired. Subsequently, he was able to find a new job and was fired once again for the same behavior. Finally, his fiancée became fed up with the situation and decided to leave him.
Joe came to me broken and depressed. He was clearly out of control, hurting both himself and others. He was powerless over his addictive behavior. I started therapy with Joe, combining motivational counseling with relapse prevention and cognitive-behavioral therapy. This combination of therapies has yielded excellent results for treating addicts.
I also insisted that Joe join a 12-step recovery group.
The first step of a 12-step recovery program is admitting powerlessness over the addiction, which consequently breaks the denial. To help the process of going through the remaining steps, seeking sponsorship from another member (usually someone who is “clean” for over one year and has worked the steps) is encouraged.
Many addicts see their world through the view that “it’s all about me” or my ego. The first three steps begin the journey of what I call ego deflation.
It is not all about you – you are not alone; others can help; you can’t do this alone (you need to turn to God) and you are out of control.
Joe accepted the fact that he was indeed out of control – a big step forward for an addict. For Joe, joining a sex anonymous group felt like a tremendous weight had been taken off his shoulders.
Many 12-step participants have difficulty with the spiritual component of these meetings, but this is a necessary component of treatment. Even atheists and agnostics are encouraged to think of a higher power in any way they are able to conceive of this power. This point underscores the important need for recovering addicts to undergo a spiritual transformation as part of their healing process.
Steps 4 to 12 are sequential, with each step building one on another.
Step 4, which is usually dreaded by most recovering participants, requires “making a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves.” Like most 12- step participants, Joe was afraid to do this. He just did not want to look in the mirror and see how he had hurt himself and others.
In Step 5, Joe was able to tell his sponsor the exact nature of his wrongdoings. Step 6 required Joe to be ready to ask God to remove his character defects, and in Step 7, Joe indeed asked God to remove all of his shortcomings. Step 8 required that Joe make a list of all of the people he had hurt.
To achieve the next step, Step 9, Joe began to make amends to those people he had hurt. This step reminds me of the Jewish way of asking forgiveness from one’s fellow man or woman before Yom Kippur. Joe tried his best to approach everyone he had hurt because of his addiction, and sincerely apologized and asked for forgiveness. The process of going through this important step was powerful and extremely helpful to Joe in his recovery.
The last three steps required that Joe remain vigilant about any future wrongdoings.
The final part of the program, Step 12, teaches recovering individuals to carry this message of their recovery to others. Joe did so by being very active in the 12-step program and becoming a sponsor for other recovering addicts.
One of the things that I learned from Joe was how much the 12-step tradition teaches participants the importance of having gratitude for what they have achieved during their recovery.
Twelve-step programs provide optimism for recovering addicts like Joe. They teach that “one day at a time” and ongoing 12-step-group attendance provide a realistic hope to keep their addiction in check.
The writer is a marital, child and adult psychotherapist and a specialist in treating addictions, with offices in Jerusalem and Ra’anana. He also provides online videoconferencing psychotherapy. Drmikegropper@ gmail.com, www.drmikegropper.weebly.com