The twelve steps were written in the past tense, as if they were the trial and error results of drunks trying to help themselves and each other. Bill W. and his “Alcoholic Squad” didn’t come up with these steps, and they weren’t originally drafted as a cure for alcoholism. They were tenants of the Oxford Group, a cult Bill W., Dr. Bob, and other early AAs were members of.
Nowhere in the steps will you find “we quit drinking” or even “we determined to drink less.” For all that alcoholism is the ostensible focus of the organization, the steps are all about God or a Higher Power (literally God with a new buzzword. We’ll get into that later.) Here are the twelve steps altogether. Several of these steps have been slightly reworded since Bill’s day. We will explore each in turn below.
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
- 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
- Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we decided to carry this message to other alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Step 1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
Powerless is a strong word. Bill didn’t say alcoholics struggled with booze or that it was unwise for them to drink it. He declared them without any power whatsoever. Powerlessness is the opposite of a position of strength, and makes some feel too defeated to bother. “If I have no power over alcohol, why try to stop at two glasses of wine? I can’t help but finish the bottle!” Cults don’t want empowered members. They want people to feel lost, afraid, and guilty. They want members who look to them for guidance and control.
Bill Wilson’s life had certainly become unmanageable, but not in that passive voice. He drank two or more fifth liters of rotgut bathtub gin a day for decades, while destroying career opportunities, and shamelessly mistreating his wife Lois. He was violent and abusive and didn’t bring in money, and he had drank himself nearly to death before the age of forty.
A consistent theme in AA texts and teachings is Bill W. projecting his own narrative, traits, and history onto all alcoholics, and later all relatives of alcoholics. Even in my true believer days as a member of Al-Anon (the twelve steps group for wives of “drunken sots”), it rubbed me the wrong way to read again and again that I was exactly the same as a middle aged alcoholic man from the 1930s. Here we see Bill project his neglected life as the only alcoholic life.
Some people delay getting treatment or therapy for a drinking problem because their lives are still manageable. When Alcoholics Anonymous promotes a single image of an alcoholic who has “hit rock bottom” and now needs daily or weekly meetings just to function, someone self medicating depression outside of work hours and without driving drunk may not feel their issue is worth addressing iin a healthier way.