Step 1: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.”
This step sounds appealing to some and grates heavily on others. The notion of declaring powerlessness is intended to evoke a sense of surrender that might give way to spiritual rebirth. Compelling as this is as a narrative device, it lacks any clinical merit or scientific backing.
Step 2: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”
Many scholars have written about the close bond between AA and religion. This is perhaps inevitable: AA was founded as a religious organization whose design and practices hewed closely to its spiritual forerunner, the Oxford Group, whose members believed strongly in the purging of sinfulness through conversion experiences. As Bill Wilson wrote in the Big Book: “To some people we need not, and probably should not, emphasize the spiritual feature on our first approach. We might prejudice them. At the moment we are trying to put our lives in order. But this is not an end in itself. Our real purpose is to fit ourselves to be of maximum service to God.”
Religion can have a salutary effect on people in crisis, of course, and its strong emphasis on community bonds is often indispensable. But do these comforting feelings address the causes of addiction or lead to permanent recovery in any meaningful way? As we will see, the evidence is scant.
Step 3: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.”
For an organization that has expressly denied religious standing and publicly claims a secular—even scientific—approach, it is curious that AA retains these explicit references to a spiritual power whose care might help light the way toward recovery. Even for addicts who opt to interpret this step secularly, the problem persists: why can’t this ultimate power lie within the addict?
Step 4: “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
The notion that people with addictions suffer from a failure of morality to be indexed and removed is fundamental to Alcoholics Anonymous. Yet addiction is not a moral defect, and to suggest that does a great disservice to people suffering with this disorder.
Step 5: “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”
Step 6: “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”
Step 7: “Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.”
These steps rehash the problems of their predecessors: the religiosity, the admission of moral defectiveness, the embrace of powerlessness, and the search for a cure through divine purification. The degradation woven through these steps also seems unwittingly designed to exacerbate, rather than relieve, the humiliating feelings so common in addiction.
If moral self-flagellation could cure addiction, we could be sure there would be precious few addicts.
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.”
There is nothing inherently wrong with apologizing to those who have been harmed, directly or indirectly, by the consequences of addiction. The problem is the echo once more of the fundamentalist religious principle: that the path to recovery is to cleanse oneself of sin.
Yes, apologies can be powerful things, and there’s no question that reconciling with people can be a liberating and uplifting experience. But grounding this advice within a framework of treatment alters its timbre, transforming an elective act into one of penance.