The Big Book is the text that serves as the basis of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). While it's full official title is Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism, it is almost always referred to as The Big Book - a name that was coined due to the large size of the original edition.
The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill W. and Dr. Bob, published the text in 1939, and it ultimately became one of the top-selling publications of all time. Over the years, The Big Book has received various edits, and it is currently being sold in its fourth edition.
What's in The Big Book?
The Big Book contains the 12 steps that are at the core of the Alcoholics Anonymous program, as well as stories about alcoholics who have been through the recovery process. The section with personal stories can be particularly helpful to recovering alcoholics as they can read about others who have struggled with the disease of alcoholism and effectively recovered.
The backbone of the AA program is that alcoholics need to find a higher power to help them through the recovery process. This comes from a firm belief those in recovery need to access a power greater than themselves in order to achieve sobriety. While certain recovery models may advocate reduced drinking or moderation, this is not a tenant of Alcoholics Anonymous. The program believes that alcoholics cannot moderate their drinking but rather need to stop drinking altogether for good. AA believes that total abstinence is the only means to complete recovery.
Alcoholics Anonymous also believes that an alcoholic is never cured. Once someone has struggled with alcoholism, they will always be an alcoholic and therefore always need to be in recovery. Many members of AA have been in recovery for decades and continue to attend regular meetings to keep themselves on the path of sustained recovery.
Alcoholics Anonymous is often referred to as a 12-step program, and the group serves as the basis on which many other 12-step programs have been established. These 12 Steps are outlined in Chapter 5, "How It Works," of The Big Book. The 12 steps are the steps that the founders found helpful in their own recovery from alcoholism, and these steps have helped countless others battle the disease.
Those in Alcoholics Anonymous often talk about "working the steps." This is the process by which members of the group move through the each of the steps in an effort to achieve sobriety and recovery. There isn't a set timeframe during which members work the steps; however, it's important that recovering addicts continue to attend meetings as they progress through them. This gives them the chance to share their experiences with recovery and garner the support and encouragement of others.
In AA, participants are paired with sponsors who help new members through the process of working the steps. This sponsor is a member who has been in recovery for a while - someone who is now secure enough in their rehab and recovery to assist someone else as they begin their journey.
Breaking Down the 12 Steps
Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable.
The first step outlined in The Big Book is essential to jumpstart the alcoholic's recovery process. AA firmly believes that individuals are completely defenseless when it comes to overcoming alcoholism on their own. Alcohol has taken a hold of the alcoholic's mind and body, and that person is unable to exercise willpower or personal strength that could prevent them from drinking.
While in the throes of alcoholism, most alcoholics feel that they have their drinking under control. They believe they could stop at any time - they just don't want to yet. In truth, alcoholism isn't a matter of willpower. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, alcoholism is a disease that is chronic in nature. Once the alcoholic has acknowledged that they are unable to stop on their own, the recovery process can begin.
Step 2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
The core of Alcoholics Anonymous is based on the belief in a higher power. Each recovering alcoholic's idea of a higher power may be different. For some, this may take the form of God; for others, it may be a belief in the Universe itself. While many associate AA with its Christian history, people from all different religious backgrounds participate in Alcoholics Anonymous. There is much freedom in each participate defining a higher power that works for them. The main purpose is that alcoholics are not looking to themselves for the power or strength to undergo recovery program; instead, they are looking to an entity that is great than themselves.
Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
While some entering AA bristle at the mention of God, as they associate it with a Christian background, the end of Step 3 makes it clear that the God referenced can come in many forms, according to what the individual believes. Again, the purpose of this step is the further acknowledgement that alcoholics cannot recover on their own. Instead, they have consciously decided to turn their resolve over to whatever or whomever they believe their higher power to be - with this release often comes recovery.
Step 4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
This step can be difficult for many alcoholics. While in the depths of alcoholism, the alcoholic has likely displayed character traits that have been hurtful and wrong. This step requires self-examination that can be uncomfortable, but honesty is essential in this process. Many participates will make a list of poor decisions or character flaws during this step, outlining hurt they caused to others, as well as feelings, like fear and guilt, that motivated some of their past actions.
This step doesn't just involve the period of time when the participants were struggling with active alcoholism. The self-inventory process can extend far beyond that, even to early childhood. The key is to identify any areas of past regret, embarrassment, guilt or anger. Once the alcoholic has acknowledged these issues, they are less likely to serve as triggers to future alcohol abuse.
Step 5: Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
As AA members work this step, they sit down with someone - most often their sponsor - and confess everything they identified in Step 4. This involves admitting to past poor behavior. This step can be humbling for the recovering addict, requiring them to put aside their ego and pride to acknowledge past behavior that may be shameful. It is also an empowering step as the alcoholic no longer has to hide behind guilt and lies. There is power in the truth.
Step 6: Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
In this step, the recovering alcoholic acknowledges that they are ready to have their higher power - again, whatever that may be - take away the moral shortcomings that were identified in Step 4. This simply involves a willingness to change.
Step 7: Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
Paired with Step 6, this step again stresses the willingness for change. This step requires humility. Every person has character defects, whether they come in the form of impatience, anger, apathy, criticism or negativity. While in active alcoholism, these character defects may have been magnified in the alcoholic. The recovering alcoholic is not strong enough to eliminate these defects on their own, so they ask their higher power to do so.
This step requires a focus on the positive aspects of one's character - humility, kindness, compassion and a desire for change - as well as a step away from the negative defects that have been identified.
Step 8: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
During this step, recovering alcoholics write down a list of all the people they have hurt. Most often this list involves people they hurt during their active alcoholism; however, it may go back farther than that to include anyone they have hurt throughout their entire lives. The wrongs committed against these people could range from large to small - from stealing from them in order to buy more alcohol to talking negatively behind their backs.
Step 9: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Paired with Step 8, Step 9 gives recovering alcoholics the opportunity to make things right with those they have hurt. One's sponsor can be a big source of help during this process, helping the recovering alcoholic to determine the best way to go about making amends with those they have wronged. In some instances, this may involve writing a letter to the individual. In other cases, it might involve sitting down with them face to face. The alcoholic must come from a place of honesty when approaching the person, free from defensiveness of past actions.
Many recovering alcoholics find immense freedom in this step. Whereas they may have been carrying around heavy burdens of regret and shame regarding past behavior, this step allows them to move away from those encumbrances. Sometimes important relationships - such as those to parents, siblings or dear friends - are restored during this step.
Step 10: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
Linked to Step 4, this step involves a commitment to continue to take inventory of oneself, keeping an eye out for any defects of character that may present themselves. It also involves a commitment to readily admit when one is wrong, reinforcing humility and honesty.
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.
Step 11 commits the recovering alcoholic to continued spiritual progress. For some, this may mean reading scripture every morning. For others, it may mean a daily meditation practice. Alcoholics Anonymous doesn't feature stringent rules on what form spiritual growth takes - it is different for everyone in recovery. It simply involves a commitment to take time to reassess one's spiritual and mental state, helping to ensure balance and health that is crucial to long-term recovery and sobriety.
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.
The final step involves helping others and serves as motivation for many to become sponsors themselves one day. By going through the 12 Steps, individuals have a major internal shift and part of that shift is a desire to help others.
The Importance of The Big Book for Continued Recovery
Once a recovering alcoholic has worked the 12 Steps, they aren't done with their recovery. Alcoholics Anonymous believes that recovery is a lifelong process so The Big Book is a continual companion in a recovering alcoholic's life. Recovering alcoholics regularly refer to The Big Book as they progress in recovery, and they use it to help new members as they begin their recovery process.
In the Appendix of The Big Book, the authors outlined the 12 Traditions. These work as a complement to the 12 Steps and assist with how the group is run. The 12 Traditions stress the importance of anonymity for the group, as well as the importance of the support group's ability to support itself and not take donations from outside sources.
AA is a group that offers supportive addiction recovery program to those who need it. The only requirement is that a new member has the desire to stop drinking - that's it. There are no rules regarding religion or spiritually; what a higher power means to each person will vary.
If you'd like more information on Alcoholics Anonymous, or on how The Big Book can help you through the recovery process, please don't hesitate to contact us.