The Foundation of AA
- The Big Book lays out the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and includes personal stories of those who found recovery in the program.
- Many recovering alcoholics work the 12 steps with a sponsor. The process includes believing in a power greater than yourself, admitting past mistakes, making amends to people you have harmed through alcoholism and continuing to focus on spiritual growth.
- Many AA members refer back to the Big Book once they complete the 12-step program and as they work with others on their recovery.
What’s in the Big Book?
The Big Book serves as the basis of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). It 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.
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Alcoholics Anonymous 12 Steps
Alcoholics Anonymous is often referred to as a 12-step program, and AA is the basis for many other 12-step programs that have been established. These 12 steps are outlined in Chapter 5, “How It Works,” of the Big Book. The steps helped each of the co-founders of AA in their own recovery from alcoholism and have continued to help countless others battle their addictions.
Alcoholics Anonymous members often talk about “working the steps.” During this process, members of the group move through each of the steps to achieve sobriety and recovery.
In AA, participants are encouraged to pair up with a sponsor to work through the steps. The sponsor is a member who is further along in the program and acts as a guide through the steps for newer members.
Sponsors provide individual care and support throughout recovery, even making themselves available outside meetings via phone. In the face of potential relapse, a person can call his or her sponsor. Having a sponsor can make all the difference for a recovering user in AA, and pairing up with one while working the steps has been associated with longer-lasting abstinence.1
The 12 Steps of AA
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 cannot overcome alcoholism on their own. They are unable to exercise willpower or personal strength that could prevent them from drinking.
Step 2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Alcoholics Anonymous is based on the belief in a higher power. For some, this higher power may be God; for others, it may be a belief in the universe itself. The point is that recovery begins, in part, by looking to an entity greater than yourself.
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, the end of Step 3 makes it clear that God can come in many forms. Again, the purpose of this step is the further acknowledgement that alcoholics cannot recover on their own.
Step 4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
During this step, many participants make a list of poor decisions or character flaws. They outline hurt they caused to others, as well as feelings, like fear and guilt, that motivated some of their past actions. Once the individual has acknowledged these issues, the issues 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 – often their sponsor – and confess everything they identified in Step 4. This step requires the recovering individual to put aside their ego and pride to acknowledge shameful past behavior. The step is also empowering, as the alcoholic no longer has to hide behind guilt and lies.
Step 6: Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
In this step, the recovering alcoholic acknowledges that he or she is ready to have a higher power – again, whatever that may be – take away the moral shortcomings identified in Step 4. This step simply involves a willingness to change.
Ethanol, or alcohol, is the most common substance of abuse in treatment, a 2017 survey by Recovery Brands shows. Nearly 70% of people that took the survey got help for an alcohol abuse problem, and nearly 53% of respondents said that alcohol was the substance that they sought the most treatment for.
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Step 7: Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
This step requires the person to focus on the positive aspects of his or her character – humility, kindness, compassion and a desire for change – as well as 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. Often, this list includes people they hurt during their active alcoholism; however, it may go back further to include anyone they have hurt throughout their entire lives.
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.
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 keep an eye out for any defects of character. 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 have stringent rules on what form spiritual growth takes. It simply involves a commitment to take time to reassess one’s spiritual and mental state.
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. By going through the 12 steps, individuals have a major internal shift and part of that shift is a desire to help others.
Find out more about Alcoholics Anonymous, including what to expect at meetings, how sponsors work and how to get involved.
The Big Book section with personal stories can be particularly helpful to recovering alcoholics. They can read about others who have struggled with alcoholism and effectively recovered.
Some of the stories include:
- Bill’s Story – One of the founders of AA, Bill, describes his story about how he went from a wealthy Wall Street hustler to broke, how his struggle with alcohol abuse fueled his decline into chaos, and how surrender to a higher power helped him maintain sobriety and help others going through a similar challenge.
- Doctor Bob’s Nightmare – Another one of the founders of AA, Dr. Bob, recounts his struggle with alcoholism through college and medical school during Prohibition, and how Bill helped him find and maintain sobriety by encouraging spiritual surrender.
- Women Suffer Too – The story of one of the first women in AA–how her alcohol abuse nearly killed her and how involving herself in AA saved her life, despite her religious hesitancy.
- Tightrope – A homosexual man’s struggle to walk the line between pretending to be straight and his real sexual desires, all the while using alcohol to cope, until he finally sought the guidance of AA and found a satisfying sober life.
- Another Chance – An African American woman’s spiral down into extreme alcoholism, sacrificing her family and her livelihood to get her hands on another drink, which lands her in prison for a crime that she cannot remember (due to blacking out) where she finally commits herself to AA and restores her life.
Alcoholics Anonymous 12 Traditions
The authors outline the 12 traditions in the appendix of the Big Book. These are a complement to the 12 steps and help with operating AA.
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.
The Importance of the Big Book for Continued 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.
How Alcoholics Anonymous Works
The backbone of the AA program is that alcoholics need to find a higher power to help them through the recovery process.
AA believes that total abstinence is the only means to complete recovery. The program believes that alcoholics cannot moderate their drinking and need to stop drinking altogether.
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.
AA offers a 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. AA has no rules on religion or spiritually; what a higher power means to each person will vary.
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 Tonigan, J. S. & Rice, S. L. (2010). Is it beneficial to have an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor? Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 24 (3). 397-403.