What Role Does the Twelve Steps Play in a Health Based Recovery?

There is no easy answer to this. Determining the role that the twelve steps play in one's recovery would be the equivalent of determining the role that God plays in the lives of a thousand random individuals. There is no 'right' answer. Within our finite wisdom, the only answer that matters is the one that we connect to and derive value from. But unlike religion, the role of a treatment program is not to serve as your moral compass nor is it to tell you how to live; rather, it is to teach you how to live. It should guide you in developing and using whatever values you may embrace. This is the role that the twelve steps play within a health based recovery. If you derive meaning and value from them, then they are a part of your identity. Embrace that.

On the other hand, not everyone derives value from the twelve step program. If you are one who does not, then choose a recovery path that does not include the twelve steps. It's that simple. And do this with an aura of confidence...not doubt and shame. Allowing others to doubt your sincerity or potential because you don't follow the twelve steps as they have interpreted them is as misguided as allowing others to judge you based on your religion, race, age, gender or financial status. Such discrimination will still occur, but you have the ability to put such judgment into its proper context. Specifically, that they are driven by the ignorance of others...not your reality.

Societies' Debt of Gratitude

A special thanks goes out to the founders of AA, who provided an initial foundation for those who struggled with such social stigmatic issues to bond together for comfort, awareness and acceptance. Thanks also to the pioneers of Rational Recovery, for paving the way for those not comfortable with the twelve step philosophy to feel accepted. Were these perfect approaches? No, nothing is — including the workshops here. It is all a learning process...as outlined below in some thoughts regarding the authors of AA's Blue Book:

"While the architects of AA should forever be in everyone's gratitude for such a revolutionary approach, and a pure desire to make themselves and their society better... do keep in mind that what they wrote back in the 30's was cutting edge — back in the 30's. With all sociological theories, an evolution must take place — and this is especially true in addiction recovery. So much has been learned about the human condition over the past seventy years that it is unfair to compare today's approaches to then. Not saying that some of their earlier hypotheses were wrong (well yes, some were absolutely wrong...but many continue to form the basis for today's recovery community) — only saying that the authors were at a significant disadvantage due to not having the benefit of knowing "what we know now". They were making things up as they went, based on their own intuition and experience. Well, that and a recovery model loosely based from another created in the late 1800's. But they did good. Not perfect, but good.

You've heard the mantra, "Once an addict, always an addict"... Well, while such a statement is not technically a "lie" — as a lie implies deception — such statements are not accurate, either. Not with what we know today to be true of addiction. They may be accurate on the surface, offering a sense of temporary stability and identity...but they are offering the WRONG identity for permanent change to occur.

We know this now, we didn't back then. So, absolutely read such books...and apply what you feel makes sense to you. But don't make the "elders" into something that they are not. They were people, just like you and I. And they were fallible...just like you and I. We, however, have a significant advantage in terms of all that has been learned of human nature over the past seventy years. So we have the luxury of taking the best of their work, and helping it to evolve into today's society. And that gives us a significant advantage in taking addiction recovery further than they ever thought possible.

People have asked me if I think I know more than some of the pioneers in addiction recovery and I can only respond by praying with all of my heart that, with seventy years of additional life experience to add to their initial foundation of insights, I do know better. As should we all. And my guess is, if we were to go back in time, that would be exactly what the 'founding fathers' of AA would have wanted. For us to take their original concepts and guide the evolution towards a destination that they could never have envisioned at that time.

If it helps, think of addiction recovery as a race across an endless plane. Not a race where we all start from the beginning and follow the exact same path. If that were the case, we would all end in relatively the same spot, determined only by our life expectancy. And seventy years ago, that ending was thought to be a diseased life where addiction could not be overcome — merely managed on a day-to-day basis. No, this is a team race...where each racer continues to chart a more direct path for the next — removing more and more obstacles for those who follow. Such an approach allows all of us to go further than ever imagined previously.

But, removing such obstacles becomes a necessity — which is the purpose of this site. To help remove more obstacles from your path. Otherwise, people will continue stumbling over the same obstacles that those before them stumbled. And they will die thinking that they were an addict. They will die thinking that they were born an addict; they will die thinking that they were somehow defective. That they had a 'disease' which controlled their life. And such thoughts are all obstacles to making a healthy transition in life."

— Jon Marsh
Recovery Nation

Over the past seventy years, it has been proven that addiction can be overcome. Proven by many. The need now is to get that message out to those committed to leaving addiction behind.

One caution before deciding to abandon the twelve steps...

Before giving up on the potential of using the twelve steps to help guide you, remember that not all twelve-step programs are the same. The individual communities and "leaders" of local groups often provide for a completely different environment than the one(s) you have previously attended or have heard about. One of the great weaknesses of 12-Step programs is that the messages are passed from addict to addict — with many of the messengers never having learned to effectively implement those insights themselves. And so, the message gets continuously distorted in the wrong hands. Don't let the health, incompetence or misapplication of what are otherwise solid recovery strategies deter you from seeking the truth. If you find yourself dismissing the twelve-step program based solely on what you believe the program entails, keep in mind that most often, your beliefs are inaccurate. What you will discover is that it has been the message that has been skewed, not its benefits when applied efficiently. As an example, let's quickly look at the first step:

Step One: We admitted we were powerless over our compulsive behavior; that our lives had become unmanageable.

A potentially unhealthy interpretation

One of the earliest and most devastating misperceptions of implementing the twelve steps into a healthy recovery is found right here. More than any other misperception, save for the role of a Higher Power in recovery, the misguided belief that by admitting that we are powerless, we are subtly absolved of our responsibilities; or that we are somehow damaged-incapable of developing the skills that come naturally for others; or that, by admitting that we are powerless, we will remain so forever, or that we had no power. Such false belies often have the following impacts on those seeking recovery:

1) They offer the lack of responsibility that produces “an excuse”, “an explanation” for their behavior-and while this may provide temporary comfort, it destroys the personal responsibility needed to actively develop the life management skills that are necessary to end the addictive patterns.

2) It turns off those who would have otherwise benefited from implementing such steps into their recovery. While some are comforted by their unhealthy perceptions of being “powerless”, others are infuriated by it. They have worked too hard, and have accomplished too much in their lives to consider themselves powerless. To them, such an admission is the ultimate blow. The ultimate failure. And because they refuse to accept it, they quit their involvement with the twelve step program. But again, this perception is also misguided…as such powerlessness is not intended to be an all or nothing phenomenon.

A potentially healthy interpretation

For most, you have spent years trying to stop/control your behavior. You have likely tried many things: promises to God, your family, yourself…you may have spent time in a treatment center…you may have read fifteen books on recovery-applying what you have learned each time. And each time, your efforts have ended in failure. Or, what you perceive to be failure.

But the truth to the first step is, that what you are admitting, is that you alone are powerless to end your destructive patterns. You have tried unsuccessfully, and you are now ready to admit openly that this is something that you cannot control by yourself. Such a perception is not an admission of failure, but a statement of fact. With your current skills, your current values, your current experiences…you do not possess the power to end this addiction. There is nothing even remotely wrong with accepting such a fact.

This does not mean that you are weak, this does not mean that you are powerless in all things. And what is especially true, this does not mean that you have no power in your recovery. It only means that you currently lack the power to take yourself all the way through the transition from addiction to health.


The 12- Step program can offer you much in terms of a healthy recovery. Ultimately though, it will be your interpretation and application of what you learn there that will determine its effectiveness. Participation in such a twelve step community is not necessary for a permanent recovery and in some cases, can even be detrimental — given the health of the specific community in question.

On the other hand, your involvement with a healthy 12-step community can be a stabilizing factor in allowing you to achieve acceptance and understanding of your addiction. Beyond your personal motivation and commitment, there are few better indicators for success than your ability to get involved with a healthy, live (face-to-face, ongoing) support system. In a Health Based Recovery, your participation in the twelve steps is considered on the same plane as any other value that you may hold. It is YOUR value. Our focus will be on your ability to derive the greatest value from it.

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