Living the Twelve Steps

Push the inner addict to the backseat

We recently moved, and I'm now shopping for a step ladder so I can reach my cupboards. Because it will be a permanent fixture in the kitchen, this ladder must be durable, sturdy, tall and elegant. It’s not a big leap to see that the Twelve Steps also function this way in my life—they lift me to a better place and allow me to reach what I want, if I just use them.

I can only live the Twelve Steps if, at some point, I've taken the actions they require under the guidance of a sponsor. It's not enough to go to meetings and talk about them, or hear how others have worked the Steps. I have to follow the principles myself, with help and support, to become spiritually fit. Spiritual fitness, which is the buffer zone between what happens in the world and how I respond to it, is much like physical fitness. I don't get lean by drinking coffee and talking about treadmills. I actually have to walk.

Taking the actions for each Step as outlined in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) allows two things to occur, simultaneously. The first thing is that my ego is deflated and my personality is changed; my inner addict goes into the back seat by taking actions that level my pride, confess my shortcomings, and require self-searching (AA p. 25). The second thing that working the Steps does is nourish my "innermost self" (AA p. 30), my spirit—the healthy me always connected to a Higher Power—by ensuring that I make an honest, authentic connection with myself, others or a Higher Power in each Step. I receive benefits, results, and promises when I take these actions.

Once I've worked the Steps I have new skills to cope with life when things get hard, skills I have to practice daily to live happily in recovery. Perhaps the one line that best sums up the perspective I gain by working the Twelve Steps is the following: "It is a spiritual axiom that every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us" (AA p. 90). This line in the Step Ten essay in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions shows me when I need to double up on my spiritual activities—anytime I'm disturbed. Living in the solution of these steps, I can no longer point fingers or blame others for my emotional imbalance. Whenever I'm disturbed, I must search myself for the cause. That's the essence of conducting a daily inventory. I can't afford to let irritability and restlessness become my norm.

When I was active in my addictions, I thought my happiness depended on things external to me changing. I needed the perfect mate, the right body size, a certain number in the bank account, and other people always to behave with kindness and understanding. Since that wasn't possible, I drank or got high in order to escape a reality that wasn't pleasing to me.

In recovery, I am responsible for my own happiness. So today when I'm off-center, I have a set of tools to inventory what's going on in me, identify what I need to do to come back into balance, and, if I find myself not using the tool, I can call on others who understand these principles and pray to a higher power to help me use them promptly and properly.

What does it look like to live the Twelve Steps? I've taken the essence of each step and put it into a suggestion for lifelong recovery.

  • Embrace the presence of the Holy (guides, angels, teachers, higher power, God) as the path to a better life.
  • Be wide open to life, no expectations or fears, no preconceived ideas or concerns.
  • Be willing to be changed. Knowing and not knowing are both acceptable states of being.
  • Be totally honest in my questions, hurts, desires, dreams and longings. That level of honesty with self makes me less tempted to control others.
  • Hold nothing back from a sponsor or a home group. Share it all, not just what I think they want to hear.
  • Love myself—the good and the bad. Laugh at mistakes and give up on perfection. We can't do this wrong and stretching is how we all grow.
  • Seek help when things get hard.
  • Stop worrying about past mistakes. People were hurt because that's how they interpreted things. I was hurt because of my story and interpretation. Shift internally and act differently.
  • Love the people in front of me—strangers in cars, the lover in the bed, the sister on the phone, the friend obsessed with his pain. Love them all and watch wounds heal.
  • Be totally present. This is the only moment, so hold it gently and savor.
  • Open to the divine often. It is always available, accessible and even eager. Do not pray for answers only, but affirmation, assurance, and the sheer pleasure of that connection.
  • Be helpful. Share what I know now without waiting for it to be perfect. Say Yes to life's invitations whether I think I'm ready or not.

The best part of living the Twelve Steps is I don't do it alone—I have a community who interprets the world through a similar lens, a sponsor who freely shares how she's navigated challenges, and an increasingly close relationship with the holiest part of myself, the world, and others that shows me time and again that this world is a marvelous place, that nothing really goes wrong, and that there's always a new opportunity to do it better today. Today, I'm happy with what is and eager for more.

This is the path to growth and fulfillment I've been seeking my entire life.

JoAnn Campbell-Rice, inspirational speaker, writer and a teacherJoAnn Campbell-Rice is the manager of Renewal Programs and Spiritual Care at the Dan Anderson Renewal Center, which offers topic-specific Twelve Step Weekend Retreats that focus on common issues faced in recovery and the need for spiritual fitness, emotional balance, healthy relationships, finding your way after loss, and meditation. A former professor of writing, she has a private practice of spiritual direction in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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