Understanding a Loved One's Twelve Step Recovery Program

Learning basic Twelve Step philosophy and language can open the lines of communication.

It can be scary when someone you care about begins a Twelve Step recovery program.

If that someone is an alcoholic who joins Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), you might feel left out, as if the person has joined an exclusive club, and you don't know the secret handshake.

More likely, however, you will feel the same sense of hope and relief that the person enjoys. You will see that the person is making a dramatic life transformation—abstaining from alcohol and building a healthy body, mind and spirit. If you truly care for this person, you will be curious about the source of this great lifestyle change.

"When I first told my family I was going into treatment, they were stunned," said Cathy, a recovering alcoholic. "I wanted to talk, needed to talk, but none of us had the right words yet. Now, five years later, I realize that it doesn't really matter how perfectly you say something. You have to risk saying the wrong thing and just start communicating.

"Learning basic Twelve Step philosophy and language can open the lines of communication," continued Cathy. "Once you understand some Twelve Step principles, concepts such as powerlessness, spiritual awakening, higher power and making amends, they will seem less like cult mantras and more like the simple guides they are intended to be." A Twelve Step program is one that adapts the Twelve Steps of AA to fit the particular needs of a mutual-help group. Narcotics Anonymous, Al-Anon, Alateen, Gamblers Anonymous, Nicotine Anonymous, and Adult Children of Alcoholics are examples of groups with a Twelve Step foundation.

Most Twelve Step participants view addiction as a lifelong disease and see the Twelve Steps as their new design for living. When people whose lives have been affected by addiction work the Twelve Steps, they can better sort out the things which they have no control over, and the things for which they are responsible. Group meetings offer a safe place to share one's experience, strength and hope, and to receive support and fellowship.

While the program is neither religious nor mystical, it is considered spiritual in that members realize they are not the center of the universe. A higher power is at work, but that higher power can be defined however one chooses. Love, God, nature, conscience, the positive energy in a group of caring people, or an unnamed sense of spirit are all examples of higher powers.

The Steps start from a basic acceptance that we can control and change only ourselves and our own reactions to people and events. Twelve Step participants take ongoing inventory of themselves and honestly acknowledge the ways they have hurt themselves and others. When they are ready, they attempt to make amends to all persons they have harmed. Trust, acceptance, love, goodwill and forgiveness are key elements in a Twelve Step program just as they are important elements of any healthy relationship.

"I discovered how good relationships get better and how unhealthy relationships get exposed when you work your program," said Cathy. "I've been friends with Hannah for years, but we had been partying friends. So when I entered recovery, we were really careful around each other. Then we began talking—really talking. Now our friendship is deeper and more honest. Recovery has been good for both of us."

"The Twelve Steps help us understand that we can't control the afflicted person or the disease. Al-Anon, the mutual-help support group for relatives and friends of alcoholics, teaches members to take responsibility for themselves and to let go of responsibility for the alcoholic."

Friends and family members are interconnected—suspended in delicate balance. When a loved one begins the arduous journey of recovery, the balance shifts. With work and understanding, relationships can be reshaped into something better and a healthier balance can be achieved. Recovery and support for the recovering person are reciprocal gifts that keep on giving.

You can learn more about Twelve Step recovery at the websites of Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon.

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