A Beginner's Guide to Steps 1-3: Unpacking the Language and Living Their Lessons

Unpacking the first three steps
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Making the language of the first three steps as approachable and solution-oriented as possible makes them easier for people to unpack.

An old-timer walked into a Twelve Step meeting and was greeted from across the room by a bunch of his friends. He made his way to join them and catch up, but someone unrecognizable stood out to him in the crowd of familiar faces.

A young man in his early 20s was sitting by himself looking rather grumpy, and his head was buried in his iPhone. The old-timer got the feeling the young man was either new to recovery or this was his very first meeting.

The old-timer wanted to catch up with his friends, so part of him thought about ignoring the newcomer. Certainly the young man couldn't relate to an "old guy" like him. The old-timer thought one of the younger guys in the group would go over and introduce themselves to the newcomer, find out if it was his first AA meeting and so on. But then the old-timer remembered the AA Responsibility Statement, so he grabbed a chair beside the young man and struck up a conversation.

We Are Responsible to Other Alcoholics* Who Wish to Be Sober

In an increasing number of meetings today, groups recite the AA Responsibility Statement: "I am responsible. When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of AA always to be there. And for that: I am responsible."

But it's one thing to say it; it's another thing to live it.

The young man confirmed that it was, in fact, his first AA meeting, and that he knew nothing about recovery or the Steps. He told the old-timer that his girlfriend insisted he try out AA, and he wasn't thrilled about it.

The old-timer had heard that song before. There's a good chance he'd sung it himself.

The young man asked the old-timer something along the lines of "How does sobriety work?"

The old-timer could sense the young man's desperation: he needed to hear more than "It works just fine." It was apparent that, given the opportunity, the young man was ready to bolt for the door. Being told to stick around and learn the answer for himself wasn't going to cut it.

The old-timer reflected on the gravity of the situation. He knew that one interaction could spell the difference in this young man's decision to give sobriety a chance or return to alcoholism.

So the old-timer took a few moments to describe how it all comes together: "It works through the combination of two things: the fellowship and the program within the Twelve Steps."

But the old-timer could again sense the young man's needs. He both needed to talk about his own situation, and less so, to listen to an old man's inside story on all things Twelve Steps. So the old-timer kept it simple and started with the first three Steps.

Translating the First Three Steps into Plain English

The old-timer knew to make the language as approachable and solution-oriented as possible, and to make the Steps more actionable, he broke them down something like this:

Step 1"Do you see a connection between your own drinking or using, and the fact that your life has become unmanageable? Look, unmanageable is a five-syllable word for 'out of control.' Can you relate to 'out of control?' Yes? Then proceed.

As for being powerless, it's the same concept. A few syllables that boil down to 'When I drink alcohol or use drugs, things get out of control.' If you can sympathize with that idea of being powerless, then congratulations, you've completed the first Step."

He saw the young man begin to understand, so he carried on to Step 2.

Step 2:  "The basic idea of Step 2 is that we cannot 'cure' our own addictions. Ham is cured—not addiction. But if you relate to 'out of control,' the good news is that help is available, and you've come to the right place.

"People in Twelve Step recovery don't have a hammerlock on sobriety. There are other methods of getting sober that work for other people. But what we have works for us, and if you stick with us, you might just find a solution that works for you too. While we admit we cannot 'cure' our addictions, we:

  • "Came: We showed up to meetings.
  • "Came to: We realized that we were living life in an unconscious fashion, not realizing how much damage we were doing to ourselves and others.
  • "Came to believe: We saw that something outside of ourselves can help us, whether that 'something' happens to be a Higher Power (however we define it) or even the 12 Step program itself."

The old-timer pressed on to Step 3, explaining everything carefully.

Step 3:  "The first edition of the Big Book has a story in which AA's co-founder Bill Wilson says to a newcomer, 'Your life is certainly jumbled up. Would you consider inviting God to help you unjumble it?' Basically, that's Step 3 in a nutshell. By accepting the spiritual help offered by a Higher Power, we embrace a spiritual program for arresting alcoholism and addiction. By letting a Higher Power 'unjumble' —to use Bill's term—what we've managed to jumble, there's a path ahead.

The old-timer finished with one closing remark: "That's all we do in 12 Step programs. Through the Steps and through the fellowship, we find deep within ourselves the Power to 'unjumble' our lives."

This approach still works for the old-timer, and it works for the newcomer, young and old. And that's why everyone is responsible to everyone else, and in this way, sobriety is passed on from one person to the next.

*Editor's note: We much prefer the person-first language that emphasizes a person's identity before their disease. However, in keeping with the history of AA and NA, their founding principles and the language that still exists within the fellowships, we have decided to keep the word alcoholic to describe people with alcohol use disorders.

Our hope is merely to capture the spirit of the fellowships, and to approach people with the language they commonly use to describe the disease of addiction.

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