A twelve-step program is a self-help group whose members attempt recovery from various addictions and compulsions through the use of a plan referred to as the "twelve steps".
All twelve-step programs follow some version of the twelve steps. They meet regularly to discuss their problems and share their victories.
One of the most widely-recognized characteristics of twelve-step groups is the requirement that members admit that they "have a problem". In this spirit, many members open their address to the group along the lines of, "Hi, I'm David, and I'm an alcoholic" -- a catchphrase now widely identified with support groups.
Visitors to group meetings share their experiences, challenge successes and failures, and provide peer support for each other. Many people who have joined these groups report they found success that previously eluded them, while others -- including some ex-members -- criticize their efficacy or universal applicability.
The twelve steps
The twelve steps for Alcoholics Anonymous are as follows.
1. We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol -- that our lives
had become unmanageable.
(Source: Alcoholics Anonymous)
Other twelve-step groups have modified these steps slightly to refer to problems other than alcoholism.
The first such program was Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which was begun in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith. He established the tradition within the "Anonymous" 12-step programs of using only his first name. The 12 Steps were originally written by Wilson and other early members of AA to codify the process that they felt had worked for them personally.The 12 steps were essentially a rewriting of the 6 steps of the Oxford Group with whom Bill Wilson had contact. This "codex" is the book "Alcoholics Anonymous", often referred to as the "Big Book".
The twelve steps were eventually matched with twelve traditions a set of guidelines for running individual groups and a sort of constitution for the program (eg, AA) as a whole.
Many other programs since have adapted AA's original steps to their own ends. Related programs exist to help family and friends of those with addictions. These programs also follow modified versions of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Relation to religion
A primary belief of members is that their success is based on giving up on self-reliance and willpower, and instead relying on God, or a "Higher Power". Critics of these programs, however, often hold that this reliance is ineffective, and offensive or inapplicable to atheists and others who do not believe in a salvific deity. Proponents of 12-step programs argue that many atheists have been helped by the program.
The role of religion in 12-step groups is an argument of significance in some parts of the United States, where the criminal justice system has held out group participation to inmate addicts as a condition of parole or shortened sentences. Governments in the U.S. are disallowed under the First Amendment from granting privilege to religious belief. Thus, if 12-step groups are religious (which a facial reading of the 12 steps makes plain) then this condition is unconstitutional. Members of 12-step groups commonly attempt to finesse this conflict by making the semantic distinction that they are "spiritual, but not religious."
Some critics — again, particularly atheists and humanists — also question directly the idea of giving up on self-reliance, which can be seen as a form of idealized despair. Secular alternatives to 12-step programs, such as Rational Recovery, are for this reason in many ways opposite to the 12-step process. Others, such as YES Recovery, acknowledge a debt to the 12 Steps movement but do not have a culture of belief in God.
As with the Bible and other similar texts, there are many different
ways of interpreting the intent behind 12-step programs. And as with
the Bible, there are those who argue strongly for a relatively literal
adherence to program literature (often referred to as "Big Book
Thumpers"), and then there are those who take the big book admonition
to "take what you like and leave the rest" very seriously
and advocate a much more liberal approach, which also leaves much room
for personal interpretations of 12-step literature. Two books that look
at the 12-step literature from a more liberal point of view are The
Zen of Recovery by Mel Ash and A Skeptic's Guide To The Twelve
Steps by Phillip Z.
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