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The 12 Steps

a group of people sit in chairs in a circle and talk about the 12 steps

The 12 Steps were written down for the first time when Bill Wilson penned the Big Book in 1939. The 12-step movement saved countless lives and transformed people all over the world. The 12 steps were so life-changing that Alcoholics Anonymous touted a near 75 percent success rate from its inception in 1935 to when the Big Book was written in 1939.

If you’re not well versed in addiction recovery statistics, 75 percent is Babe Ruth-like numbers. Those numbers weren’t seen before 1935 and haven’t been seen since. By 1950, A.A. had a 55 percent success rate, and by today’s standards, A.A. has a five to ten percent success rate.

What Happened to A.A.’s Success?

So, what happened? Yes, I think we have to say something is to be said for the sheer volume of people going to A.A. Between 1935 and 1939, there were only 100 or so people. Today, millions of people go to A.A. I think we need to consider that. However, I believe there are a few other things we need to, at the very least, think about.

It’s interesting to note that A.A. had its most tremendous success between 1935 and 1939 when there was no Big Book. The 12 steps were only a word-of-mouth program. It was one person sitting down with another and having a genuine and soulful connection with that person. Once the Big Book entered the picture, the success of AA started to fall despite its ability to spread its message to the masses. The Big Book replaced the person-to-person relationship and became a person-to-book relationship. A person-to-thing relationship.

To put it bluntly, the 12 steps and A.A. lost its soul when the Big Book was written. It lost its human connection, its imagination, and its mystery. It turned into a dogmatic doctrine where if you don’t do exactly what the Big Book says, you’ll be damned to the fires of active addiction forever. Gross. For things to survive, they need to progress and adapt to the times.
The 12 steps and A.A. were extraordinary for 1935 and helped many people.

However, even A.A. and the 12 steps were an offshoot of the Oxford Group, an evangelical Christian movement that aimed to save people from their sins. Bill could recognize that there was a lot of the Oxford Group program that was worth saving and a lot of the program that needed to be left behind. The Christian language just wouldn’t speak to the people of his time. Bill was intuitive enough to recognize that the world was changing around him, and if the program of the Oxford Group were to survive, the language and writings around it would have to adapt.

Modern Times Call for Modern A.A.

Well, it’s not 1935 anymore. The world has progressed a lot since then. Nazi Germany has come and gone. Two nukes have been dropped on Japan. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I have a dream speech,” JFK was shot and killed, Woodstock, free love, and the invention of the pill happened. Television, computers, cell phones, and the internet have all been created, bringing us video games, digital pornography, and Tinder. We’ve seen a methamphetamine, crack, and opiate (thank you, Purdue Pharma and OxyContin) epidemic.

Shit, we’ve lived through a COVID pandemic which has shaped the world forever. And just like Bill, we need to recognize this. We need to see that the world is new and it has new complexities. What once spoke to the people doesn’t anymore. We need to take a risk. We need to risk ditching the old and trying something new. People may not like that the same way the Oxford Group and some A.A. members thought Bill lost his way.

Bill didn’t abandon the principles of the Oxford Group. He left the dogmatic doctrine of the Oxford Group. It didn’t speak to people. It was old and outdated; the world had transformed, and Bill saw it. Well, the world has changed again; unless we transform and progress with it, we will die. There are plenty of statistics to prove just how many people are dying.

It’s funny. We say things like the addict needs to change/transform to get better, the world has changed/transformed, and the drugs have changed/transformed, yet, we want to keep recovery the same. “Recovery needs to stay the same” as everything else changes. I wonder what the world would be like if medical and religious groups tried to keep everything the same and not progress since 1939.

Medical Reviewer Kate Perfetti, LADC II

Medically Reviewed by Kate Perfetti, LADC II

Kate is a Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor who has worked in the field of substance abuse for the last nine years. At Rockland Recovery, Kate works to provide resources to the local community and engage and progress Rockland Recovery’s alumni program.


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