Jun 30, 2023

The Need for Progression in 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.

Success Rates and Changes Over Time

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.  Already by 1950, A.A. had a 55 percent success rate, and sadly by today’s standards, A.A. has a 5 to 10 percent success rate.

Discussion on Volume and Success Rates

So, what happened?  Yes, I think we have to say there is something 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.  So, I think we need to take that into consideration.  However, I think there are a few other things we need to, at the very least, think about.

The Impact of the Big Book

It’s interesting to note that A.A. had its greatest 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 person and having a true 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 it became a person-to-book relationship. A person-to-thing relationship.  To put it bluntly, when the Big Book was written, the 12 Steps and A.A. lost its soul.  It lost its human connection, its imagination, its mystery, and turned into a dogmatic doctrine where if you don’t do exactly what the Big Book says, you’ll relapse. For things to survive, they need to progress; they need to adapt to the times. 

Origins of the 12 Steps and the Need for Adaptation

The 12 Steps and A.A. were great and wonderful for 1935 and helped a ton of people.  However, even AA and the 12 Steps were an offshoot of the Oxford Group, an evangelical Christian movement that aimed to save people from their sins.  Bill was able to 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 was to survive, the language and writings around it would have to adapt.

The Changing World and its Impact on Recovery

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 have happened.  Television, computers, cell phones, and the internet have all been created, which have brought us video games, digital pornography, and Tinder. We’ve seen a methamphetamine, crack, and opiate epidemic.  Not to mention, we’ve lived through a COVID pandemic that 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.

The Call for Change and Adaptation in Recovery

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 had lost his way.

Bill didn’t abandon the principles of the Oxford Group. He abandoned 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 transformed again, and unless we transform and progress with it, we will die.  In fact, there are plenty of statistics to prove just how many people are dying.

The Paradox of Change and Continuity in Recovery

It’s funny. We say things like the addict needs to change and transform to get better, the world has changed and transformed, and the drugs have changed and 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.

Joe Curran
Written By

Joe Curran

Professional Overview Joe Curran is a seasoned professional in the field of substance use... Read More

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