In last week’s column I tried to make the case that uncontrollable compulsive behavior is not just a problem for alcoholics but that many of us are afflicted with internal forces of which, if we are honest, we’re not in control. 

Part of our problem, argues Anne Wilson Schaef in When Society Becomes an Addict, is that we live in a society or culture which encourages and enables compulsive behavior. “I am talking,” she wrote, “about a whole system that has such elements as confused thinking, . . .dishonesty, self-centeredness, dependency, and the need for control at its core.” 

When I first read that statement many years ago, I had to say to myself about my own workaholism, “If the shoe fits, then I had better wear it.” What I discovered through my involvement with alcoholics is that the 12-step process they use—and continually reuse—is not only diagnostic but therapeutic as well. It names the source of my self-imposed imprisonment and then provides a way to get free.

Step 1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

This step might feel counter-intuitive to many in our “feel good” society, but folks in recovery would agree with what Toni Morrison has one of her characters in Song of Soloman say, “Oh, sure. You have to know what’s wrong before you can find what’s right.”

“One of the things you learn as an alcoholic,” said a member of AA who has been sober for 26 years, “is you learn to hide. You lead a double life. You let people see what you want them to see. You’re only as sick as the secrets you keep. The problem in AA is lying to yourself. You have to keep speaking the truth about yourself to the best of your ability.”

Step 2. Come to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

This is the point where the 12 Steps emphasize that the process is spiritual, not religious. Some people working the steps have a hard time with the concept of God. For example, some claim the AA group as their higher power. The point, they repeat over and over, is that this is not an affliction you can manage on your own. 

Step 3.  Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

Again, Twelve Steppers repeat that the program is spiritual and not religious, but for many of those who are religious, this step allows them to integrate their religious faith with the process they are using for recovery. 

And again, this step might feel distasteful and even anathema to those who can see no other path than what our competitive, individualistic society teaches is the only way to make it in life. Millions of people in recovery, however, testify that when it comes to forces bigger than we are, it really does take a positive force even bigger than the one controlling us.

Step 4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Step 5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

It’s not enough to be honest with ourselves. There is something about saying the good, the bad and the ugly out loud to at least one other person that contributes to healing. I’ll never forget one fifth step I was doing with a woman who chose me because I was a pastor. She went on and on rattling off without showing much emotion all the sins and misdeeds in her life, when something made me ask her, “How many times have you felt loved in your life?”

It was like I had hit her in the stomach with a baseball bat. She looked at me for a few seconds with a look of surprise and confusion and then said in the midst of her sobbing, “Only twice.” That painful insight would probably not have happened through her own introspection.

You can look up the rest of the 12 Steps online or go over the Suburban Fellowship Center on Harrison Street to get a copy. It takes a lifetime of working the steps to manage the internal forces inside us that continue to drag us down. I just wanted to give you a sample of what has worked for millions of people. 

When I ask folks in recovery why the 12 Steps work, they’ve all said, “I don’t know. I just know that it works.”

Indeed, many 12 Step meetings end with all the participants declaring in unison, “Keep coming back. It works if you work it.”