A lesson in the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

By Matt Tucker
Posted 12/16/18

In 1943, Minneapolis Minnesota’s Alcoholics Anonymous area group started keeping detailed records of those who came to their meetings for at least three months. They followed people that stayed at least 90 days over the next 3 years. Compared to today’s recovery rates (somewhere between 8 and 12 percent reported by addiction specialists), the recovery rates were remarkably good — in fact, they were outstanding.

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A lesson in the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous


In 1943, Minneapolis Minnesota’s Alcoholics Anonymous area group started keeping detailed records of those who came to their meetings for at least three months. They followed people that stayed at least 90 days over the next 3 years.  Compared to today’s recovery rates (somewhere between 8 and 12 percent reported by addiction specialists), the recovery rates were remarkably good — in fact, they were outstanding.  

Admittedly, it is going to be difficult to keep up with the numbers of any program that has anonymous members who might be less likely to report a relapse. But if the recovery rates were even half of what was found back in 1949 in an A.A. Grapevine newsletter, it would be welcome news in the world of addiction treatment.  

Just 10 years after the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous by Bill Wilson and Dr. Robert Smith in Akron, Ohio, 12-step programs were growing rapidly and spreading all over the United States and, eventually, the world.  

In a 1946 A.A. Grapevine article (the Alcoholics Anonymous newsletter), the Minneapolis A.A. group reported that of those who made it to 3 months of continuous 12-step program membership and activity, 49 percent of those people stayed sober.  If they stayed active in the program six months, 70 percent of those members stayed sober.  At nine months, it rose to 80 percent.  If they stayed in 18 months, it rose yet again to 90 percent.  After three years of continuous activity and sobriety, 100 percent of those stayed sober.  

So what accounts for the discrepancy between the numbers from the first 10 to 20 years of the 12-step movement in today’s numbers? Well, the fact that no good treatment options existed before the development of the 12-step movement and there were not any recovering people probably had a great deal to do with it.  But it does not account for all of it.  In examining the history and formation of the 12-step movement and comparing it to what one might experience today, I think at least some of the answers come to light.   

If a newly sober (or perhaps still drinking, but with a desire to stop drinking) person were to go into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in the first 10-15 years of its development and growth, it is very likely that one would get visited or welcomed by 5-10 recovered alcoholics.  They would likely tell the person of their drinking history and some of their transgressions against people while drinking. This happens in meetings still today.  People who are unsure of their status as an alcoholic or not could honestly look at their own drinking history, compare it to the ones being discussed in meetings and make that determination.

If they determined they were alcoholic and decided to admit that fact to some of the members, there very likely would be a great congratulatory cheer from those in the meeting.  Then one of the group would likely go up to the newcomer and offer to work the steps with them. And it is here that present day 12-step meetings seem to differ from what I’ve read in the literature from old Oxford group and initial A.A. meetings.

One of the founders, Dr. Bob, was particularly keen on offering this service to newcomers.  He was adamant about getting this way of life incorporated fully and as quickly as possible.  They then continued to work the steps daily as a way of life and work with other newcomers the same way Dr. Bob had worked with him.  A.A.’s 12th and final step…carry the message.

Dr. Bob would tell the man to come to his office the next day.  Dr. Bob would proceed to take the man through the steps. 1-11 (step 9, making amends, would have to wait briefly simply because there was going to be travel or a letter written--but not very long).  Any activity such as writing, reading and even driving, was done by the person who was guiding the newcomer through the steps.  It was a true act of service to take someone through the steps and teach them this way of life.

And just like it says in the final step, after “having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps” he would be told to start carrying the message, the same way he had been taken through them, to other suffering alcoholics and to continue to incorporate the steps into his daily life.

When he re-read Bill Wilson’s story, Dr. Bob’s story and A.A. number three’s story, all of which are in the basic text of A.A.’s “Big Book,” he noticed that it had been there all along.   They all did the steps very quickly, usually all in one to two days.  It clearly indicates throughout the first 164 pages (considered the basic text of the program) that the steps are described as done “at once,” “now we need more action,” and “now we go out to our fellows and repair the damage ...”  It doesn’t get any clearer than “at once” and “now.”

This was a revelation to a long time 12-step member who had never heard of the steps being done this way.  It was not the way he had been taken through them, but he felt like he was doing a great disservice to those suffering from this disease around him if he did not to at least try this newfound type of service work.  In fact, he felt nauseous that it had taken over 25 years to notice this seemingly critical fact that had been completely left out of every meeting he had ever been to or could remember.

Instead of waiting for a newcomer to come to him and ask him to take them through the steps (often referred to as sponsoring), he told the newcomer in a meeting one day, he would like to be his sponsor.  The surprise on the face of the newcomer’s face alone was worth the price of admission.  The newcomer was in for another surprise, and so was my friend.  He then asked the newcomer if he had a few hours the next day to go through the steps with him.  Somewhat shocked and apprehensive, the newcomer committed to meet.

The next day they met.  My friend did just like he had read Dr. Bob did.  They got on their knees and read the prayers when they were at a praying step.  He wrote, when it was a writing step.  After about 3 hours, it was done.  They were going to meet the next day to discuss his amends and circle the names on the list for him to go and seek out.  My friend was anxious to see his newcomer the next day at their regularly scheduled meeting to see if anything was different.  

The next day his newcomer smiled when he walked through the door.  His eyes sparkled.  A lump formed in my friend’s throat as he kept his composure with everyone there in the room.  But this, after 25 years of doing this for himself and with others seemingly the wrong way this entire time, this was something new.  After they met to go over the amends portion of his steps, they hugged, both equally surprised the improbable had happened.   As he left the meeting, he called me, and could barely talk.  He whispered through the tears that were clearly streaming down his face, “It worked.  It really worked.”

Maybe this is why the rates have dipped down so low compared to the early days of A.A.?  It takes months, years, in some cases, for people to get through the 12 steps one time.   People are having to stay sober against a disease that a spiritual awakening can cure, and they are taken through the steps at snail’s pace compared to the first days of the 12-step movement.  My friend has bought in and now his newcomer is sponsoring people through the steps and some of his sponsees are sponsoring people.  Maybe he feels a little bit like Dr. Bob and Bill Wilson did when they first discovered this amazing solution that has been here all this time?  The group is growing a lot like it sounds the early A.A. days groups grew so fast.  And while he would be the first to admit he has a lot of their experience to lean on and scientific knowledge they were not privy to about this disease, he likes to think so.