Living the Principles

How 12 Steps principles help us stay on the sober road

Alcoholics Anonymous, the Big Book, tells us, on page 60, “No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles. We are not saints. The point is that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines. The principles we have set down are guides to progress. We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.” 

Some of us should be excused for the vast relief we felt when we first read this statement in the Big Book. After all, it follows the Twelve Steps, which can sound very righteous to a newcomer in the fellowship. “It was great to learn that I didn’t have to become holier-than-thou to stay sober,” is a typical reaction. “I wanted to get well by tomorrow, but I was willing to wait until next week for sainthood!” 

Although we won’t become saints, the Twelve Step program does give us the principles that bring a dramatic change in our lives. Even without “perfect adherence,” everyone successful in recovery follows a few fundamental tenets with deep conviction and great understanding. How does this happen, and how do we go about living the Twelve Steps principles? 

Judging from what we hear at meetings, living a Twelve Step program is not always a smooth process for some of us. We do not approach it with the same enthusiasm we once displayed toward drinking, using other drugs, gambling, or overeating. “I looked at the principles very suspiciously and resentfully,” a member recalls. “It was only after I suffered a lot more and made more mistakes that I became willing to give the Steps a chance. And it was a long time before I could appreciate the full value and depth of the program.”

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It Is a Selfish Program

In other words, the Twelve Step principles only become important to us after we realize we need them, and often the need has to be desperate. We live or practice our principles if we feel it is required for our recovery and self-improvement. This may seem selfish, but it is also positive and realistic. Outsiders sometimes resent it when Twelve Step group members declare, “This is a selfish program.” But those selfish reasons also ensure that we will try to practice a principle when we value and understand it.

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First We Surrender

It isn’t easy to rank the various principles of Twelve Step programs according to importance. Very little happens, however, until the individual surrenders to the problem. In the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill W. (co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous) notes on pages 21 and 22: “The principles that we shall find no enduring strength until we first admit complete defeat is the main taproot from which our whole Society has sprung and flowered.” 

Admitting complete defeat is a very high hurdle for people struggling with addictions and compulsions. Since we can easily deceive ourselves about true motives, the safest approach is to think of surrender as something that should be affirmed frequently. Many recovering people that of a slip as something that starts occurring long before the person actually slips. “What really slipped was my things,” a returning person will say. “I started to look at the bright lights and to think something exciting was going on in my old haunts. Pretty soon, I stopped remembering how bad it had been. Before long, I was back to my old ways.”

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The Price is Constant Vigilance

For when relapse occurs, we ask ourselves: Did it happen because we withdrew our earlier surrender, or was our surrender never genuinely complete in the first place? We need to know that the compulsion to act our certain behaviours is so powerful and persistent that the price of freedom is constant vigilance. The stakes are so high that Twelve Step members make it a principle never to do anything that might put their recovery at risk. Perhaps, for this reason, the surrender principle has given birth to several sayings often heard at meetings. “Stay off the Slippery Slopes,” “Keep it Simple,” “One Day at a Time” are saying which help make this principle an enduring part of our lives.

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