An Invitation to a New Way of Life – Part 1 of 2

This is a guide for people who wish to get or to stay sober. For people who wish to find or deepen their recovery through Twelve Step practices. Step One, Step Two, and Step Three serve as the foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Marijuana Anonymous (MA), Cocaine Anonymous (CA), Al-Anon, Overeaters Anonymous (OA), Debtors Anonymous (DA), and any other program ending in “A.”

It represents the experience, strength, and hope of exactly one sober alcoholic who desires to share the good news of Twelve Step recovery. That there is a solution, and that you never have to drink, use, or be lonely again—if you’re willing to follow our proven path.

A Twelve Step program can be challenging for many people to approach. But the key is to focus on the joy of recovery, the relief from the bondage of alcoholism and addiction, or the spirituality of the program. The following are common questions heard in regard to Twelve Step meetings.  The answers provided are an amalgam of two people with long term recovery (32+ years combined). Hopefully this will help you see that this is a program that works and a program that could work for you.

Q: What Are Twelve Step Programs? Are They Cults?

A: Twelve Step recovery groups describe themselves as fellowships. The word is well chosen—it means that there is no leadership, no elected officials, no political parties, no dues or fees to pay.

Twelve Step recovery is also not a religion. You can remain a member of your religion, or you can have no religion in your life, and still have the Twelve Steps work for you. Each program is very clear in its literature that any spiritual matter is to be “of our own understanding,” meaning you choose your own path. 

Twelve Step programs are peer-to-peer entities in which no member is more important than any other. Everyone in a Twelve Step fellowship has the same basic goals—to stop drinking, drugging, spending, overeating, or whatever, to stay stopped, and to live a better, more fulfilling life. That’s it. The collective is often referred to a group of sick people trying to get well, and helping each other.  

Sometimes people worry that Twelve Step fellowships might be cults, especially when they go to meetings and see people reciting rote phrases like some bad 1950s sci-fi film about brainwashing.

Consider this: If the fellowships were cults, they would specialize in recruiting new members who still had money in the bank, two cars in the garage, and a steady income. But that’s not how it works. Most people have to lose everything, or almost everything—their careers, their relationships, their dignity, their savings, sometimes even their freedom—before they are willing to come to a meeting. If Twelve Step programs were self-serving cults, they wouldn’t recruit people who had nothing left in the bank!

Q: Where Did Twelve Step Programs Come From?

A: The first fellowship (or program) was AA, which came into existence when its co-founders, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, met in a manner that seems—to most people in recovery—an act of Divine Providence.*

Bill W., was a severely alcoholic Wall Street type who had found a spiritual solution to his alcoholism. He was a few months sober when he traveled from his home in Brooklyn, New York, to Akron, Ohio, in the spring of 1935. He made the journey to oversee one side of a proxy battle for control of a local company. Bill’s side lost, and he was stuck in Akron for a weekend with nothing to do and nothing to show for the time he and others had invested in the project.

That Saturday afternoon, he paced the lobby floor, peering into his hotel’s bar, where people were enjoying themselves drinking. The temptation he felt to join them was unbearable.

Fortunately for him (and for us), Bill did not succumb. Instead, he relied on the solution to his drinking problem that he had hit upon in previous months in New York—to find other alcoholics and talk to them about sobriety.

Bill hadn’t been very successful in New York, going into barrooms and preaching the joys of not drinking to men who were sitting on their barstools, nursing their beers. He might not have kept anyone else sober, but the process of discussing his alcoholism had kept him from touching alcohol for many months.

New Approach

Bill decided to change his approach. Stuck in a hotel for the weekend, far from home, Bill set out to find an alcoholic in Akron with whom he could discuss sobriety.

But how do you find a drunk in a city not your home? This was Bill’s dilemma. He noticed a listing of clergymen on a wall in the lobby near a pay phone. Bill went down the list of clergymen, calling ten of them, asking them if they knew any alcoholics with whom he could work.

Imagine for a moment that you were one of those clergymen. You have concluded religious services, and are now enjoying lunch with your family and a few parishioners. Then you get a call, from a stranger who tells you that he is an alcoholic from New York. This stranger asks if you know any alcoholics with whom he could talk.

What do you do? You hang up on him.

Bill’s Experience

Such was Bill’s experience with the first nine clergymen he called. Then he dropped his tenth nickel into the phone and reached a pastor named Reverend Walter Tunks. Bill explained his mission.

Tunks knew an alcoholic.

“Let me get back to you,” Reverend Tunks replied.

The alcoholic in question was Dr. Bob Smith, a surgeon and proctologist whose drinking problem was legendary in Akron medical circles. He would show up at the hospital, drink a bottle of beer to steady his nerves, and then go operate. Bill was looking for a practicing alcoholic who needed to get sober; Dr. Bob, Tunks knew, was just such a man.

Reverend Tunks reached out to an Akron woman, Henrietta Sieberling, heiress to a tire fortune. She knew Dr. Bob. The good reverend explained about the mysterious visitor from New York and his desire to reform a local drunk. Dr. Bob, inebriated much of the time, was living in her guest house. She somehow got the doctor to commit to a fifteen-minute visit with Bill, in her guest house. At the time Dr. Bob was fall-down drunk, so the visit was postponed.

Bill Meets Bob

Bill and Dr. Bob finally met. Bill had been cautioned by Dr. William Silkworth, who ran a drying-out hospital for alcoholics on Manhattan’s West Side, not to preach at alcoholics but instead to win their trust by talking about the nature of living as an alcoholic.

This is decades before Oprah. People—especially men—did not share their innermost feelings with one another, especially when the other man was a total stranger. People seldom went to therapy back then. And yet, Bill had the courage to describe to Dr. Bob, in convincing detail, the nature of his alcoholic thinking and actions. Dr. Bob, a physician, had never encountered anyone who could speak knowledgeably, and from his own experience about alcohol addiction. That fifteen-minute meeting lasted for six or seven hours.

If only there had been a third party in the room to record and transcribe the conversation! In that discussion, the two men, both small-town New Englanders by birth, both middle-aged, and both familiar with the hopelessness of finding a solution to their drinking problems, talked about the basic idea Bill shared. That idea was that an alcoholic could stay sober through a combination of spirituality (to be explained; stick around) and ongoing contact with fellow problem drinkers.

Founders Day – June 10, 1935

AA was born in Akron, Ohio, as a result of a conversation between a New York-based businessman in early sobriety and an Akron-based proctologist who had tried—and failed—to conquer his drinking.

This story is revered in Alcoholics Anonymous and Twelve Step groups. One of the reasons is due to its unlikeliness. The whole story is rife with what ifs. What if Bill had not gone to Akron for the proxy fight? What if Dr. Bob had refused to see him? What if Bill had decided the whole thing was foolish and gotten on the first train, instead of sticking around to meet an Akron drunk?

And yet. If you believe in a Higher Power, or karma, it’s hard not to see the hand of Providence in such a seemingly random encounter. That initial conversation led to a complete transformation of the way the world looks at alcoholism and addiction. Those two strangers, meeting and forming a fast friendship that would last until Dr. Bob’s passing sixteen years later, led to an ever-widening circle of individuals finding sobriety—and now, miraculously, that circle includes you.

You are part of that circle no matter what fellowship you are exploring, whether it’s AA, NA, Al-Anon, or any of the other more than 200 Twelve Step fellowships that use a version of AA’s Twelve Steps. (AA was the first Twelve Step program, which is why some of the other programs use AA’s structure.)

This is the only disease for which recovery comes from listening to other people tell stories about how insane their lives were. It beats chemo, organ transplantation, and insertion of pacemakers every time.

Check Future Blog for Part 2, more will be revealed

Need Help?

If you or a loved one are struggling with alcoholism/addiction contact Sagebrush today for a free and confidential assessment, 888-977-0573