How 12 step wisdom can help everyone – not just addicts

By Geoff Harris

Most readers will have heard of Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous etc – these self-help organisations have been around a long time and helped a lot of people.

It’s easy to assume that the very structured ’12 step’ programme that forms the foundation of these groups is just for people battling a particular addictive or destructive behaviour, or other life challenge.

In fact, the 12 steps and a lot the associated recovery tools are designed to help addicts deal with life AFTER they have stopped using or gambling etc – along with everyone else.

If you are still sceptical, consider this: in the 12 steps of AA, which is the longest established group of its kind, only one step mentions alcohol in any shape or form – the first one.

Bill Wilson, one of the founders of AA, was a deeply spiritual man who corresponded with Carl Jung when drafting the 12 steps.

The rest of the steps are about being honest about your problem, taking a long hard look at yourself and admitting your shortcomings and failings, making amends for these where appropriate, building a prayer/meditation practice and then carrying the message to other sufferers. In other words it’s about staying sober, and learning how to handle life on life’s terms, without turning to a substance or behaviour to change how you feel.

To help members remember the principles, AA developed a lot of slogans and catchphrases, and while some sound a bit corny, they are easily remembered - and as such, can make a real difference in difficult times. A lot of the core messages are repeated in other spiritual and philosophical traditions, too. Let’s have a look a few examples.

12 step meetings, which are now mainly held online owing to the virus, provide a great sense of community as people share their experience, strength and hope.

One day at a time/just for today

Life unfolds in the moment – the past is over and the future hasn’t happened yet. So if you find it hard to centre yourself in the present moment – also one of the core tenets of Mindfulness – this is a great slogan to remember.

While it’s important to process the past and plan for the future, if we are totally tied up in regret about what has happened, or worries about what is about to happen, we lose the present, which is all we really have.

Dealing with a big problem or challenge in daily chunks (or hourly, or minute by minute if necessary) makes it seem much more manageable too. It’s easier for an alcoholic, for instance, to say “just for today I am sober” than “I will never be able to drink again for the rest of my life.”

Do the next right thing

If you are obsessively worrying about something – and it’s easy to do in these challenging times – turning to something useful and practical you can do right now can help stop the rumination. Maybe do the dishes, help one of your kids with something, weed the garden, do your taxes and so on. For addicts, doing the next right thing would not involve picking up a drink etc, but doing something much more positive instead. Allied to this is another great slogan, G.O.D – “good orderly direction.”

Hand it over to your higher power

This is a more controversial one – what are you handing over, and what is your higher power? There are times in life when we really cannot control the outcome of something after we have taken the necessary steps. The result of a job interview, for example, or a medical test.

So I believe this is a reminder that sometimes we just have to ‘hand things over’ to fate, the universe etc. As for your higher power, this can be a religious figure, or it can be the calmer, less emotionally buffeted part of ourselves – that small voice of sanity and hope that often speaks to us during really difficult and traumatic times.

Or, your higher power can be anything bigger than you – your support group, your family, and so on. It’s comforting to know we can actually control very few things in life, only how we react.

Keep coming back

At the end of every 12 step meeting, you will usually hear the phrase ‘keep coming back.’ It encourages group members to stick with their programme of recovery and to keep to working it – to persevere with the process, in other words. Again, good advice for us all. There are times we should quit the debating society and stick with something that works for us.

The Serenity Prayer

Even for atheist members of 12 step programmes, this prayer is repeated as a kind of mantra for recovery (note that the Christian concept of a God can be replaced with the concept of God as you understand he/she/it).

“God, grant me the serenity/to accept the things I cannot change/the courage to change the things I can/and the wisdom to know the difference.”

While not specifically written for 12 step programmes, this prayer really encapsulates a lot of core messages. Let go of the past or people/places and things you cannot change, work on your recovery and spiritual development and don’t get bogged down in shame, anger and guilt.

Click here for more information about AA and NA; a Google search will reveal many more 12 step groups

Cynics may scoff, but slogans and tokens are widely used to help 12 step programme members remember core concepts

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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