The Twelve First Steps

By Sue Elizabeth Kiker and Stephen M. Lange, Ph.D.

12steps leading to the sky

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

~The First Step of AA’s 12 Steps


My name is Sue and I am an alcoholic. I started drinking in my teens, and after receiving inpatient treatment, I learned recovery skills through the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. I recognize that AA is not the only path to recovery, and I applaud all of us who have found our paths, whatever they may be. While this essay uses AA language, I invite you to translate what we have written into the language that makes the most sense to you.

My name is Stephen, and I am a family member of beautiful, powerful, brilliant women in recovery. I have also worked as an addiction psychologist for the past 20 or so years. I do not have an addiction to alcohol or other substances, and I do not imagine that I know or feel what people with addiction know or feel. I try, to the best of my ability, to listen, to learn from others, and to share what the recovery community — the real experts — teach me. In this article, we use the first-person-plural pronouns “we,” “us,” and “our.” I am not trying to pose as something I am not. Rather, we intentionally use the language of shared fellowship found in the writings of AA. We made this choice since we use the concept of First Step throughout this essay.

The First Step of Alcoholics Anonymous sounds simple. After all, it is composed of only 13 words. Yet, it is powerful enough to unlock recovery, if we can grasp its meaning fully and fulfill its intentions. Recovery is elusive unless we understand that we can no longer pass as functioning people, can no longer pretend that we can control how much, when and where we drink or use, and can no longer deny that we have reached a dead end with our use. Without First Step, we can experience brief periods of abstinence followed by relapse. There is an inevitability to addiction until we “get” the First Step. Whether we think in AA terms or not, we will not address a problem that we do not know we have.

Through practicing psychology and living recovery, we have learned that we can apply the concept of First Step to many tasks of recovery, thinking of each task as a smaller “First Step.” Many of these tasks are especially relevant during early recovery, but many are universal for those who practice recovery.  We would like to share what we have learned with you.

First Step One: We are never done with First Step. 
When people tell us that addiction is powerful and cunning, they are unveiling for us the constant seductive quality of alcohol and other drugs. Our reactions to alcohol and other drugs are so built into our brains’ wiring that it is possible to experience this as everything from physical craving, to complex language. If we are smart, we can use that language to talk ourselves into almost anything. For example, how many of us have said something like this, even after years of our recovery journey, “When I was out of control, I was drinking liquor like crazy. Most people I know who can drink normally drink wine or beer…. If I switched…?” And suddenly, we confront First Step again. And maybe again. And again. Throughout our lives, we may confront the First Step of AA many times. We need to learn to recognize when our grasp of First Step is slipping. These are the warning signs of relapse already underway, long before we drink or use again. We need to constantly reassess our First Step.

First Step Two: Our bodies, minds, and spirits will heal on their own schedule.
Especially in early recovery, we are not the most patient people in the world. We want sleep. We want our crazy dreams to stop. We want unbelievably intense body aches and pains to subside. We want the chaotic thoughts rattling our brains to slow down, and the emotional roller coaster to arrive at the station. We want an end to fatigue and to have energy. We want our stomachs to calm down. We want to feel normal, and we want to feel normal today — right now.

Here is the painful truth of First Step Two: We don’t get to pick how long any of this takes. The schedule for physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual healing is dictated by everyone’s unique chemistry, everyone’s unique personality, and what, how long and how much we used. There is no quick fix and if we end up asking for pills, we might receive the drugs that start our relapses. We also need to understand that depending on what we used, sleep might never become “normal,” and if we had insomnia before our first drink or first drug use, we will probably have insomnia in recovery. If we have harmed our stomachs enough, our gastritis might become chronic. We may need to learn to live with lifetime discomfort. Knowing that we felt less pain when we are drunk or high will pull us closer to relapse, and we will confront the First Step of AA again, perhaps many times.

First Step Three: Broken relationships take time to heal.
As we progress in recovery, we may wonder how long it will take to earn back trust, to earn forgiveness, and to repair relationships broken during active addiction. The two truths of this First Step are that (1) we do not know how long it will take, and (2) we do not get to decide.

Imagine being at the center of a circle.  Your family and closest friends are with you in this circle, where the chaos was greatest. This circle is inside a larger circle. In the space between the two circles are your friends. In the space between this and yet a larger circle are your coworkers, acquaintances, and neighbors. As more circles surround these, you find your community, state, and eventually the world. The closer to the center — to us — people are, the more they care about us and love us, and this means that we can hurt them more than we can hurt anyone more remotely connected to us. As well, because they are closer to us, they have lived closer to our chaos. Consequently, our behavior during active addiction most severely injured the people we care about the most. They might feel disappointment, betrayal, and abandonment. They may feel guilt for enabling us or finally cutting us off. They might feel the loss of the mother, father, son, daughter or sibling they hoped for – the loved one with joys and accomplishments. They may feel angry and resentful. They may have spent time they cannot get back dealing with our addictions’ wreckage. They may have spent their retirement money bailing us out, paying off our debts, or paying for our rehabs. They might feel tired, hurt, hopeless. They certainly want — but mistrust — that we will sustain recovery, and they are hyperalert, watching for the moment when everything falls apart, just like it has before. Restoring trust will take more time than we imagine.

The purpose of this Step is not to feel shame. The purpose is to emphasize how deep the pain is for those we care about, and how their healing will be a long and painful process with setbacks – just like ours.

First Step Four: Everything might hurt. 
If we have used drugs that depress brain function, such as alcohol, opioids or sedatives, then we have deadened physical pain for the duration of our use. The price for deadening this pain is that, especially in early recovery, stubbed toes can feel like being shot in the foot with a 12-gauge shotgun. Unused to experiencing pain, we are more reactive to pain now that we are abstinent. This is also true of emotional pain. Having deadened our emotional reactivity for so long, every emotional experience can feel overwhelming now that we are sober. It takes work to learn how to experience intense emotions — especially painful emotions. The only way to learn is by feeling our emotions and realizing that we can bear them. In other words, we will hurt because after feeling numb, healing hurts. Fortunately, good recovery behaviors such as sun exposure, healthy diet, hydration, spiritual connection, relationships with others in recovery, and connection to the natural world and natural rhythms of daily life will help us bear pain. It is liberating when we discover that we can feel pain without dying, and even more liberating when we can feel love and return the love of others.

First Step Five: We do not know everything. 
Everyone knows something about recovery that we do not. It is a dangerous mistake to feel smart and expert, whether we have been sober one day, one year, or one generation. Humility is a fundamental recovery skill, and inflated opinions of our wisdom are hazardous.

First Step Six: We are not special. 
Steve writing: I have met people who arrived at 28-day rehab programs in private helicopters. I have met a presidential candidate. I have met actors. I have met hedge fund managers. I have met an Olympic athlete. I have met people who are homeless. I have met people who are jobless. I have met people whose brains are so damaged that they are totally dependent on others. I have met scientists. I have met drunk addictions professionals. No matter who we are, addiction treats us the same and recovery demands the same from us. Wealth, education, degrees, and awards do not make recovery easier or quicker.

First Step Seven: We are never alone. 
No matter how we recover, we are part of a large, resourceful community. We are embraced by people who want to help us even if we are enraged, vomiting, smell rank, or are drunk. Our community of people recognize when we are spewing nonsense, and will hold us accountable in a caring way. Unlike our families, our recovery community will not enable us. They will speak to us plainly when we are walking into danger. They will celebrate our accomplishments. They will keep us company. We have phone numbers to call. We have meetings in every location we find ourselves. When all else fails, our Higher Power will listen and we will feel calm by the act of speaking to Him (or Her!). Our community expects us to participate at whatever level we can, even if all we can manage is our physical presence. As a community member, we have duties, not only to help others, but to ask for help. We give others a gift when we ask for their help when we are alone, frightened, and even if we are drinking or using. One of the greatest mistakes we can make is to withdraw from our community when we need help the most.

First Step Eight: You cannot fix everything at once.
The basics come first. Concentrate on food, water, clothing, shelter, and recovery. Then concentrate on belonging and loving others. There is truly no reason why we have to make back all the money we lost, buy the four-bedroom colonials, and restart the careers we once had. At least, there is no reason why we need any of these today. Before pursuing fame and fortune, we must make sure that we have met our basic needs, are actively working at recovery, and that we are loving people who matter the most to us. We do not need to work 80-hour weeks to meet basic needs and to love.

First Step Nine: You are always a beginner. 
If we are all sober for 50 years, we are still beginners. No one masters recovery. There is no graduation date. You never retire. There is always more to learn, and more growth ahead of us. Fortunately, we are capable of learning and maturing every day we live.

First Step Ten: Dangers can look like good fortune. 
The beautiful men or women attracted to us, the golden opportunity, the great invitation, the party on the yacht, the job promotion, the ability to get a car loan, the college acceptance can all be dangers concealed in a shiny wrapper. We need to be cautious and examine everything through the lens of relapse risk. It is easy to recognize risks that look, smell, and sound bad, but the shiny, sparkling risks take more examination to spot. They are the most dangerous risks.

First Step Eleven: You have responsibilities because you are valuable. 
On our first day of sobriety, we have something valuable to tell others. Every time we learn, especially when we learn by making mistakes, we have something to teach. Even our failures are lessons. Without realizing it, we might be someone’s greatest resource. We might be someone’s inspiration. Our example can give hope to others. Much of the time we will never realize that we have given a gift to someone with a word or a gesture. We are important and this gives us responsibility to be our best selves and to make the most of our lives.

First Step Twelve: Struggle comes first and rewards come next.
Much of what you have read describes the inevitability of painful struggle. It is important to remember that we will experience rewards in our lives. It will just take time. Sometimes, rewards will come unexpectedly. Sometimes, they will come from careful reflection, planning, and work. Sometimes, the rewards are private experiences such as satisfaction, deserved pride, or a moment of peace and connection to the world around us. One of the greatest rewards we will experience is the joy of intimacy of all kinds. Some rewards will arrive with additional work, like babies and lovers. It is part of our recovery work to remember that rewards are always ahead of us. It is also part of our recovery work to remember to feel gratitude for the rewards we already enjoy.

We hope that we have shared something helpful. As a member of the community of people in recovery, and one of those loving and surrounding that community, we wish you life, love, and health.

Sue Kiker
Stephen M. Lange, Ph.D.