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A Harm Reductionist Takes a Fresh Look at the 12 Steps

I hadn’t been to an AA meeting in two years. I attend, and even facilitate, several other recovery meetings: SMART Recovery, HAMS (Harm Reduction, Abstinence and Moderation Support) and Refuge Recovery. But after going to a traditional 12-Step rehab, doing my 90 in 90, and faithfully attending AA for six more months or so, I had found it just didn’t resonate with me anymore.

As a harm reductionist, I don’t see abstinence as the only way, and I strongly believe that AA is not for everyone. But when I recently experienced a health crisis, I felt I needed support. Now. I needed the fellowship of others in recovery, a list of sober women I could call anytime, and just a peaceful place to go at night when the feelings of sadness hit and I was lonely in my little one bedroom apartment.

Hitting a Meeting

I hit up the AA meeting in the basement of the church on the corner. It had been my favorite.

AA meeting in the basement of the churchOutside I was greeted by G, who I had known before. He was smoking a cigarette and immediately recognized me. “Hey!” he said warmly. “Great to see you!” When I went into the meeting, many people came up to me and introduced themselves, shook my hand, and welcomed me.

During the meeting, I read the 12 Steps on the wall. I had already memorized them during rehab, so they were not unfamiliar. But as a harm reductionist, I had stopped thinking of them so much. We have other sayings, like in Harm Reduction, Abstinence and Moderation Support, where we say “Better is better!”

Yet, as I read the Steps again on the sign on the wall in that calm church basement where people shared their stories – stories that reminded me that many have come back from situations much more challenging than mine – I began to look at the steps from a harm reductionist perspective. I found myself rephrasing them from the perspective as someone who does not believe I am powerless, who does not believe that character defects caused the alcohol problem that almost killed me, but who recognizes the profound danger that alcohol and other drugs can pose to some people, especially those of us who have suffered from trauma, crisis, or the declining economy. Rarely have I seen a happy person become addicted. People pick up and don’t put down when the pain becomes too much.

My New Version of the 12 Steps

With that revelation, I mentally rewrote the Steps. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Step #1 – We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable. I realized that my relationship with alcohol or other drugs had started to make me miserable instead of happy. It was getting in the way of achieving my goals, hurting my relationships, and harming my health. I made a firm decision to change.
  • Step #2 – Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. I realized that I had the power to change my life, including my relationship with drugs.
  • Step #3 – Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. I gave myself permission to seek out help, in whatever form I found most helpful. I decided that I deserved to care for myself, whether that meant joining a support group, getting a therapist, looking at medication, trying yoga or meditation, or whatever works best for me. I came to believe that I have the right to become the person I want to be, and that I won’t let drugs get in the way of that.
  • Step #4 – Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. I took a loving, compassionate look at my life. I clearly envisioned who I want to be, no matter how far away that seemed at the time. I thought about the things I had done that kept me from being that person. I thought about the people I had hurt and who had hurt me. I allowed myself to feel the pain of guilt, grief, and sadness at opportunities missed and things I regret.
  • Step #5 – Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. I talked to someone I trust, who I knew would not judge me, criticize or yell at me, about the sadness I felt. I let it all out, maybe for the first time.
  • Step #6 – Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. I was ready to let go of all the guilt and pain that had driven and resulted from my addiction. I believed that I deserved a better life.
  • Step #7 – Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings. I decided to let go of my negative self-image. I used every tool I could find to talk back to those negative thoughts. I made myself look in the mirror and see the person I want to be.
  • Step #8 – Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. I made a list of the things that still hurt. Things that I wished I had done, things I wished I hadn’t done, and people I felt I had harmed. I didn’t blame myself, but I let myself admit what I had to deal with to be ready to move on.
  • Step #9 – Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. I found ways to fix what I could. Where I had missed opportunities, I made plans to get them back or find better ones. Where I had hurt people, I apologized unless I thought that would hurt them or other people. I realized that they could forgive me or not, but either way, I cleared my own conscience.
  • Step #10 – Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it. I made time to look at my life on a regular basis, congratulate myself on what I had done well, and figure out how I could do better next time when I felt like I had made a mistake. I came to look at life as a learning experience.
  • Step #11 – Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out. I found ways to stay in touch with my real self. Whether it was mediation, exercise, walking in nature or just being alone listening to music, I took time every day to just be with best self.
  • Step #12 – Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs. I found ways to bring the joy and freedom I’d found to others. I brought the principles of harm reduction into my entire life. I treated others with kindness and compassion. I let go of judgement and reached out with love. I continued to practice harm reduction, first and foremost, on myself, loving myself the way I would love someone who was where I had once been.




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