Alcoholics Anonymous is often referred to as a 12 step program. People often talk about the 12 steps, or one of the steps individually such as step three or step four. The whole idea of a 12 step fellowship is quite unique to AA and other recovery organisations, and can seem either quite confusing or a bit of a subculture.
The 12 step recovery program
In order to understand what a 12 step recovery program is, it is necessary just to briefly give a bit of history of how AA developed.
The early members of Alcoholics Anonymous discovered that they could stay sober by using a number of spiritual tools that they borrowed from several religious organisations and people. These tools include things such as taking a moral inventory of oneself, a reliance upon God and making restitution to other people for harm caused.
These early members also decided that they needed to write a book, known as Alcoholics Anonymous, which detailed the experiences of their drinking, how they got sober and what they did to stay sober.
The spiritual tools they were using were included in the book, and were presented as the main method by which these members of AA had got sober and stayed sober.
When the book was being written, these spiritual tools were broken down into more detail, and numbered from 1 to 12 to present a more focused program of recovery.
This writing quickly became known at the a 12 step program.
The 12 steps were listed by number, and then written about in a more detailed essay form in the following chapters of the book. The purpose of writing them was to give people who had not come across AA before the benefit of their experience of what they had been able to do in order to get sober.
A full wording of the 12 step program can be found in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, a pdf version of which can be found here.
Other 12-step programs
It quickly became clear that people who had other addictions or behavioural problems could use the principles set out in the AA 12-step program to help them get clean and sober or change their behaviour.
Step one in the AA program sets out the need to admit a powerlessness over alcoholism, and the rest of the steps detail the experience of what the AA members did to stay sober.
People with other addictions simply changed the nature of step 1 to cover their problem, such as narcotics, gambling, food etc and were able to adapt the process to work for them.
AA has always been very open about its experience of recovery, and has welcomed the fact that people with other addictions and behavioural problems can benefit from their experience. It has also been clear that all 12-step programs work best when they focus on a single addiction or behavour as being the cause of their problems.
This also means that many members of AA also attend other 12-step fellowships, and there is a mutual bond between people in recovery that often extends beyond their particular program.