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Twelve Steps for Women Alcoholics

by Gail Unterberger

Gail Unterberger is instructor of pastoral care and counseling at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 6, 1989, p. 1150. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Many pastoral counselors routinely recommend -- or even require -- that their alcohol-dependent counselees attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. However, a substantial number of people drop out of A.A., and some data suggest that half of A.A. ‘s new participants do not continue after 90 days. Denial of the problem is certainly a major reason people drop out. But there may be other reasons. Some people dislike the spiritual nature of the recovery program. And some women find that A.A. is overly masculine in approach and its Form of spirituality. While certain A.A. groups have addressed the former problem by identifying themselves as pagan or agnostic, few have responded to the latter complaint.

The latest research on women with addictions, particularly on those who are chemically dependent, shows that these women’s concerns and needs differ from those of male addicts. For example, alcoholic women are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem than their male counterparts. For such women, depression and self-derogation may lead to a feeling of purposelessness in life, and thus to substance abuse. More often than men, female alcoholics turn their anger on themselves rather than on others, with anxiety and guilt being the result. They frequently feel inadequate to the point of futility in fulfilling the female role.

Our male-dominated society confers upon women a status subordinate to men; women of color or of differing sexual orientations suffer even greater oppression. Therefore, addicted women need a spirituality that empowers them, lifts their self-esteem and gives them a sense of identity and worth, A feminist revision of the Twelve Steps makes paramount an idea that is implicit in A.A. -- that members be dependent upon one another. This mutuality is, in fact, more essential to the A.A. recovery process than the addict’s independent spirituality.

A.A.’s Twelve Steps insinuate a hierarchical, domination-submission model of the individual’s relationship to God. God is always referred to as male, and God’s activities are described in stereo-typically masculine terms. A.A. portrays the individual in a one-to-one relationship with his or her God, before whom the person must admit total powerlessness (at least over alcohol, though absolute powerlessness is implicit throughout) The alcoholic then comes to "believe in" (cognitively) a God who is omnipotent and has the ability to "restore sanity" to the addict, a God to whom one must surrender one’s will.

Next, the individual admits guilt and exact wrongdoings, and humbly pleads to be imbued with God’s power. Through vigilance, prayer and meditation, one continues the process of recovery, which requires relationships with other group members only for steps five and 12. God here is judge and power-broker; recovery hinges on how well the individual submits to God. The addict is a lone ranger on a personal spiritual journey, albeit a journey paralleling that of others.

The image of a domineering, paternalistic God is condescending to adult women, and hinders the development of the mature sense of self that addicted women lack. The call for submission can all too easily blend in with other demands to submit, such as in sexual abuse. A more appropriate image of God for addicted women would be the Holy Spirit, who ignites the spark of hope within each woman and breathes life through the group, working for each member’s well-being and recovery. Through the experience of self-in-relation, participants find liberation and the healing power of a community empowered by the Spirit.

With this theology in mind, and drawing on my experience counseling substance abusers, I have adapted the Twelve Steps to reflect women’s spirituality.

1. The first of the original Twelve Steps is this: "We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol -- that our lives had become unmanageable."

In the feminist revision: "We have a drinking problem that once had us."

This is taken directly from the first of Jean Kirkpatrick’s 13 Steps of "Women for Sobriety," which she designed to enhance women’s self-esteem. (Her further steps, however, are too much oriented toward positive thinking or New Age spirituality for mainline church people.) Powerlessness has always been women’s particular handicap. For men, admitting powerlessness indicates their readiness for God to move in and save them (see Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, about men who are brought low in order to realize salvation) Women, says Campbell, take the opposite journey; they need to stand up, affirm their will and empower themselves.

2. "Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity."

Feminist revision: "We realized we needed to turn to others for help."

For women, to look above for power has almost always meant to look to men. Women need to develop faith in themselves, and in their relationships with other women. A more helpful image of God would be feminine or androgynous, since the father figure reinforces women’s feelings of being treated like children. And to mention sanity seems irrelevant, at least in view of the disease model of alcoholism, which A.A. supports.

3. "Made a decision to turn our lives and our will over to the care of God as we understood Him."

Feminist revision: "We turn to our community of sisters and our spiritual resources to validate ourselves as worthwhile people, capable of creativity, care and responsibility."

This step draws on the assertions of psychological theorists such as Jean Baker Miller and Carol Gilligan who assert that the strength of women is in their sense of relationship with others.

4. "Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves."

Feminist revision: "We have taken a hard look at our patriarchal society and acknowledge those ways in which we have participated in our own oppression, particularly the ways we have devalued or escaped from our own feelings and needs for community and affirmation."

Feminist psychology begins by looking at one’s behavior within familial and cultural contexts. Women alcoholics have even more trouble than most women do in validating their feelings.

5. "Admitted to God, ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs."

Feminist revision: "We realize that our high expectations for ourselves have led us either to avoid responsibility and/or to overinvest ourselves in others’ needs. We ask our sisters to help us discern how and when this happens."

Dwelling on the past is not as constructive for alcoholic women as it is for alcoholic men. Women’s feelings of guilt are often pervasive and diffuse, whereas men’s remorse tends to be tied to specific acts.

6. "Become entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character."

Feminist revision: "Life can be wondrous or ordinary, enjoyable or traumatic, danced with or fought with, and survived. In our community we seek to live in the present with its wonder and hope."

This step affirms life in its fullness, with all of its ambiguities. Many women ignore the inherent value of their lives. Often they are overly self-critical, brooding over their failures and dismissing their successes. Counselors specializing in women’s issues regularly point out the need for women to be in touch with their childlike side, which hungers for care, joy and play. Too often female alcoholics and addicts distort natural variations in emotions in an effort to keep control of all situations, including their own inner anxieties.

7. "Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings."

Feminist revision: "The more we value ourselves, the more we can trust others and accept how that helps us. We are discerning and caring."

This is a long journey of trust, however. Women have been socialized to discredit the value of other women’s care and support, preferring to depend on men for affirmation of self-worth. Maya Angelou, when asked if she were a feminist, responded, "I’m too old not to be on my own side." To learn to trust themselves and other women, women may repeatedly need to receive sincere affirmation, survive open conflict and initiate gentle confrontation.

8. "Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all."

Feminist revision: "We affirm our gifts and strengths and acknowledge our weaknesses. We are especially aware of those who depend on us and of our influence on them."

Unless told otherwise, children may assume they have caused family troubles such as divorce, physical abuse or even a parent’s alcoholism. In an effort to deny their own problem, parents sometimes blame their drinking on their children. Research by Claudia Black and others shows that although children of alcoholics may appear functional, even over-achieving, the impact of their parents’ emotional instability and inconsistency is long-lasting. These children may not become aware of these effects until they become adults.

9. "Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others."

Feminist revision: "We will discuss our illness with our children, family, friends and colleagues. We will make it clear to them (particularly our children) that what our alcoholism caused in the past was not their fault."

10. "Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it."

Feminist revision: "As we are learning to trust our feelings and perceptions, we will continue to check them carefully with our community, which we will ask to help us discern the problems we may not yet be aware of. We celebrate our progress toward wholeness individually and in community."

Celebration is crucial in feminist ritual. The modern tendency to deconstruct and demythologize religion has deprived it of its rich myths, symbols and rituals -- and of a sense of the sacred imbued in the ordinary. Liturgical renewal within mainline Protestant churches reflects an effort to remedy this deficit. In movements such as women-church, Jewish and Christian women are rewriting and creating new rituals commemorating the important transitions in individual and community life.

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."

Feminist revision: "Drawing upon the resources of our faith, we affirm our competence and confidence. We seek to follow through on our positive convictions with the support of our community and the love of God."

Dorothee Soelle asks how a woman can know the will of God when it isn’t announced by metaphysical thunder. Our decisions are our own, Soelle says; God’s will simply calls us to decide.

12. "Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs."

Feminist revision: "Having had a spiritual awakening a result of these steps, we are more able to draw upon the wisdom inherent in us, knowing we are competent women who have much to offer others."

My aim is not to discredit A.A.’s Twelve Steps and their spiritual tone, which thousands of persons have found crucial to recovery. Rather, my aim is to open up ways of thinking about recovery that could be especially helpful to women. I have presented these revised Twelve Steps to a variety of women’s groups, including clergywomen, spiritual growth groups and psychotherapists from a variety of backgrounds. They have responded enthusiastically to the way these steps directly address women’s spiritual experience in regard to the entrapment of addiction. My own counselees have used them either as a more satisfying version of the Twelve Steps within women’s support groups, or as an alternative way to begin thinking about their personal spiritual journey in conjunction with supportive friends.


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