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Book Review: The 12 and 12

Issue 20

Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous

Alcoholics Anonymous is the most common place people look for help for their alcohol and drug problems.

AA meetings are held around the country and around the clock, so that at any time (especially now with online meetings) people can be among like-minded people who are in recovery—maybe for just a day, maybe for decades—where they feel accepted and understood in a way that doesn’t happen anywhere else.

AA meetings are independently run, so no two meetings are alike. Each meeting reflects the people who attend them, and while anyone with a desire to stop drinking may attend any meeting, specialized meetings have developed. These run the gamut from meetings for LGBTQ+ people, meetings for Buddhists, Christ-based meetings, and even “AA for Agnostics.”

For people unfamiliar with AA, it’s important to understand that, while every meeting is run locally and according to a format of sharing openly, if you’ve been to one AA meeting, you’ve been to one AA meeting. They’re not all the same, and people in recovery may feel like they’re “coming home” when they show up at one meeting and may feel out of place at another.

Early in AA’s organizational development, AA co-founder Bill W recognized the need for some guidelines for the organization so that the magic of spiritual growth through sharing with fellow travelers in recovery remained intact. In 1946 he published the “Twelve Points to Assure Our Future” in the AA Grapevine newspaper. In 1953, he published the book, “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.”

While the Twelve Steps create a spiritual path for individuals, the Twelve Traditions are guidelines for AA as an organization, to make sure it stays focused on the health of people attending local meetings.

The Twelve Traditions also help make sure there is continuity across groups worldwide. Mostly, though, the Twelve Traditions make sure that each meeting is a place where peers share their experiences in confidence, with no one person having a higher position than another and with no outside influence, and where the wisdom of the group is honored.

Personal recovery is always front and center, and for this reason, AA as an organization doesn’t get involved in larger policy issues related to treatment or recovery.

For an outsider, this can be confusing.

Wouldn’t one of the nation’s largest recovery support organizations be in favor of, for example, federal funding for recovery community centers? Or expanding evidence-based treatment?

But while individuals who attend AA meetings may be heavily involved in these policy matters, AA as an organization (and any local twelve-step meeting) does not take a position and doesn’t engage in the policy discussion.

The focus remains on the individual in recovery through messages from peers and, recognizing that isolation and “going it alone” can make recovery difficult or impossible.

The Twelve Traditions call for AA to remain “forever non-professional.”

This, too, can be confusing to an outsider, because so many treatment agencies use “twelve-step based treatment” or Twelve Step Facilitation (also known as the Minnesota Model) as the backbone of their care, and because so many addiction treatment providers have themselves follow a twelve step path.

According to the Recovery Research Institute, in this model, “both clinical (doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, etc.) and non-clinical staff (most of, if not all of whom are, themselves, in recovery) provide care as part of a multi-disciplinary and comprehensive treatment program.” The goal is to engage patients with AA (or other twelve step programs like Narcotics Anonymous) in their community.

While this approach has undoubtedly built exposure and knowledge about AA through professional treatment providers, that’s not the same as the professionalization of AA or local AA meetings. The focus remains on individuals from all walks of life supporting each other, and no one ever gets paid to participate in an AA meeting.

The Twelve Traditions are where the tradition of anonymity is articulated: “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles above personalities.”

While some aspects of this requirement of anonymity can be attributed to acknowledging the damaging effects that disclosing recovery status can have on people attending AA—stigma—there’s a broader intent at play.

The Twelve Steps form the spiritual path for AA members, and they create a pathway for any individual, regardless of education, experience, or station in life, to help another.

So, within the AA fellowship, who people are “in their day jobs” is less important than the support and caring they give to each other round the clock.


1. Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon AA unity.

2. For our group purpose, there is but one ultimate authority—a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.

3. The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.

4. Each group should be autonomous, except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole.

5. Each group has but one primary purpose: to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.

6. An AA group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the AA name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.

7. Every AA group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.

8. Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever non-professional, but our service centers may employ special workers.

9. AA, as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.

10. Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy.

11. Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.

12. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles above personalities.

Alison Webb (Recovery Allies)
Alison Webb (Recovery Allies)
Alison Jones Webb, a public health specialist and recovery advocate, is the author of Recovery Allies: How to Support Addiction Recovery and Build Recovery-Friendly Communities. She has spoken at numerous professional meetings and is a certified prevention specialist and recovery coach.

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