Stepping Through to Recovery
A Pagan approach to the Twelve Step programs

by Anodea Judith

The problems of addiction and dysfunctional behavior patterns have become epidemic. In a culture out of balance with Nature, the sexes, races and religions and which employs barbaric child-rearing practices, it is no surprise that we encounter a constant barrage of human problems. Therapists are often expensive and friends undertrained or overwhelmed. As a result, many have found solace and healing through the use of "12-Step" groups that are available nearly free of charge across the nation.

Originally created in the 1930's for Alcoholics Anonymous, the 12-Step Program proved to be far more successful than other therapeutic methods for keeping alcoholics out of relapse and restoring a sense of satisfaction to their lives. When it was found that partners and family members of alcoholics also had dysfunctional patterns, the 12-Step Program was expanded to include them as well. At first called "co-alcoholic", the concept has been expanded to include drugs, sex, food, gambling and other behaviors. The term is now "co-dependent", meaning one who is a part of another's addictive process or who is so focused on the other that she neglects her own needs. This, too, has come to be seen as an addiction.

Today there are 12-Step groups for almost any problem, with the understanding that we are all "adult children". This is a term popularized by John Bradshaw, a leading figure in the recovery field, meaning adults carrying with them programming and wounding from various dysfunctional childhood environments which were once taken as "normal" in our society and are still rampant.

The 12-Step programs provide a structure and a human support system for treating additions and other disorders. Working through the steps (see below) one at a time and attending regular meetings, one has the chance to share personal stories with others who are struggling with similar issues. Additional support is obtained by choosing a sponsor (someone who has been in the program a little longer) to call upon or report to when needed.

12-step programs incorporate both practicality and spirituality, and in many cases have been a great success. However, the spirituality of the 12-Steps is steeped in Christian theology. As a Pagan priestess and therapist, I have a hard time arguing with a client who refuses my recommendation to attend such meetings on the grounds that they cannot stomach the concepts or wording of some of the steps. I have not found affinity with 12-step groups for the same reason.

Some have suggested simply changing a word or two, such as "...turned our will over to God as we understood Him (or Her)." While this change can be muttered under the breath at a meeting, it does not address other more inherent discrepancies with Pagan theology which are built into the conceptual framework. Notable are the implications that divine force exists soley outside ourselves, the injunction to abandon our will, and the concepts of sin and guilt.

Also, many people object to the labeling used in 12-step programs, wherein every person introduces himself by saying something like "My name is Bill, and I am an alcoholic," even if Bill has maintained sobriety for five or ten years. Admittedly, there are some good reasons for this practice. Since Bill can never drink alcohol again, the label is a reminder that his relationship to the substance is forever tainted by his misuse of it. Yet, in magic we know that names have power and can invoke the concepts they imply. Perhaps "My name is Bill, and I am recovering from alcoholism," speaks more to the truth we are trying to create.

There are ways of approaching some of the steps that are more fitting for Pagans and still do not force religious dogma on anyone. The adapted steps listed below are my own, except where noted, but the thinking behind them has been stimulated by each person I have talked to or who has sent me their material. Where possible, I give credit at the end. I am open to feedback and suggestions for those steps and encourage each person to make any adaptation they need, in order to have the steps serve them the best way possible. Standard steps are listed in italics, adapted steps in bold, and commentaries in regular type.

Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over (alcohol, food, co-dependency, etc.) -- that our lives had become unmanageable.
We admitted we had a problem and that we were squandering our power.
This could be shortened to simply: Admitted we had a problem.
The purpose of the first step is to counteract the denial that says "I can quit anytime, I just haven't tried hard enough yet." Admitting a certain powerlessness can enable us to be more open, to give up on holding on to a certain behavior and to let go of the part of our ego that interferes with receiving help from others. Seeing that our lives have become unmanageable is a way of admitting the severity of the problem, but many people have addictions precisely because they feel powerless, so this step can block them from all that follows. Tell a person who has been gang raped to stand in front of a crowd of strangers and admit powerlessness and you'll find a lot of resistance. Also, if people whose lives have not yet become unmanageable, but who still have a problem with a substance or behavior, can get help sooner rather than later they may avoid "bottoming out," and can nip the problem in the bud. Having to admit your life is unmanageable can deter such people from connecting with the programs. It is more empowering to say we have mismanaged our lives than to say they are unmanageable, and this can apply to a broader range of conditions.

Step 2: Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Came to believe we could realign the power within and the power without such that each served to enhance the other.
It could also read: Came to believe there was hope for recovery.
This step is about becoming an open system. In order to become open we need a sense of hope to reach out, to ignite the enthusiasm necessary to get through the difficult parts of recovery. The power within and the power without are interconnected and our pain results from their severance. An open system has greater power than a closed system.

Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
Made a decision to connect the powers within and without and see them as One.
Addictive processes are the result of already having turned our will over to something else -- the challenge is to reclaim our will. If it is "turned over" -- even to something "better" -- we do not necessarily change the addictive process. Those who have been sexually abused or suffered the religious abuse of an angry God will not want to turn their will over to Him or perhaps to anything else. When we consciously choose to connect the powers within and without, however we define them, we are making a decision of empowerment of which we are a part and which gives us a sense of pride.

Step 4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Took an intelligent look at our behavior, seeing its relationship to family patterns and dysfunctional culture.
The importance of this step is to understand the chain of cause and effect that has influenced us, to step beyond judgement, to see our behavior as an attempt to cope with a cultural situation that is off-balance, and to empower ourselves by creating more productive strategies for coping. Not all of the ways we were shaped by our family were our fault, and the shame that results from taking on the blame is often the very fuel of addiction. Much of recovery rests on learning self-acceptance: not acceptance of damaging behaviors, but rather a fundamental acceptance and understanding of ourselves that gives us the strength to let go of damaging behaviors. Let us not set ourselves up against a moral standard to se if we are worthy enough to continue, but instead look at ourselves as part of a process we once had no control over, then learn the causes and effects so that we can change them. We must understand in order to make permanent change.

Step 5: Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Shared our searching with others, seeking feedback.
We need the reflection of a friend, a coworker, partner or therapist to accurately get the intelligent perspective sought in the previous step. We are by nature blind to our own programming, so another perspective is necessary to help us see.
For Pagans who want to use ritual in their recovery, putting what we understand into a ritual form and sending it to a god or goddess or spirit can be helpful. For example, I once did a ritual in which I stripped off my clothes in a circle of friends and invoking Erishkigal, lay on the ground and admitted aloud all the things I was aware of that had gotten me to this terrible time in life: my pride, my carelessness, etc. I asked for Her to see I was learning my lessons and to let me out of the Underworld. Two days later I got a new job and all the other circumstances unwound themselves gracefully in the weeks that followed.

Step 6: Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
Made myself ready and willing to let go of old patterns.
Nothing other, mortal or immortal, can do the work for us, but the willingness to change is an essential prerequisite. This may sound too obvious: if we weren't willing to change, why would we be in recovery? Yet this is one of the most difficult steps of all. Old patterns were put there for a reason -- they are part of an outmoded survival strategy. Being ready to let go of what we once truly needed is as scary as jumping off a cliff, and very similar in that there is a period of time where we are in free-fall, when we have to let go of something old before we can get something new, before we even know what we are replacing it with. The alcoholic who uses alcohol to be able to socialize or the marijuana smoker who uses it to stimulate creativity may go through a period of being socially dull or uninspired until the natural juices kick in. Old patterns also have secondary rewards: the co-dependent gets ego gratification out of caretaking; the addict gets attention or simply the high that lets him endure. Letting go of patterns means letting go of their rewards as well.

Step 7: Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
Learned to ask for help.
Those from dysfunctional situations often have a hard time with this important step in the process of connecting our inner power with the power around us. Outside forces don't do it for us, but there is much help in the form of the divine as well as people, programs, experiences, books, and self-initated activites such as meditation or vision quests. By asking for help we become open to power flowing through us. This implies being receptive to omens, prayers, miracles, coincidences and support around our changes. The Goddess is in everything!

Step 8: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and becoming willing to make amends to them all.
Made a list of harm done, and searched for ways to restore balance.
When we are unconscious we hurt ourselves and others. It is important to come to terms with this and make an effort to reconstitute what has been lost, persons as well as other things that may have been harmed such as environment, animals, institutions, creative projects, our own aspirations and other parts of ourselves. It is sometimes equally important, in the process of recovery, to confront those who have harmed us and ask for acknowledgement and compensation. If it cannot be given, as is often the case with parents or old relationships, then we must commit ourselves to finding a way to take the restoration into our own hands.

Step 9: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Carried out rectification and balancing wherever possible.
This step could also be stated as: Cleaned up karma.
This is carrying out the willingness from the previous step. It can take a lot of time and be very difficult. It is important as it allows a thorough "grokking" (understanding) of the effects of our patterns and it allows everyone a chance to grow. It may involve hearing anger from children or former friends or lovers; it may even cost you money, but it brings freedom.

Step 10: Continue to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
Made the commitment to continue the process of recovery, knowing that change takes time.
Changing life patterns of behavior takes longer than any of us would like to spend with it, so we must be gentle with ourselves. Even after we understand, we still repeat, we are still blind, and we still need to monitor ourselves. Thinking we've "done it already," is a mistake, as is giving in to the temptation to stop the process once we have gotten a few "big" insights. What we resist persists and admitting our blind spots helps defuse them.
An important added step, contributed by Charlotte Kasl, Ph.D., from her forthcoming book (see Part 4 of this article) can be inserted here: Continued to trust my awareness, and when I knew what was right I promptly acknowledged it, and refused to back down. We need to overcome the tendency towards collusion with oppressive forces that invalidate our truth. In this patriarchal society, this is especially true for women and minorities.

Step 11: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understand Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
Pursued the strengthening of our connection with the web of life through appropriate activity and spiritual practice.
Our sense of connection may come through meditation, ritual, dreams, political action, therapy groups, community service, writing in a journal, walking in the wilderness, or standing on our head. We may even search for omens, but in the end it is we who choose our path and employ our will to walk upon it. If we haven't severed our will, we are more able to find the strength to walk that path. The pursuit of wisdom takes conscious effort and is an ongoing process. Deity is immanent and our understanding comes through personal effort and exploration in combination with openness and trust.

Step 12: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Having experienced a stabilized change from our awakening, we sought to help others along the path.
Central to the 12 steps is the concept of a spiritual awakening. How we define that awakening is personal and varies in content and intensity, but there is always some fundamental change in our view of self, the world, and the connection between the two.
They say a teacher teaches something until she finally learns it. Helping others completes the karmic cycle that helped us, and can also solidify what we've learned. When we have been through struggles with a particular problem we are in touch with the process and our spark of understanding can sometimes help another on the path.

Some additional steps, also credited to Charlotte Kasl, can be added as follows:

Step 13: I examine my life story and my addiction (and codependency) in the context of my role in a patriarchal, capitalistic system.
Another good book to read on this is Anne Wilson Schaef, When Society Becomes an Addict.

Step 14: I use the events life brings as lessons for growth and accept my mistakes as part of my humanness.
Very important for keeping sobriety -- how not to fall down when life presents difficulties. Seeing problems as opportunities, having a sense of compassion for ourselves when we fail to be perfect, and learning from mistakes are valuable steps to ongoing progress.

Step 15: We grow in our awareness that we are sacred beings, interrelated with all living things and, when ready, take an active part in helping the planet become a better place for all people including ourselves.
We could include a few other species here simply by saying "all" and leaving off the word "people." This solidifies the connection between ourselves and the web of life, again between the power within and the power without.

This adaptation is meant to coincide with the 12-steps as they are now, but we could combine steps 2 and 3, steps 4 and 5, and steps 8 and 9, making each pair into a single step. The additional three steps listed above could then be included for a total of twelve. Or throw them out altogether and start fresh, but however we proceed, the value does not lie in any of the individual steps but in the creation of a structural program. It takes more than wishing to change a lifelong pattern: we have to adopt a strategy, a plan, and then carry it out for a substantial period of time. The plan needs to fit the problem, and then each of the various wounds we suffer from this culture may require different programs.

The other deep value in the twelve step program is its inclusion of a spiritual dimension in the recovery process. Spiritual connection and healing are part of the same thing because a wound to the soul is a rupture of spirit. Since spirit has many forms, to truly become an open system we avoid qualifying spiritual experience for other human beings. Both the creation of a program and the experience of "spiritual awakening" are personal and profound. These steps are meant as a guide to creating a program that offers empowerment of the individual and validation of a variety of spiritual experiences. The paths are many. The journey brings its own reward.


  1. Admitted we had a problem and that we were squandering our power.
  2. Came to see how the power within and without had been misaligned and made a decision to reconnect them, seeing them as One.
  3. Through sharing and feedback from others, took an intelligent look at our behavior, examining our relationship to family patterns and dysfunctional culture.
  4. Made myself ready and willing to let go of old patterns.
  5. Learned to ask for help.
  6. Made a list of harm done, and carried out rectification and balancing wherever possible.
  7. Made the commitment to continue the process of recovery, knowing that change takes time.
  8. Pursued the strengthening of our connection with the web of life through appropriate activity and spiritual practice.
  9. Having experienced a stabilized change from our awakening, we sought to help others along the path.
  10. Examine my life story and my addiction (and codependency) in the context of my role in a patriarchal, capitalistic system.
  11. Use the events life brings as lessons for growth and accept my mistakes as part of my humanness.
  12. Grow in our awareness that we are sacred beings, interrelated with all living things and, when ready, take an active part in helping the planet become a better place for all including ourselves.

Also by Anodea Judith: Out of the Frying Pan - Into the Fire: Dysfunctional families and group energy.
You can visit Anodea Judith's website, Sacred Centers.

Very strongly recommended: The Recovery Spiral by Cynthia Jane Collins (NY: Citadel, 2004) ISBN 0-8065-2512-6

other recovery links:

  • Pagans in Recovery
  • Web of Addictions
  • or you can return to:

  • Counseling Basics menu
  • Proteus Library

  • The address of this page is
    Copyright © 1996 by Anodea Judith. Reprinted, with the author's permission, from Green Egg, vol.24, no.92, Ostara, 1991, pp. 10 - 12.