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CHRISTIAN CENTURY, December 6, 1989
STEPS FOR WOMEN ALCOHOLICS
numbers of American women are seeking help for drug
and alcohol addiction. At least 2 million women abuse alcohol
alcoholics, and an even larger number suffer alcohol-related
problems. Though the onset of drinking occurs at a latter
women than for men, some studies show that women lose control
their drinking faster than men and are more vulnerable to
pastoral counselors routinely recommend - or even require
- that their alcohol-dependent counselees attend Alcoholics
meetings. However, a substantial number of people drop out
and some data suggest that half of A.A.'s new participants
continue after 90 days. Denial of the problem is certainly
reason people drop out. But there may be other reasons.
dislike the spiritual nature of the recovery program. And
find that A.A. is overly masculine in approach and its form
spirituality. While certain A.A. groups have addressed the
problem by identifying themselves as pagan or agnostic,
responded to the latter complaint.
latest research on women with addictions, particularly on
those who are chemically dependent, shows that these women's
differ from those of male addicts. For example, alcoholic
more likely to suffer from low self-esteem than their male
counterparts. For such women, depression and self-derogation
to a feeling of purposelessness in life, and thus to substance
More often than men, female alcoholics turn their anger
rather than on others, with anxiety and guilt being the
frequently feel inadequate to the point of futility in fulfilling
Instructor of pastoral care and counseling at Wesley Theological
male dominated society confers upon women a status
subordinate to men; women of color or of a different sexual
orientations suffer even greater oppression. Therefore,
women need a spirituality that empowers them, lifts their
and gives them a sense of identity and worth. A feminist
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
Twelve Steps insinuate hierarchical domination
submission model of the individual's relationship to God.
always refered to as male, and God's activities are described
stereotypically masculine terms. A.A. portrays the individual
one-to-one relationship with his or her God, before whom
must admit total powerlessness (at least over alcohol, though
absolute powerlessness is implicit throughout). The alcoholic
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.
the individual admits guilt and exact wrongdoing, and
humbly pleads to be imbued with God's power. Through vigilance,
prayer and meditation, one continues the process of recovery,
requires relationships with other group members only for
and 12. God here is judge and power broker; recovery hinges
well the individual submits to God. The addict is a lone
ranger on a
personal spiritual journey, albeit a journey paralleling
psychology and spirituality would present a different
scenario. Although feminist theology does not deny the transcendent,
it focuses on how God acts through our relationships with
community. Because women's sense of self relies on relationships,
solitary journey model of recovery is inadequate; it denies
essential role of the healing community. A feminist recovery
would find God's power evident in the relationships between
caring, supportive people in the group, augmenting personal
image of a domineering, paternalistic God is condescending
to adult women, and hinders the development of the mature
self that addicted women lack. The call for submission can
easily blend in with other demands to submit, such as in
abuse. A more appropriate image of God for addicted women
the Holy Spirit, who ignites the spark of hope within each
breathes life through the group, working for each member's
and recovery. Through the experience of self-in-relation,
participants find liberation in the healing power of a community
empowered by the Spirit.
this theology in mind, and drawing on my experience
counseling substance abusers, I have adapted the Twelve
reflect women's spirituality.
The first of the original Twelve Steps is this: "We
that we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had
the feminist revision: "We have a drinking problem
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
for God to move in and save them (see Joseph Campbell's
Journey, about men who are brought low in order to realize
salvation). Women, says Campbell, take the opposite journey;
need to stand up, affirm their will and empower themselves.
"Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves
restore us to sanity."
revision: "We realized we needed to turn to others
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
feelings of being treated like children. And to mention
irrelevant, at least in view of the disease model of alcoholism,
which A.A. supports.
"We made a decision to turn our will and our lives
the care of God as we understood Him."
revision: "We turn to our community of sisters and
spiritual resources to validate ourselves as worthwhile
capable of creativity, care and responsibility.
step draws on the assertions of psychological theorists
such as Jean Baker Miller and Carol Gilligan who asserts
strength of women is in their sense of relationship with
"Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves."
revision: "We have taken a hard look at our patriarchal
society and acknowledge those ways in which we have participated
our own oppression, particularly the ways we have devalued
from our own feelings and needs for community and affirmation."
psychology begins by looking at one's behavior within
familial and cultural contexts. Women alcoholics have even
trouble than most women do in validating their feelings.
"Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human
exact nature of our wrongs."
revision: "We realize that our high expectations for
ourselves have led us either to avoid responsibility and/or
overinvest ourselves in other's needs. We ask our sisters
to help us
discern how and when this happens."
on the past is not as constructive for alcoholic women
as it is for alcoholic men. Women's feelings of guilt are
pervasive and diffuse, whereas men's remorse tends to be
"Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects
revision: "Life can be wondrous or ordinary, enjoyable
or traumatic, danced with or fought with, and survived.
community we seek to live in the present with its wonder
step affirms life in its fullness, with all its
ambiguities. Many women ignore the inherent values of their
Often they are overly self-critical, brooding over their
dismissing their successes. Counselors specializing in women's
regularly point out the need for women to be in touch with
childlike side, which hungers for care, joy and play. Too
female alcoholics and addicts distort natural variations
in an effort to keep control of all situations, including
"Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings."
revision: "The more we value ourselves, the more we
trust others and accept how that helps us. We are discerning
is a long journey of trust, however. Women have been
socialized to discredit the value of other women's care
preferring to depend on men for affirmation of self-worth.
Angelo, when asked if she were a feminist, responded, "I'm
not to be on my own side." To learn to trust themselves
women, women may repeatedly need to receive sincere affirmation,
survive open conflict and initiate gentle confrontation.
"Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became
to make amends to them all."
revision: "We affirm our gifts and strengths and
acknowledge our weaknesses. We are especially aware of those
depend on us and of our influence on them."
told otherwise, children may assume they have caused
family troubles such as divorce, physical abuse or even
alcoholism. In an effort to deny their own problem, parents
blame their drinking on their children. Research by Claudia
others shows that although children of alcoholics may appear
functional, even overachieving, the impact of their parents'
emotional instability and inconsistency is long-lasting.
children may not become aware of these effects until they
"Made direct amends to such people wherever possible,
when to do so would injure them or others."
revision: "We will discuss our illness with our
children, family, friends and colleagues. We will make it
them (particularly our children) that what our alcoholism
the past was not their fault."
"Continued to take personal inventory and when we were
promptly admitted it."
revision: "As we are learning to trust our feelings
perceptions, we will continue to check them carefully with
community, which we will ask to help us discern the problems
not yet be aware of. We celebrate our progress toward wholeness
individually and in community."
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
the ordinary. Liturgical renewal within mainline Protestant
reflects an effort to remedy this deficit. In movements
women-church, Jewish and Christian women are rewriting and
new rituals commemorating the important transitions in individual
"Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our
conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying
knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that
revision: "Drawing upon the resources of our faith,
affirm our competence and confidence. We seek to follow
our positive convictions with the support of our community
love of God."
Soelle asks how a woman can know the will of God when
it isn't announced by metaphysical thunder. Our decisions
own, Soelle says; God's will simply calls us to decide.
"Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of
steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and
these principles in all our affairs."
revision: "Having had a spiritual awakening as the
result of these steps, we are more able to draw upon the
inherent in us, knowing we are competent women who have
much to offer
aim is not to discredit A.A.'s Twelve Steps and their
spiritual tone, which thousands of persons have found crucial
recovery. Rather, my aim is to open up ways of thinking
recovery that could be especially helpful to women. I have
these revised Twelve Steps to a variety of women's groups,
clergywomen, spiritual growth groups and psychotherapists
variety of backgrounds. They have responded enthusiastically
way these steps directly address women's spiritual experience
regard to the entrapment of addiction. My own counselees
them either as a more satisfying version of the Twelve Steps
women's support groups, or as an alternative way to begin
about their personal spiritual journey in conjunction with