The sweet little candy niblets that are the twelve steps vary from group to group. Their most common form comes from Alcoholics Anonymous. Many other twelve-step fellowships change only the first and last steps: for example, Debtors Anonymous' first and twelfth steps read, "We admitted we were powerless over debt.... we tried to carry this message to compulsive debtors, and to practice these principles in all our affairs."

Others make a few more changes, often de-gendering the steps. Instead of saying "God as we understood Him," they often simply replace all pronouns with "God." One fellowship, however, has rewritten the steps entirely.

Survivors of Incest Anonymous uses two versions of the twelve steps: the originals, with only the standard "insert group here" wording and pronouns changed, and the revised edition. It was revised by group conscience many years ago, in the early 1990s. Why?

I can only guess at the intentions of the people involved -- but I will. The revised steps are the same in terms of the actions and spirit involved, but they differ quite a bit in the wording.

The original steps were written all the way back in the 1930s, and (like other early A.A. literature) carry a distinct flavor of the time. They each have positive actions and outcomes associated with them, but if someone is steeped in self-hatred or determined to "make things right" by establishing how wrong they themselves are, the steps can be used to self-injure. For example, we can cling to a higher power made in the image of an abusive parent, or make amends to a rapist without consideration for whether that might harm us - or whether we count as "others."

Basically, if we've been taught long enough to treat ourselves like shit, we can keep doing it in the face of the steps, therapy, loving relationships, financial success, or anything else that people try to use to fill that hole inside them. However, this revised version of the steps does something to address that. It spells out the intent of each step more clearly, I think, and emphasizes some of the hoped-for outcomes of each step.

Not just the abuse, but the effects of the abuse. It's easy to think we should just "suck it up" and focus on the present. Stop hurting, stop remembering, stop dissociating, stop obsessing - why can't you just be happy? Hasn't it been long enough? It's water under the bridge now!

Yeah, right. As the wording of this step emphasizes, the effects of any kind of abuse are long-lasting. It's often hard to recognize them, both because we may not know any other way to be - no basis for comparison - and because there is very little education available about what the effects of abuse actually are. Many of us just assume our experiences are universal.

In the first step, we start to see how abuse has affected those around us, and recognize some of those effects in our own lives. We also start to accept that what happened to us was wrong, and that it was not our fault.

This wording is interesting to me because, while the original version says "Made a decision..." the one with which I'm familiar says something like "Became willing to believe." That is, we don't have to have that connection yet, we just think that maybe there's a possibility that there's something bigger than us in the universe and that maybe having faith in it and being able to ask it for help might eventually sort of someday work. Maybe.

This is essentially the same statement. The major change here is the way it is spelled out. It's not God, it's just some kind of spiritual power that's greater than ourselves. And not just any spiritual power, but a loving one, because many people have been abused through religion or have internalized an image of God as some abusive adult from their childhood.

It also expands on what we can gain from this - not just sanity but also hope and healing. In some ways this step is simply about hope; it just means that we can believe that things might be able to get better.

Wordy, isn't it? Try reading it aloud in a meeting sometime!

It can be hard to chew this step up as an abuse survivor. Turning our will and our lives over to anything sounds terrifying; after all, when has that ever worked for us?

Choosing a loving higher power is key here, whether it's religious or not - however you might define that. Maybe it's just the universe, or the forces of nature. The other major part of it, for me, is that we still have free will. We're not trusting any part of our lives to something that intends to control or harm us; we're just thinking about how we're a part of the universe, not the whole thing, and we're probably not the person in its driver's seat.

This can be another terrifying proposition. We have no more secrets? That sounds like a cult! I don't have to tell you people anything!

Well, no kidding. The point isn't that we can't keep secrets, it's that we're not hiding anything out of fear and shame. We don't have to hide the things that happened to us, or that we've done in our lives, out of the belief that no one else has ever had those experiences and they'll be shocked and disgusted by us. We can take the huge step of being honest about our lives with people we can trust, and find out that we're not actually alone.

Here, "our strengths and weaknesses" replace phrases like "our shortcomings" and "a moral inventory."

A moral inventory is not supposed to just be a list of how bad we are. It's a way of "right-sizing" the things we're angry about, the things we're afraid of, the things we've done to others or ourselves. It lets us see what our part was in situations where we were hurt or angry, not because we're supposed to think we control everything or do everything wrong but so that we understand how powerful we are.

For example, in reviewing a major list of resentments against an abusive ex, I might then have to recognize that my part in the situation was that I stayed in the relationship and excused every bad thing that my partner did, or even that I sometimes goaded them into hitting me or yelling at me or whatever it may have been. That doesn't mean the abuse was my fault; it means that I have some power, that maybe I now recognize that when someone does that I can just walk out.

The addition of, or emphasis on, listing our strengths and weaknesses, also gives us the opportunity to compare our self-esteem to our reality. Maybe we have a lot of strengths we haven't been willing to recognize; maybe something we saw as a strength is actually holding us back. Maybe something we thought was a weakness is actually really awesome. This is one of those places where an outsider's perspective is really important.

This is one of my favorite ones, and I'm not even on it yet.

First of all, it emphasizes the debilitating consequences of the abuse. I like this. After all, we're survivors. People chose to call themselves "incest survivors" and "abuse survivors" instead of "victims" for a reason; in fact, Tradition Three in Survivors of Incest Anonymous says that the only requirement for membership in SIA is a desire to become a survivor rather than a victim. The point is that we may be able to find good consequences of our abuse; we may be able to reconcile ourselves to all the bad effects by thinking about how it has made us stronger. And that here, we're only trying to deal with the problems the abuse has caused, not rewrite history so that it never happened.

Secondly, I love it because it says we will (someday) treat ourselves with respect, compassion and acceptance. People in the meetings I go to have said that sobriety in SIA is self-care; this step highlights that better than any other.

It's nice, in a way, to have that little extra emphasis - we're not just letting go of the worst, the debilitating, consequences of abuse, but of the unhealthy and self-defeating consequences as well.

These two loom large for me; it seems hard enough to be entirely ready to let go of all my self-defeating behaviors, not to mention actually asking for it and imagining that it might happen in a way with which I'm okay. Working my fourth step has helped, though; there's something about seeing over and over again how not being able to set boundaries, for example, has gotten me into bad situations about which I'm hugely resentful, which kind of primes the pump for wanting that to change.

    8. Made a list of all the people we had harmed (of our own free will), especially ourselves and our inner child or children, and became willing to make amends to them all.

The best addition to this, in my opinion, is "of our own free will." Many people who were abused as children were (as part of that abuse) forced to abuse other children. It's a handy and terrifying trick; not only does it give the abuser a lot more power, but it guarantees that the child will take the guilt and blame for that abuse on themselves instead of placing it where it belongs. It's like a teflon force field for the asshole abusing them. By saying "of our own free will," we acknowledge that there are a few situations in which we didn't have a part and for which we can't take responsibility - no matter how much we wish we could have controlled the situation.

"Especially ourselves and our inner child or children" is a good one too. In any twelve-step program, I think, it's important to recognize the ways our addictive behavior has hurt ourselves as well as others. It's part of self-care, without which at some point we end up just white-knuckling it.

    9. Made amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would result in physical, mental, emotional or spiritual harm to ourselves or others.

This step becomes very specific in key places. It emphasizes all the different ways that someone can be harmed, because it's real easy to overlook some of those in our eagerness to take on responsibility for (or try to take control over) everything in our lives. It also says "amends" instead of "direct amends."

Part of this is because of the trickiness of making amends to people who abuse us. Sometimes this can be okay, for example if our relationship with them has changed and they've stopped being abusive toward us. Sometimes they haven't changed and we still want to make amends, in which case we might find it safer to make amends in writing or even do a "living amends."

A living amends is an action we can take to redress the situation. For example, if someone to whom we owed money has died, we might donate that sum to a charity in their memory. Fugitive247 addresses this well.

The ninth step is one of the most important parts of any twelve-step program. Not only do we get to fix what we've done wrong to ourselves or others, but we get to learn that nobody has the right to hurt us for fucking up anymore. We're not horrible people, we're just regular people who have done some things wrong, like anyone else. And now we don't have to fear anyone when we make a mistake.

    10. Continued to take responsibility for our own recovery, and when we found ourselves behaving in patterns still dictated by the abuse, promptly admitted it. When we succeed, we promptly enjoy it.

A "tenth step" usually involves a miniature version of the fourth step, done daily. It lets us catch ourselves in old and new harmful behaviors before they snowball. It can also give us tremendous clarity about how our lives are going and what's going on with us in general.

This phrasing replaces "when we were wrong" with "when we found ourselves behaving in patterns still dictated by the abuse." I like this because to me it seems clearer, and it reminds us of what we focus on in this program. It seems like a wider scope than "Was I wrong in this situation?" I think a tenth step for anyone would involve more than that, but I find it helpful to have that spelled out right there.

It also has a special sentence tacked on. "When we succeed, we promptly enjoy it." It's a nice reminder not to attack ourselves for being, after all, right where we're supposed to be - and instead, to celebrate how far we've come.

    11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with ourselves and a loving spiritual power as we understood this spiritual power, asking only for knowledge of our spiritual power's will for us and the strength to carry that out.

Another wordy one! Take what you like and leave the rest, huh? But it does save everyone the bother of de-gendering the steps!

This step is a lot like the second and third in some ways. As I see it, they are partly about getting in touch with our gut feelings about things. Intuition, higher power, that little inner voice - whatever we want to call our sense of which path is right for us.

I think that abuse, maybe child abuse in particular, is on one level an attempt to sever us from our higher power. It is supposed to make us feel like there's nothing watching out for us and nowhere to turn for help. Even more than that, it often severs people's sense of cause and effect. For many of us, nothing in our childhood made sense, especially if our parents were addicted to drugs or alcohol or rage or sexual abuse.

If getting a B resulted in being backed into a wall, screamed at, and grounded, how are we supposed to have any sense of cause and effect or of how to take care of ourselves as adults? These steps give us an opportunity to separate ourselves from the madness and find out what feels right to us again.

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

Notice it's no longer "all our affairs" - nice for people who associate sexual experiences with that word.

This is another one that can sound "culty" to people who are uncomfortable with religion or spirituality. Basically, though, what it means is that by this point we've begun to reconnect with safer, healthier beliefs about the world and our place in it - and some hope about that. Now we're better-equipped to support others in this process of self-discovery while we keep working on all these concepts in all the different areas of our lives.

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