I was not exposed to the book A Gentle Path Through the Twelve Steps until later in my recovery.
Recovering addicts need support, guidance, and an ally in their recovery. Because of this, most recovery programs have some way to pair people new to recovery with people who have been at it a while and have a degree of sobriety and success under their belts. In traditional 12 Step programs, these people are called “sponsors.”
When I first started sponsoring, I had a lot of good intentions but not a lot of good ideas. I could be there in times of trouble, of course, but how could I help the people I was mentoring in a more proactive way? I wanted to help my guys take the next right steps forward in their recovery but in a way that didn’t shame them or make me a source of stress.
One of the veteran sponsors shared that he took his people through A Gentle Path, and once I read it myself, it was clear to me this was an ideal companion to recovery and gave me a structure to go through with my own folks.
What You Get
A Gentle Path Through the Twelve Steps (sometimes shortened to A Gentle Path Through the 12 Steps or, simply, A Gentle Path) was written by Dr. Patrick Carnes, which is a name that recovering sex addicts will probably recognize. Dr. Carnes, however, has written a lot about addiction recovery in general and how to be successful at it, and this book is in that vein. There is nothing in it that is particular to sex addiction.
Instead, as the title implies, it is a guided path through 12 Step recovery. It includes explanations of the 12 Steps, insights into how addiction works, practical exercises for accomplishing the 12 Steps, and thoughtful questions / journaling opportunities at the end of each chapter.
Sort of like the Big Book of A.A., A Gentle Path has some valuable nuggets tucked away in the little sections before the 12 Step chapters hit. This section gives you some background on the 12 Steps, the way your brain works in recovery, and some suggestions for working the program.
What follows are a series of chapters on each of the 12 Steps (some are combined into a single chapter), and these chapters are loaded. Not only do they explain each step in helpful ways, they contain all kinds of helpful exercises to do with each step. It’s an action-oriented book that provides concrete things you can do to move through the steps instead of it just being a mental exercise.
The chapters also contain great information that may not be directly about a given step but are helpful, related topics such as dealing with abuse or how to structure a healthy day. Also included is inspirational material like affirmations and meditations on each step.
Finally, the chapters close with a brief list of questions to provoke further reflection on the step. There are blanks in the book for your answers, but I found them also to be handy structures to get into journaling. Just open your journal, and either answer all the questions or choose one to be your journal entry for the day.
The book closes with an Epilogue that celebrates the progress you’ve made and ties everything together. This is followed by some appendices that shed a little more light on 12 Step Recovery as well as point you to further resources for your development.
Who is this for?
A Gentle Path is primarily for a recovering addict who is going through a 12 Step program or would like to use that as a structure for their recovery work. It’s especially useful for recovering addicts who may not have a very structured recovery program, which is something I see a lot in 12 Step groups. Everyone knows they’re supposed to be going through the 12 Steps, but they may not have a clear, concrete idea of what that should look like.
Secondarily, A Gentle Path is for people who are leading recovery groups or in some way taking someone else through the process of 12 Step recovery. I highly recommend this book for sponsors to use with the people you’re sponsoring. It provides great points of conversation as well as a regular plan for your… uh… sponsee… to work through at their own pace. As far as content and structure goes, this book can provide all the things a sponsor might want.
Thirdly, I and several other addicts I know have found it beneficial to take a second trip (or third or fourth) through the 12 Steps again, doing them again from the standpoint of what we know now and being a little more rigorous and thorough with them. This book is great for that second trip.
But this book is not a person, and therefore it cannot provide a listening ear, support during troubled times, or customize itself to your specific issues of the day. Therefore, I do not recommend this book as a replacement for getting someone else involved in your recovery. It is a very valuable assistant, but just going through the book by yourself will bring you only limited success.
Also, recovering addicts who are not doing the 12 Steps or similarly structured program may not find this book to be as helpful. There are still a lot of great material and exercises you may want to incorporate into your own recovery.
If you are very far along in your recovery and are focused less on the hard work of getting out of your addiction and are just more focused on building a healthier life, this book will probably not be that helpful to you. Its focus is very much on people who are in-progress or just starting as far as recovery goes.
- Very readable and accessible
- Provides concrete exercises and structure around working the 12 Steps
- Supplies a lot of additional information about how addiction and recovery work as you go
- Rewards the little milestones
- Has thought-provoking questions as you go to spur your own thinking and/or journaling
- Points you to further resources once you’ve completed the book
- Provides a great common tool for sponsors
- May not be as useful to recovering addicts not in 12 Steps or similarly structured program
- May be tempting to use this book by yourself in an attempt to recover on your own rather than joining a group or engaging a friend or therapist
Case Study: My Group
In my original 12 Step group (which I still attend), this book came to my attention when we had a little sponsors’ gathering to talk about how to be a good sponsor, share what was working, and discuss difficult situations. Some sponsors were very experienced, and some were new.
Not every sponsor in our group chooses to use this book with the people they sponsor, but most of us do.
Each of us has gone through the book on our own, which is not necessarily a prerequisite, but we’ve found that as we talk about the different issues with the people we sponsor, it can be helpful to refer back to our own thoughts and experiences as we read the book and did the exercises.
When we meet with a person (or small group of people) that we sponsor, we use the book as a guide to keep people moving forward through the steps. We don’t enforce any particular rate of speed because we don’t want it to be shaming experience or source of stress or a reason for someone to be dishonest with their progress. It’s the structure that’s important, not the speed at which people move through it.
We have the person do the reading for their step. Personally, I like to break it up with the exercises and supplementary sections. I like to stop on a point where the person has something to do, because that tells me when we’re ready to move on. If we meet again and they haven’t done their exercise or finished the reading or whatever, that’s completely fine, but we stay in that area until they’ve completed the work.
At the very least, we have to split the chapters up a little because several chapters combine more than one step, and while you don’t want someone to hang around a single step forever, you also don’t want someone tearing through them like checklist items just so they can be “done” with the 12 Steps. Each step is a foundation for the next one and needs to be relatively solid before moving on.
We don’t only talk about the book when we get together, but the book provides a structure, topics, and starting points for conversation and gives us a little map to see where people are at in their recovery. It also really helps us get to know the people that we sponsor, what their habits are like, what they do and don’t like doing, how serious they are in their recovery work, and so on. Everyone is in a different place, and that’s cool. It’s important for a sponsor or small group leader to know their people.
The framework the book provides also makes it easy to add in your own bits that you’ve found helpful or swap out exercises. For example, I have my own little moral inventory worksheets I like to give people when we get to Step 4, but the book still provides the structure for knowing when we’re ready for Step 4.
The feedback we’ve gotten back from this has been very good. A lot of recovering addicts lack structure and direction to their recovery, and this book provides it. The sponsors appreciate it because it lays out a road map for you. You never have to figure out what you’re going to talk about when you get together with your people. You may choose to spend your time in another way, but you always have the book to help set the stage.
The success rate has been very good and this book has become an important part of the texts our group reads and uses. In fact, in my group, it’s probably more widely read than the Big Book, itself.
Are There Other Books That Do This?
In the first place, there are several books that are addiction-specific that do something similar to A Gentle Path. It would take too long to list them, here, and I certainly haven’t read all or even most of them. Some of them are very workbookish and some have little or no stuff for you to fill in or do and some are in between. So, you may want to see if there’s a book specific to your addiction that seems to do the same things I’ve shown you in A Gentle Path.
I can’t say if such a book would be better or worse than this one if I haven’t read it, myself, but I will tell you that I found the fact that this book was not addiction-specific to be a selling point. It was very helpful in seeing across addictions to find our common issues and take them on, and if your recovery group isn’t addiction-specific, this becomes even more valuable.
Another book that comes to mind is Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps by Richard Rohr. I love that book. I’ll write a review of it on this site at some point. It is very popular and often quoted in my group.
It covers some similar ground, but Breathing Under Water does not explicitly lay out things for you to do and questions for you to answer. There are things that the text suggests, but the book is really more about helping you integrate the 12 Steps with spirituality than it is a practical guide through accomplishing the 12 Steps. So, even though there are strong similarities and I also highly recommend Breathing Under Water, you’ll prefer A Gentle Path if you’re looking for a more explicit, laid out path of stuff to do and questions to answer.
Yet another book you might try in this area is The 12-Step Buddhist: Enhance Recovery from Any Addiction by Darren Littlejohn. This book comes from the Buddhist tradition, which may attract some people and repel others. I mean, it’s in the name, so it’s not like it didn’t warn you. This book is another, spiritual path through the 12 Steps with plenty of personal stories from the author as well as many exercises. The exercises are very meditation and visualization heavy as you might expect, and a few of them depend on some preexisting knowledge of Buddhism. I will tell you, though, the book has a laser-like focus on sobriety and avoiding relapse, so even if you’re not a Buddhist, you may find plenty of helpful exercises to try. Obviously, if you are a Buddhist, you may appreciate coming at the 12 Steps from this perspective since most 12 Step books tend to be monotheistic.
Another book in this same vein is Mindfulness and the 12 Steps: Living Recovery in the Present Moment by Therese Jacobs-Stewart, which non-Buddhists might find easier to relate to, also has plenty of exercises, and focuses on the discipline of mindfulness that is so key to every recovering addict of every spirituality.
Recommended Or Not?
Yes, strong recommendation. If you made me start a brand new recovery group, today, and said I could only use one, single book, it would be this one. If you brought me a new addict entering recovery and said they could only read one, single book, it would be this one.
Yes, I know, people will say that spot should belong to the Big Book of A.A., but I’ve just got to speak from my experience of what works, and while I think the Big Book should be on every recovering addict’s bookshelf, the fact is that A Gentle Path lays out a road map and makes it easy to get another person involved. It’s clear, and it works.
It isn’t perfect and it’s not for everybody as I pointed out, but I will tell you that a lack of structure or a way of measuring progress is a huge issue for many people in recovery, and this book fits that bill.
Do you have experience with this book? Do you have books that you like that do the same thing? Let me know about it in the Comments.