Don’t use; go to meetings; get a sponsor; work the steps: These are the basics of recovery in the 12-step programs. If, by “don’t use,” we can include all variations of addictive behaviors, and if we broaden our definitions to include other successful recovery programs, these are the basics of true recovery — period. I’m writing about 12-step programs, though, because they are what I know best.
Abstinence, of course, is essential. We don’t get over behavior or physical addiction by keeping the taste of it fresh in our minds. Drugs (including alcohol) require abstinence to allow our brains’ chemistry to begin to normalize, and our heads to clear so that we can begin to change our ways of thinking and living without interference. As long as we are distracted by the pleasurable — or at least familiar — sensations generated by our addictions, we aren’t going to get very far. All creatures tend to stick with the familiar — a concept known as homeostasis — unless jolted out of their ruts by some sort of severe discomfort. Crawling back into the same ruts is not the answer.
Going to meetings is simply the logical thing to do. We need the support of people who know where we’re coming from. Most of the time our families don’t. Even if some of them do, it’s hard to take guidance from people that close — and nearly impossible for them to look at situations with the necessary detachment to allow them to guide effectively. If they are that good at guidance, and we were that willing to listen to them, why do we need help?
Meetings, on the other hand, give us contact with people who know how we feel and how to start feeling better, since they have been down the same path and had to make the same sorts of changes in order to salvage their own lives. They are not the people who “wired our buttons,” and are far more likely to be able to look at us and our difficulties with a clear head.
The steps are simply the process by which we slowly gather the fragments of our emotional and social selves back together so that we can function effectively in our new lives. There is nothing mystical about them. They are simply applied psychology, and the reason so many counselors and physicians recommend them is because they are known to work. When you get right down to it, they’re about as mystical as hoeing weeds out of a garden. Romanticize the process of gardening though we may, it’s still a lot of hard work to get a decent crop.
Sponsors are the interface between recovering people and the steps. The purpose of a sponsor is to guide us through the steps and support us during the journey. They are not shrinks, accountants, consciences, bosses or experts. They are not there to drive us to meetings, loan us money, or mediate our domestic strife. They are simply people who have successfully completed the steps and are able to explain them to someone else.
Most emphatically, they are not our new best friends. While we should be able to get long with them, it isn’t necessary to even like them. What we must do is respect what they have accomplished, and desire to accomplish the same things. That’s why it’s necessary to watch folks for a while before we decide to ask them to sponsor us. The most unsatisfactory experience I ever had with a sponsor was several years into sobriety when I asked for some help without peering beneath the surface. Turned out the reason I was attracted to that person was because we were too much alike — he had some of the same problems I did. (Remember, we’re attracted back to the familiar.) It didn’t work out.
Watch. Look. Listen. Spend some time doing so. When we find someone of whom we can say, “That is the one I can trust enough to follow down some rough roads,” we are on the way to choosing the right sponsor.
Who said recovery was complicated? It’s a lot of work, but it’s really pretty simple. We may need additional help beyond our 12-step programs, but physicians, counselors and medication are not the final answer. They are only for the purpose of dealing with specifics. When we decide to redesign our lives, we need the long-term support of folks who understand us — and our recovery.
At least that’s how I did it, and I can only speak of what I know.