The Basics of Recovery

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.

One thought on “The Basics of Recovery

  1. Patrick

    I think the basics of recovery are universal, regardless of what program you are working. However, I do not believe that the process is simple. In fact, I have found that addiction and recovery are both relatively complicated ordeals.

    Look at it this way: try to explain recovery as NOT being a learning process. Can you do it? Sure, some people might have had a flash-of-light spiritual awakening and suddenly had all the answers, but for most of us, recovery is a learning process. And learning is complicated. Period.

    A simple program would be “Don’t drink no matter what.” But recovery is a growth process and is based on continuous learning and application and is therefore necessarily complicated.

    There are definitely ideas here worth exploring. What are the basics in recovery if they are not a foundation of lifelong learning? What do you think, Bill? If recovery is not learning-based, then why continue attending meetings?

    Another good question: do you think that our lives simplify as a result of this learning process? What is the mechanism by which this happens?

    Let’s keep the discussion going….

    Life is a continuous learning process. Recovery is learning directed toward the resolution of certain physical, practical and emotional difficulties that cause living problems, some general and others more specific. We will learn, either willy-nilly or in terms of a framework; in ways either skillful or unskillful.

    I progressed in recovery only when I began simplifying my life by ameliorating the effects of my addiction. Certainly I had to learn how to do that, but the process of learning is not necessarily complicated — only if we make it so. Willingness and good guidance tend to make it less so. Children learn quickly and with little effort, because they have no preconceived ideas to confuse them and because, as young creatures, their brains are programmed for learning certain things at certain stages of development. For many adults, much of learning is discarding preconceptions and encompassing new ideas. That becomes easier with practice, and as we discover that it doesn’t have to be frightening. Finally, we either learn what is necessary for our survival, or we do not.

    The portions of my life over which I have influence are far less complicated as a result of my recovery, and I continue to simplify as I can. I think the key to that is the philosophy embodied in the Serenity Prayer (and Buddhism), with the understanding that the only thing I can change is the way I think and behave.

    It is the framework that is simple. The process is whatever it is for the individual. For me, it was relatively easy. I can only speak of my own experience. I had no sudden awakening, apart from the understanding that I had little or no idea what I was doing, so I’d better listen to someone who seemed to.

    Asking if “our” lives continue to simplify is rather like asking why “we” drank and drugged. There is no answer or group of answers that applies to everyone, as far as I am aware. That is not an evasion. It is the only answer I have.

    I find, as I get older, that theory interests me less, and practice more.


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