I just celebrated my 28th year sober from alcohol and drugs. I write that only to indicate that I know something about this thing we call “recovery”, even if I haven’t done it perfectly.
Over the years I’ve heard and read many times that AA and the other 12-step programs don’t really work very well; that they are effective for only a relatively small percentage of people; that the statistics show — blah, blah, blah. Putting aside the fact that since those programs don’t keep statistics (So from whence came that so-called data?), I’d have to say that I agree with them, but only with a major qualification.
As far as I can tell, the vast majority of these negative statements come from two kinds of sources: intellectuals who don’t understand the 12-step programs because they haven’t actually participated in them, and folks who have tried them and found that they “didn’t work” for them. I suggest that both groups have failed to comprehend two basic concepts of recovery:
1. “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path (emphasis mine); and
2. “It works if you work it.”
As one who fumbled through the process for many years before getting it myself, I can anecdotally state that these tenets are both true.
Recovery can not be realized intellectually. It took me 23 years and some really heavy-duty consequences to understand that. The things that shaped our personalities, our coping skills, and our predisposition to avoid reality in whatever way seemed to work for us cannot be thought away. Just as I had to work long and hard to develop a variety of skills to become a marksman, I had to do the same thing to develop the ways of thinking to succeed in recovery. I had to replace the habits of an addict with those of a sober person. I’m still working on it, but it’s a lot better than it was for the first 60-odd years.
I had to recognize unskillful ways of dealing with life, and how they applied to me. I had to begin to figure out why certain of my skills became skewed, and how they affected my development from a child for whom they worked, after a fashion, to an adult for whom they were no longer adequate ways of evaluating and dealing with my problems. I had to find help digging for those answers, and I still have to keep digging on my own and with the help of my supports.
I had (and have yet) to thoroughly follow that path. To make it part of my life, and to make it automatic, not something to think about, but something to do instinctively, just as did those other things back in the day.
That’s what the naysayers don’t seem to get: It’s not reading the books and learning the jargon, it’s digging into every step and extracting from them the reality of our lives. It works only if we stop hiding behind our tricks of the addict trade and become part of a community of recovering people. It works only if we plow through our fear and look at our demons, shining upon them the light of our understanding and banishing them — not back into our subconscious, but to wherever demons go when they’re unemployed. It works only when we decide to live our lives, not just experience them. It works only when we realize that recovery and sobriety are processes, not events; journeys, not destinations; that the end of the journey is not and will never be in sight, and that it’s okay.
These things are good for our humility, and humility is a major prerequisite for sobriety, along with empathy, compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and love — for ourselves and for our fellow travelers on the “road to happy destiny.” But…
…it only works if you work it.