Don’t use; go to meetings; get a sponsor; work the steps, carry the message. These are the basics of recovery in the 12-step programs. If we say “don’t act out,” 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 recovery, period. Continue reading
When we first get into a program of recovery, whether it is for substances or behavioral problems, we are still pretty-much controlled by our cravings. Think of addictive cravings as sort of like hunger: we may not be conscious of them every second of every minute, but if we have access to food we are going to eat — unless we have a very good reason not to.
Impulsive thoughts are closely related to compulsion. They just spring into our heads, seeming fully formed, because we’ve been used to acting on impulse. And because impulsive acting out has been our habit for so long, we may find that if our addictive thinking isn’t straightened out quickly, we’re in trouble. A friend of mine describes it like being in a bubble — it’s familiar, and easy to slide into. Once we’re in there, we’re effectively isolated from clear thinking and common sense.
“Think, Think, Think” is one of the most common slogans on display in meeting halls (sometimes turned upside-down to remind us of our jumbled thought processes). It’s to remind us to think things through before giving in to our impulses.
As addicts, we have to realize that we’re victims of “auto-thinking”. Our thoughts normally run first to the familiar ways of dealing with issues. Happy: act out. Sad: act out. Dog ran away: act out. Dog came back: act out. Pissed off: act out. Acting out may not mean getting high or going on a shopping spree. It may show up as anger — nearly always based on fear — or withdrawal (ditto), or in many other ways.
Then too, just because we have an idea doesn’t mean it’s a good idea! We need to check them out carefully, in our own heads, and with others. If we’re angry, we need to back away long enough to think about the matter, then try to approach it in a constructive way instead of impulsively blowing up. Going out with the gang to a bar probably needs some thought. Going on that date because we so miss interacting with people who might fill that empty place. Buying that expensive (whatever), likewise.
We also need to learn not to settle for the first good idea. There may be a better way to handle things. Our addict inside tells us that stuff needs to be resolved now — or it tells us we don’t have to deal with it at all. Neither is usually the case. We have time to reflect, but we have to deal with problems eventually, before they get bigger. Usually, though, we have time to back off and think about it: go to a meeting and share, call a sponsor or other recovering person, journal about it, or just reflect on the facts instead of what we think about it.
We don’t want to get locked into a rash decision, and until we learn the skills of contemplation, it comes naturally. First of all, Think, Think, Think!
It’s possible to find all sorts of advice about recovery, addiction, alcoholism and so forth on the Web. Everyone with a few weeks under their belt has a blog now, it seems, and there are a lot of treatment centers, addiction gurus and other sources more than willing to shed confusion on the matter.
And that’s a wonderful thing. There’s no such thing as too much recovery, and the newcomers especially offer a perspective that may be invaluable to someone new to the program. It’s hard to relate to some old guy with thirty years, but not at all hard to understand and share the struggles of someone who’s just getting his or her balance. However, some of it can be pretty overwhelming so I thought I’d tell you what I think are the essentials:
- Don’t use;
- Go to meetings;
- Get a sponsor;
- Work the steps.
These are the basics of recovery in the 12-step programs.
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 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, gotten some sobriety because of them, 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 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.
Recovery involves 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.
- Aug. 12, 2013 – Step by Step (12thstepper.wordpress.com)
- Does Science Show What 12 Steps Know? (news.nationalgeographic.com)
I was sorta back Tuesday, but not here. Here’s a letter I got yesterday. It’s also on the Q&A page, but it was pretty good so I thought I’d post it here. Names and identifying info omitted, of course.
Im from xxxxx. I have attended meetings and had a sponsor whom i still work for even though i stopped AA. I didnt make it past 4th step. I want to know when should i attempt to try again. what do i need to feel hopeless? why cant i find a higher power. why cant i believe? why do i think im unique? What is the alternative to aa? Beside jails institutions and death. i want to be happy.
Wow, Anon, sounds like you’re really uncomfortable! I can’t give you much in the way of advice. All I know is what worked for me, but I’ll be happy to comment on your email, based on that.
First of all, I suspect that your non-AA connection with your sponsor may have been the cause of some of your difficulties. A sponsor works best for me if that’s the only connection I have with him. The 4th and 5th steps are particularly difficult with someone we know from outside — especially an employer. Too much other stuff to keep us from being completely honest.
I think recovery is like riding a horse. If we fall off, we need to get right back on. After all, the whole point is saving our lives. If we are afraid to try that again, then there isn’t much hope, is there? I believe if I were in a similar situation I would go to some meetings on my own, listen to what the men have to say, and pick someone who sounds (first of all) happy, who sounds like someone I would be able to trust, and who has a few years in the program. There are many meetings in your city, and you can find them here (link omitted).
A higher power comes with time, and isn’t really essential. What is essential is the knowledge that we can’t do it alone. In that sense, the group and the fellowship can be our higher power — they can, while we (alone) can’t. Sounded like something I could hang onto. I’ve been sober 19 years next month, and I’m an agnostic. There’s plenty of time to consider who our higher power might be later on. For now, the willingness to let someone else help us is enough — but that willingness is absolutely essential.
Feeling unique was natural for me. I convinced myself no one could understand me, that I was different, that I needed special treatment — all those things that would help me avoid buckling down and actually working on a program of recovery. I don’t know why you feel unique, but if the above makes you feel uncomfortable, you might look at the possibility that you’re thinking the way I did.
There are many alternatives to AA. Google “recovery from alcoholism” and you will find all sorts of things. Keep in mind, though, that AA is the one with the 70-year track record. There is no question that it isn’t for everybody, but I felt I owed it to myself to take what seemed to me to be — in this case — the Road Most Traveled. I knew I was gambling with my life, and I wanted what looked to me like the best odds.
Remember that it took us a long time to get so screwed up. It would be ridiculous to think we will get better overnight, and it’s not the easiest thing we’ll ever do. Go to the “articles” section of my blog and read the early recovery section. Might find some enlightenment there.
And whatever you do, DON’T DRINK. You can’t make good decisions when your mind is switched off. Believe me, I know.
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. Continue reading