The Recovery Blog

In 12 Steps: Sharing is the key to our success.

Sharing in 12 Step Meetings

We all bring secrets into recovery, but we can’t throw our garbage into the proverbial closet and leave it there indefinitely. After a while it starts to seep under the door and stink up the whole house. That’s why we have the 4th and 5th of our twelve steps:

Steps 4 and 5 of the twelve steps of Alcoholic Anonymous.

Those steps, shared with a sponsor or other trusted person, help us come to terms with our past. Getting our secrets out in the open gives us the willingness and ability to move beyond that part of our lives.

Repeating the 4th and 5th Steps, Again.

But cleaning up this “wreckage of the past” has to be thorough. Sometimes we aren’t able to get it all on paper or out of our mouths the first time. That’s why serious recovering people usually find themselves doing two, three, or even more 4th and 5th Steps, and it’s why we “continued to take personal inventory” as outlined in Step Ten. As our sobriety develops, more things become apparent that we need to let go, and as our trust in the program grows, so does our willingness to do the work.

Step 10 of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Discovering Emotional Cancers in Therapy

So we work the steps, and then we’re “happy, joyous and free.” Right? Well, the secrets of the past aren’t our only issues. Things crop up in recovery as well, and if we don’t talk about them, they can become little cancers that eat at our sobriety.

The pressures of life without our chemical crutches may cause us to veer off the path into other unhealthy behavior.Keeping Secrets: 12 Step

How many little secrets are we keeping today? The pressures of life without our chemical crutches may cause us to veer off the path into other unhealthy behavior. Excessive exercise, preoccupation with the attractive gender, gambling and a variety of other things may creep in. These things may help us cope by distracting us from the problems in our lives, but they can rapidly become problems in their own right. We need to stay on top of our behavior in order to be sure that we continue to move in the right direction.

We Are As Sick As Our Secrets : 12 Steps

Recovery is reprogramming. We overlay our old, unhealthy way of life with newly-learned skills. Over time, with practice, the new takes the place of the old and we sort of become sober out of habit. Keeping tabs on our secrets, those things that we don’t share with our supports, is keeping track of our recovery’s health, as well. “We’re as sick as our secrets” is one of the most important things we’ll ever learn in recovery.

So how bad are a couple little secrets? We need to take a look. Is the occasional hit of grass, the stops at the local bar for a soft drink and a couple games of pool with our old buddies, keeping that prescription for pain pills in the back of the desk drawer in case we suddenly catch a jolt of major pain, or the money we dropped at the track—are these the sorts of things we’re keeping secret in our sobriety?

One Sincere Option: Sharing is the Key to Success in 12 Step!

If we’re reluctant to share what we did, are doing, or planning on doing, with someone whose sobriety we respect, that’s a big, neon clue we could be heading for dangerous ground. Maybe it’s time to take a small emotional risk and share that secret with our sponsor or other respected, recovering person. Sharing is truly the key to our success, and can be such a relief!

Thought: We Are Not Guilty of Addiction

Whose Fault is a Drug Addiction? Parents or Individuals?

Not long ago I was conducting a therapy group at Sunrise Detox when a client shared about how bad he is, how he just can’t forgive himself, and that his addiction is all his fault. When I assured him that the disease is not his fault, another group member raised her hand and insisted that her disease is actually her parents’ fault. Again, I replied that her disease is not her parents’ fault.

We are not responsible for having become addicted; we are only responsible for our recovery.I replied that no one is to blame for addiction. As is the case with diabetes and similar diseases, we are not responsible for having become addicted; we are only responsible for our recovery. Well, that set off a firestorm of controversy, and a great discussion. The questions flew! “Then whose fault is it,” blurted yet another member of the group.

How can this not be my fault when I’m the one who picks up the drink/drug?

My parents make me so mad I just have to use…I can’t help it! How is that not their fault?

I’m an alcoholic and now my oldest son is an alcoholic too. He got this from me and I feel terrible about it.

Sometimes We Feel the Need to Assign Blame

Considering the devastation that addiction causes in the life of a person, a family, even a community, it’s easy to see why there’s a desire to place blame. If it’s not someone’s fault, we feel even more out of control. Humans hate not knowing the “why” of things, and if we don’t get good answers we make up our own. I love it when these questions and comments come up, because I get to give people good news.

not-guilty-quote2We are, I remind the group, accountable for our behavior, in or out of active addiction. Our addictive behavior affects other people, so when the time comes, the right thing for us to do is to make amends: to the best of our ability fix or make right the damage we have done to others. We are accountable, even though we were not in our right minds when we did the damage.

Is Addiction a Disease?

We are not responsible, however, for having the medical condition that caused us to act as we did. Although we may have made some unwise choices along the way, not one of us set out to devastate our lives by becoming an addict. Social, psychological, neurological and genetic factors combined to make what was, at first, a pleasant experience into a perpetual nightmare. We did not choose for that to happen, and would certainly not have done what we did if we had any idea of the real consequences. We are, perhaps, guilty of bad judgement. But we are not guilty of addiction.

Responsibility for an Addiction is Not The Same as Responsibility for Recovery

A parent who may feel guilty for passing the gene along needs to know that we have no more control over our offspring’s addiction than over the color of their eyes. The only control that we have regarding a child’s addiction from this day on is to be an honest example of recovery, a model of living in the solution and of finding happiness without substances.

We Are Responsible for Our Recovery

Just as we are not guilty of our own addiction and have no control over the addictions of others, others have no control over our addiction. We can remain solid in our recovery even if we are stressed, enraged, wounded, or feel uncomfortable about the behavior of someone else. However, we may find that distancing ourselves from people who trigger those emotions is beneficial for us, especially early on. That makes it easier to disentangle our emotions from theirs, strengthen our recovery, and develop some healthy boundaries. No matter what anyone else does, our recovery is our own responsibility.

Addiction— whether our own or that of others — is nobody’s fault. Sometimes stuff just happens, and no one is to blame.

Are You Trying To Microwave Your Recovery?

Recovery is less about outcomes, and more about how we live.

By nature, we addicts are impatient folks. We've always aimed at getting what we want, when we want it—if not sooner—and sometimes that worked, though seldom with any long term benefits. So not surprisingly, as newcomers, there’s a tendency among us to think of working a program in terms of reaching a destination. And quickly, if possible. We do this and this and this, and then we’ll be okay.

The Dangers of this Goal Oriented Approach

The trouble is, we are likely to fall into a goal-oriented approach, heading for an outcome, when really all we can do, is what we can do today. If we focus on the outcome we miss the process, and that’s where the good stuff actually happens. Doing the work and absorbing it is where the benefits lie: in the subtle improvements in the way we think, the mended relationships, the ability to better deal with stressors and much more. These are the result of experiencing and understanding the meaning of the steps, rather than just ticking them off a list. It’s a lot like the difference between “Never again!” and “Just for today.”

Some of us (and not just newcomers) seem to think of the Steps as something to be taken cafeteria style: Start with Step 1, jump to 9 for a quick “sorry”, then hop to 12, detour back to the Higher Power thing, then up to 11 for a bit of spirituality, then to 12, and so forth. Note that we omitted all those inconvenient ones—4 and 5, 8 and 10. You know, the ones that involve introspection, discomfort and work. That goes for 9, too.

Skipping Steps Hinders Our Recovery

Some of us may have treated other guidelines in the same hit-or-miss fashion—oh, say the 10 Commandments, or perhaps society’s laws (even common sense), and we've likely paid a price for it. All of those kinds of things, especially the 12 Steps, get in the way of thinking and behaving like addicts; they demand that we change, and we all know that addicts fear change. Fortunately, much of what we fear is reduced or eliminated by—you guessed it!—working the steps.

But the Steps and those other concepts aren't checklists; they’re lifestyles. Sure, we work the Steps formally with a sponsor. If we’re wise, we do it more than once. But, as it says in Step 12, we then practice these principles in all the aspects of our lives. Thus we have wonderful guidelines to help us grow, and then to serve us as a roadmap for the rest of our lives, if we so choose.

The Twelve Steps Work — If You Work Them

Step 1: We admitted that we were powerless over [substances] -- that our lives had become unmanageable.The Steps connect us to the rest of our sober lives: to our program, our supports, our families and friends, our coworkers, the rest of the world and—most importantly— to ourselves. After we truly understand Step 1, we begin to see how the other steps apply to everything we do, especially those things that connect us with others and with ourselves. We use them as guidance—all the time.

Sobriety is a good way to live. Just do it! Don't try to figure it out. Have a little faith, and follow in the sober footsteps of the millions who went before you. Sobriety isn't just about abstinence, it’s about the doors it opens up in our lives, and the courage to find what lies beyond the doors. It’s all there for you, one step at a time.

The Twelve Steps of Recovery: A Primer

Regardless of your own beliefs, the twelve step program is a proven method to overcome addiction. Dedicating time toward working the steps is the surest method to improve nearly every aspect of your life; as evidenced by the innumerable stories of recovery that are attributed to its success.

Did you know that there are many versions of these important steps?

While there are countless versions of the twelve steps out there, I thought it might be helpful to provide two of the most common. The traditional version (left) reflects the beliefs of those who follow theological religions — of nearly every discernable kind. The non-theist version (right) provides a helpful twelve-step process that relies on our own deeply held convictions, even if they aren't based in traditionally religious understanding.


Traditional Version

Non-Theist Version

Non-Theist Version

On the left side, we rely on the power of God to guide us through the process of recovery. Conversely, non-theists can find solace on the right, applying the same process by using their own deeply held inner strength to overcome the adversity of addiction.

As I write about these steps in future posts, I hope you will take the time to discover their meaning for yourself, and your own life — no matter what your intrinsic, deeply held beliefs entail. It's said often, because it's true; these steps work — if you work them.

Handling Cravings

Addiction is about compulsion, and about hiding from reality. A craving is a feeling that we want to get high — to forget who we are, what's happening, what happened in the past, things that worry us, family problems and so forth. There are times when we're unable to think about anything else, and others when the cravings are fleeting and easy to ignore. All of us had to learn to handle desires to use when we were newcomers.

Three Typical Forms of Cravings

Cravings are a normal part of recovery. They tend to take three forms:

  • Physical sensations, like an empty feeling in our gut, or tension in our shoulders;
  • Thinking about wanting to use;
  • Thinking about how we can make it happen.

Distancing Ourselves from Cravings

The first thing we can do when we realize we want to get high is leave the situation, or do something to change it. The second thing we can do is stop and think about what we're feeling. What triggered the feeling? What can I do to change the way I feel without using? We also want to remember that cravings are normal, that they don't last forever, and that they won't hurt us even though they're uncomfortable. Neither do they mean that we're working a lousy program of recovery. We can remind ourselves of how hard we've worked on our sobriety, and how we don't want to waste it, and that we've done okay so far, and we can beat this the same as the millions of other recovering people have beaten it.

Then we want to retreat and call for reinforcements: call another addict. Simply the act of making the call will help. If there's no answer, we leave a message and call someone else. Talking about the temptation always dampens the urge to use, and the phone is absolutely the best weapon against relapse.

We can have something to eat. Remember H.A.L.T.? We can review a list of reasons for not wanting to use, or accomplishments we're making in recovery. Some folks like to wear a rubber band on their wrist, to “snap out the thoughts” when they feel tempted. Look at pictures of loved ones to build strength and hope. We can breathe, relax, meditate, read some program literature, distract ourselves with something that's fun or interesting, listen to some music, write in our journal — anything but think about using.

Developing a Plan to Handle Cravings

Cravings are easier to handle if we have a plan.Cravings are easier to handle if we have a plan. We can write down an action list to carry in our wallet or purse, keeping it with our list of program phone numbers so that we can use it to organize our thoughts when we need to.

Finally we can let it go: “Yes, I want to use but I don't have to, and I choose not to. Now here's what I'm going to do for myself instead….” Cravings are not a sign of relapse — unless we choose to dwell on and feed them. Relapse is a process, not an event that happens at a particular time. By choosing to do the “next right thing,” we can learn to put the discomfort behind us, and move on to a life of sobriety, recovery and happiness.

Cross Addiction

In detox and treatment we often hear patients say things like, “I'm an alcoholic, but it won't hurt if I smoke a little weed now and then,” or “Those pills really messed me up; I'm sticking to beer from now on,” or “I can still hit the casino now and then, I don't have to drink while I'm playing,” or “No way I'm going to wait a year before I have a relationship; everyone needs sex!”

When we caution folks about these things, they naturally give us a lot of push-back.  The general attitude seems to be “You people don't want me to have any fun at all,” or “I have to live in the real world, and in the real world people _________!”  (You fill in the blank.)

The Dangers of Justification

We addicts love to get things done instantly.  Addiction is about getting what we want, when we want it.  Yes, we do have to live in the real world, but we weren't doing so while we were active in our addictions, and diving back into it headfirst is a recipe for disaster.  We simply aren't at home there, and haven't been for a long time.  The adjustments are uncomfortable, and many things can distract us from making them, since our brains are telling us we don't want to in the first place.

In order to realize why some things are a really poor idea for people in recovery, we need to understand that addiction occurs in our brains, and as far as our brains are concerned, one source of stimulation is pretty much the same as the next.

Understanding Addiction

Addiction — all addiction — is about the reward system, that mechanism of the brain that causes us to want to do things like eat, drink, associate with others, bond to others, make babies, and so forth.  When we play hard and win, we feel good because our reward system has gotten a dose of feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, endorphins and similar brain chemicals.  When we confront a problem and solve it, we get a feeling of satisfaction.  When we enjoy a movie, when we laugh, when we see a beautiful sunset — or a beautiful person — we enjoy those things because we get a jolt of those feel-good chemicals.  Romantic love, sexual pleasure, and the feelings of contentment, companionship and comfort that come from mature relationships are also due to stimulation of our reward systems.

But the reward system can be hijacked.  Drugs such as alcohol, cocaine and heroin — in fact, any drugs that make us feel good quickly — deliver their payoff via the reward system.  They do that by either replacing or mimicking chemicals that insure the delivery of a LOT of feel-good neurotransmitters to the reward areas of the brain.  When we use drugs, or when we compulsively engage in activities such as shopping, sex, gambling and other things that are highly exciting, we are able to artificially achieve a higher level of stimulation than we would naturally.  This makes us want to repeat the experience.

We Will Never Match that First High

The problem is, our brains quickly adjust to the higher levels of stimulation and we then need to "up the ante" by increasing whatever we are doing to achieve them.The problem is, our brains quickly adjust to the higher levels of stimulation and we then need to “up the ante” by increasing whatever we are doing to achieve them.  Two beers become four or five, one bag  of dope becomes three — or ten;  one shopping spree doesn't do the job, so we shop online; one “casual affair” becomes the first of many; one win at the slots keeps us searching for the next one.  We keep chasing that original, wonderful first high.  And we never find it.

So it's pretty easy to see how we can convince ourselves that we “need” something to “distract” us from our drugs.  The trouble is that the pills we take for our nerves, the hours on the Internet, the sets of iron at the gym, the marathons, the romances don't really distract us.  Our reward systems are still screaming for more, and because these things work on our reward systems in the same ways that our drugs of choice do, they are prime candidates to become substitute, or cross-addictions.

Breaking the Cycle of Dependency

The trick is to listen to folks who have been there.  We can substitute the healthy relationships in our recovery groups for the sick ones that are strictly for pleasure.  We can take long walks to help us sleep and to burn up the energy that seems to be driving us nuts.  We can take up hobbies, help other addicts, spend time with our new friends doing healthy things, and generally change our lives.

Or, we can end up with another addiction that will distract us from our recovery and most likely lead us back to our drug(s) of choice, with possibly another one or two added on for good measure.  Sound like the path to a happy life?  The decision is ours, and we have to make it for ourselves.  We need to choose carefully.

Problematic Behavior

In 12-step programs, people frequently refer to “jackpots”, or “consequences”.  Clinicians refer to these as “problematic behavior”.

What is Problematic Behavior?

These are events that, while they may not amount to a rock bottom, are clear indications of serious problems with addictive substances or behavior.

An alcoholic or other addict's denial may allow him or her to blow off a few such incidents, but as they pile up they reach a level of life-disturbing stress that becomes hard to ignore.  In fact, about the only way to deal with them is to either act out more addictively, or stop doing whatever is causing the problem.

Three Factors that Create Problematic Behavior

Problematic behavior occurs as a result of three factors:

  • impulsivity (doing things without thinking them through);
  • continuation despite consequences; and
  • obsession (focusing on using or acting out to the point of interfering with normal everyday activities).

Examples of Problematic Behavior

The examples that follow are common problematic behaviors, and can be considered major red flags marking the route to full-blown addiction — the point where one has to use or act out in order to function.

Preoccupation: something is taking up too much of our “thinking space”.  Our thoughts keep drifting back to whatever it is, distracting us from whatever is happening in real life.

Using or acting out more often or more heavily than we intended: We go into a bar for one beer, and come out three hours later, buzzed and late for dinner; we stop into the thrift shop to look for a blouse, and come out with ten items of clothing that we'll never wear; we pop a pain pill an hour or so before it's due, then forget and take another one an hour later, and so forth.

Repeated unsuccessful efforts to control our use or other acting out: We open up a porn site for a quick look, and find ourselves still looking three hours later; we decide to have one chocolate, and finish the whole box; we bring home a six-pack so that we can have a beer after dinner, and end up driving to 7-Eleven for another one three hours later.  We decide to have no more than five cigarettes a day.

Restlessness or irritability when trying to stop: This one speaks for itself, and often louder and less politely than we might have liked.

Using as a means of escaping from problems:  We do a couple of lines so we can be “up” when the in-laws arrive.  We have affairs with neighbors to forget about our problems at work.  We smoke a blunt because our folks keep bitching about our grades.

Using to relieve feelings such as helplessness, guilt, anxiety or depression: Sometimes these sorts of feelings ARE the result of conditions that need medication, but we aren't qualified to prescribe for ourselves, nor are the drugs available to us likely to be the best ones for the job.  Often we self-medicate without knowing it, which can make the situation much worse (although we may not be able to tell).

One of the invariable characteristics of drug use or acting out is that, as wonderful as it may have been the first time, it will never be that great again.Using repeatedly in search of a more intense experience: One of the invariable characteristics of drug use or acting out is that, as wonderful as it may have been the first time, it will never be that great again.  We develop tolerance to the stimulation, requiring more and more just to get the same high, and seeking that high drives further use and greater tolerance — a no-win situation.

Lying to family, therapists or others to conceal our use: Dude!  If you have to lie about it, you know better!  Don't put it on them, because you're the one who feels guilty, and it's your behavior that's causing your discomfort, not theirs.

Breaking the law (legally or morally) to support using or acting out: It may be that you have legal control of the family's finances, but that doesn't make it okay to put the rent money into the poker game, or use it to buy a round for the bar.  And needless to say, when you start stealing or acting out in illegal ways, you've crossed the line for sure.

Jeopardizing or losing a significant relationship, job, or an educational or career opportunity because of using or acting out.

Incurring significant financial consequences: Gambling debts, past-due mortgages, unpaid credit cards, unemployment, lawyer fees, court costs and fines, evictions.  You get the idea.

Legal consequences: If using has gotten us to this point, we are clearly in need of help, and lots of it.  With any luck, the courts may make it possible or even mandate it.  If we're exceptionally UNlucky, we'll get away with whatever it was, get no help, and keep on doing the same old things with predictable results.

Problematic behavior means problems, period.  It may include a lot of innocent bystanders, but it's our problem, and it's our job to tuck it up and do what we have to do.  No one can do it for us, although a lot of help is out there — if we look for it.