12 Step Groups

A Brief Outline Of The 12 Steps — Step 5

This is the sixth in a series of posts in which we hope to acquaint our readers with some of the details surrounding the programs that we recommend. There are a variety of other programs, but because we and most other facilities shape our treatment plans around the 12 Step fellowships, those are the ones on which we will concentrate.

Step 5 reads, “Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

In recovery, we say that we’re as sick as our secrets. Each of us has things in our past that we believed that we could never tell another person. They are almost always related to shame.

Shame is not the same thing as guilt. Guilt is the knowledge that I have done a bad thing. Shame is the belief that I am a bad person. See the difference? “It was bad,” versus “I am bad.” That’s a huge difference! We can put guilt behind us with relative ease by making up for our actions in some way, but shame becomes a part of us.

If we’re cleaning the kitchen, we can take the garbage out to the dumpster or we can dump it in the closet. If we do that, eventually it will start to seep out under the door, and it will become impossible to enter the kitchen, let alone the closet. To get our kitchen in order, we must first clean out that closet — a job no one wants, but one that is essential. Recovery — the rest of our lives — is like that kitchen, and Step 5 is the primary tool for cleaning all that garbage out of the closet. It is probably safe to say that complete recovery is impossible unless we free ourselves of that burden, and the only way is to tell another person about it.

The power of confession has been known for many centuries. For a couple of millennia it was one of the mainstays of Christianity, and it still is in some parts of the church. Our modern version is therapy, and sometimes we do need to talk to professionals about these things, but it is amazing how much of the burden can be lifted by the simple act of telling our secrets.

By telling them to another addict, we can be sure that we’re not divulging anything that’s likely to be new to them, shock them, or make them think less of us. We all have those closets, and we all had to take out the trash. We all understand that we were good people who did bad things, not the other way around. When we share with others, we rob the secrets of their power over us.

Obviously, in order to do this we need someone we can trust. Some use a sponsor. Some use a person in the fellowship with whom they feel especially comfortable, but have no close ties. Some do use clergy. As far as the “admitted to God” part goes, that’s a matter of personal belief. If we are religious, we might want to offer up the experience to our higher power as a kind of prayer for forgiveness. If our personal philosophy doesn’t run that way, the process will still work.

The principle behind Step 5 is Integrity: honesty with ourselves, with others, and willingness to practice it even when we’d rather not — doing the next right thing, regardless of our fears. It’s scary. Along with Step 4, the Step 5 was a hard mountain to climb for all of us. But once over it — as every recovering person will tell you — the rest of the road is pretty much downhill.

What Are The 12 Steps?

This is the first in a series of posts in which we hope to acquaint our readers with some of the details surrounding the programs that we recommend.  There are a variety of other programs, but because we and most other facilities shape our treatment plans around the 12 Step fellowships, those are the ones on which we will concentrate.

Twelve step groups have been much in the news over the past few years.  Most people have heard about one or another celebrity who was in AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), NA (Narcotics Anonymous) SAA (Sex Addicts Anonymous), or another of the roughly 200 fellowships more or less based on AA’s original 12 Steps.

The steps as we know them today were first published in the book “Alcoholics Anonymous” (1939). They were a synthesis of the combined experiences of the first roughly 100 members of the fellowship that took its name from the book, combined with principles from other sources.  There are far too many good histories of AA for me to presume to go further.

Essentially, the 12 steps are designed to change the way we look at addiction, our lifestyles, and the problems they have caused. They help us to accept the reality of our problems, identify issues, and guide us in clearing up “the wreckage of the past.” Finally, they provide us with means to continue to nurture our new way of life, and encourage us to help others achieve the same goals.

The steps work — for people who put in the effort.  However, they require quite a bit of work in order to gain the benefits. Many people who give recovery a try find that they are not able to do the work that is needed, for whatever reasons.  That isn’t surprising, because change is frightening, and because we alcoholics and addicts are accustomed to getting what we want quickly.  How long until I can connect to my next fix, pill, or exciting experience?  Is the sun “over the yardarm” yet, so that I can give myself permission to have that first drink?

After all that time thinking in the short term, it becomes difficult to think in any other way. Thus, when faced with several months or years of working on making changes in our lives and thinking, many of us find it difficult to knuckle down and get started.  Combine this with the ability of all addicts to find reasons, excuses and so forth for avoiding unpleasant things, and the ever-present temptations of old people, places and things, and we can see that there are some real obstacles to successfully completing the necessary work. This is true of all recovery programs, not just those based on the steps. As they say in the rooms, “It works if you work it, but it won't if you don't.”

In our Friday post, and those following, we will cover the steps and the rest of the program in more detail.

How do you stay clean and sober after treatment?

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 include all variations of addictive behaviors, and if we broaden our definitions to include other successful recovery programs and their processes, these are the basics of true recovery. I’m writing about 12-step programs specifically, because they are what I know best and they are the path that we recommend at Sunrise.  Nonetheless, the same principles apply in one way or another to all recovery 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. Most of the time our families haven't a clue about where we're coming from. Even if some of them do, it’s hard to take guidance from people that close, and it's nearly impossible for them to look at situations with the necessary detachment to allow them to guide us 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. Unlike family, they are not the people who wired our buttons, and they 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 people are serious about them. 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. As it 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. 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 and most of my friends did it. I can only speak of what I know.