AA

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.

A Brief Outline Of The 12 Steps — Step 3

This is the fourth 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.

“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

Step three has been the source of a great deal of controversy over the years.  It seems to be the reason for most objections to the 12 step programs, as well as the cause of most claims that they (especially AA) are religious cults.  Let’s deal with the cult issue first.

The overriding issue in defining a cult is harm: is it harmful or helpful to its followers?  All cults have three things in common:

  • Material and/or social gain on the part of an individual or individuals, with an essential disregard of the effects on the rank-and-file.  
  • Coercion of followers to remain in the group.
  • Isolation of members from the rest of society in various ways.  

There are others, but these three things are common to all cults.  The twelve step groups fail to meet any of the above criteria.

  • There is no material gain. Members can donate a dollar or two to help defray expenses such as rent, if they wish — or they can attend for months without contributing a penny.  
  • There is no social gain for leaders, because there are no real leaders.  “Our leaders are but trusted servants, they do not govern.”
  • Although some few people might argue otherwise, it is difficult to sustain any real suggestion that the fellowships do not help members.  Certainly it would be hard to support an assertion that they do them harm.  Obviously, for many, they do a great deal of good.
  • There is no coercion or isolation of members.  The general attitude among groups is that you are welcome, but that if you want to leave and try something else, or go back to your drug or activity of choice, then you are perfectly free to do so.  That is not to say that no one will attempt to talk you out of it, but that is the extent of any effort to prevent your leaving.
  • Finally, the entire purpose of the 12 step approach is to help people remain abstinent, deal with their issues, and return to a normal life.  Although there may be suggestions that a member limit contact with some people and situations in the beginning, in order to avoid temptation and stress, the ultimate purpose is to help them become productive members of society.  

The principle behind the Third Step is Faith.  If we do not believe that our course of action is in our best interest, we are unlikely to sustain it long enough to gain from our efforts.  When the steps were formalized, the expression “care of God as we understood Him” was an easily-understood way of expressing the need for faith.  In the 70-odd years since, it has become socially acceptable to think of religion in a variety of ways that were not common — or were left unspoken — in 1939.  

Religious people today adhere to the literal meaning of the words, but others choose to think of them as simply an expression of the need for faith in the process in order for it to have much chance of succeeding.  Many, this writer among them, have succeeded in remaining sober without faith in the religious sense.  

However, belief that we cannot do it alone (Step Two), and faith in the process of “working” the steps are essential.  Those who remain around the groups long enough will witness change in other members, and themselves.   They will grasp that the program works when people are serious about it.  Such direct, personal observation should be all the proof that anyone needs, if they are open-minded and willing to change.  

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 I do this on the outside — stay sober on my own?

You're asking the wrong question.  What we really need to know is how to find support on the outside so that we won't need to try to stay sober on our own.

One of the outstanding characteristics of active addicts is isolation.  Even when we're in a crowd, pontificating and running the show (or believing that we are) we don't really share the space with anyone else.  We don't have meaningful conversations.  We don't listen to what others say.  Our attention is turned inward, toward what we think, what we want others to think, what we want to keep secret, how this can work to our benefit — without concern for its effect on others.  We're concerned with how we can get our next drink or drug, how to manipulate others, how to bolster our nonexistent self esteem, and so forth.

We may share what's happening on the surface, but that's the problem: when it comes to our relationships with others, we're all surface.  What they see is not what's there.  We don't even know how to be honest with ourselves, and we surely aren't able to be honest and open with others.  That would put our relationships with our drugs in jeopardy, and no addict is going to chance that.  We don't know how to trust, because we can't afford to.

If you knew what I'm really like, you'd be disgusted.  Worse, you might take my drugs — my only friends — away from me.

So, one of the most important things about recovery is learning to relate to other people honestly.  We do that by developing relationships with people who will accept us as we are, who will be honest with us, and who will help us learn to be honest with ourselves.  We do that by gradually learning to trust others, so that we can be honest with them

We learn to relate to others honestly by developing relationships that are based on healthy ways of looking at life, outlooks that can take the place of a lifestyle centered around drinking, drugging, and the behavior connected with those things.  Eventually, we trust enough that we are willing to accept guidance in repairing other relationships, whether they be with family, friends, employers or the legal system.

We stay clean and sober by making in our lives, and in the way we approach life.  We get help doing that from people who have done it themselves.  We do it by developing a support group where we can practice recovery.  In short, we do it in AA, NA, or some other fellowship or group that can help us learn to live a lifestyle that is healthy physically, emotionally and socially.

If we don't do these things — if we continue to think the same way, relate to the world the same way, behave the same way — it is only a matter of time before we use again.  Why wouldn't we?

We don't do it on our own.

To paraphrase Dr. Phil, how was that working for you?

Sponsorship Stuff (Part 2)

Can a sponsor be an extended relative who attends AA and has been clean for over 10 years?

Most recovering people and recovery professionals consider it unwise for us to choose sponsors with whom we have anything other than a casual relationship.  Relatives (even distant ones), co-workers, and friends are generally thought to be off limits. Put simply, it’s not a good plan to have a sponsor with whom we have a past.

Relatives, even distant ones, have ties to our families.  Friends often do too, and the opinions of both friends and co-workers are important to us.  Because they share our histories to a degree, all of these people will have their relationships, opinions, resentments and so forth — perhaps even  involving some of the same people.  In most cases, that would hinder their listening to us objectively, and would most likely affect our ability to be open and honest with them as well.

Sponsorship, when it works properly, involves sharing many things that we would not necessarily want a family member to know, from things about the rest of the family to our own circumstances.  The same could well turn out to be true of co-workers and friends.  Generally speaking, a sponsor who is completely uninvolved with our outside history is best.  While we might be more comfortable with people we know in the beginning, it is likely that down the line our previous association will become an obstacle, especially when we are being guided through the steps.  That, of course, is a sponsor's primary purpose.

In addition to all of the above, by choosing someone we already know we are depriving ourselves of the experience of reaching beyond our safe space for help — a skill that most addicts and alcoholics need to learn.

My sponsor makes has me spend two weeks or more on every step. I don’t feel that I need that much time to complete a step.  Is this typical, and why?

It is not unusual for sponsors to move us through the steps even more slowly than that.  When I thought things were going too slowly, it usually meant that I didn’t want to look at issues as closely as I needed to.

The purpose of the steps is to help reshape our ways of thinking about life.  They are not simply items to be ticked off a list, but are meant to be put to use.  In early recovery, most of us didn’t have a grasp of our denial, the ways our behavior had hurt others, or how to go about dealing with those things.  Taking our time over the steps allows us to absorb the ideas behind them, and to begin putting them into action in our daily lives.

Another reason for not hurrying is that, as time passes, we inevitably remember other things — other issues to which the step’s principles can be applied.  If we rush through the steps without giving those things time to happen, we greatly lessen the impact of the work we are doing, both immediately and as we move on in our recovering life.

Are there groups like NA and AA for younger people?

We don’t know of any fellowships specifically for young people, although some may exist.  However, both AA and NA have groups that consist primarily of younger members. Generally their ages range from the mid-teens to mid-20’s, but it’s not unusual to find a few older members as well, and that’s a good thing.  People with substantial time in recovery provide the continuity that a group needs.

A check with the Intergroup office in your area will get you the information you need on when and where to find young people’s groups.  There are young people’s meetings, conventions, and a variety of other activities aimed at both newcomers and younger folks with some time under their belts, and they are a wonderful way to become engaged in activities within the fellowship.

We’ve always recommended that people go to a variety of meetings: open, closed, discussion, beginner’s, book meetings, young people’s, and so forth.  There’s no question that it is easier to relate to those who are closer to our age and at about the same point in recovery.  However, we need to remember that while we may feel more like they are our kind of people, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are in a position to provide everything we need to work a program.

If we are uncomfortable with old-timers because we believe they’re judging our recovery, perhaps we need to get to know a few of them and get their actual opinions, instead of assuming that we can read their minds.  We may be surprised.  And they may have a lot to offer us, once we decide to talk to them.  After all, they’re the ones with the track record and experience.

It’s a good idea to mix up our program friends, concentrating not on their ages but instead on the quality of their recovery — but don’t skip the young people’s activities.  They’re the fastest track to healthy fun in recovery, and if you’re not having fun, you’re doing something wrong.

It’s also worth mentioning that both AA and NA have “sister” organizations for young people with recovering parents, other family members, or friends.  Check out Nar-Anon Family Groups or Al-Anon Family Groups for more information.

Do I Really Need A Program Of Recovery?

If there is one form of denial that is common to most folks who aren’t sure if they really want to stay clean and sober, it’s “I don’t need a program.  I can do it myself; all it takes is willpower;” or, “I have plenty of support at home, I don’t need to go to meetings.”  Hard on the heels of that idea is “I don’t like (insert 12-step program here), it’s too (insert excuse here).”

You don’t have to spend much time in recovery to hear folks make these statements, and if you work in the recovery field, you hear it all the time.  It usually doesn’t take too long for those people to fade out of sight, and sometimes we see them come back, weeks, months or years later, with a better attitude.

Often we don’t.

There are a couple of secrets to making it in recovery.  One is to do whatever we can to get over the habits, both mental and physical, that led us to, or reinforced the use of, our drugs of choice.  Without going into detail, some of those are:

  • using at certain times and in certain places, or with particular people
  • making excuses to justify our using (“I deserve it; If you were married to her, and so forth)
  • “drinking at” people, using booze or drugs to withdraw and let them know we don’t need them
  • always smoking a cigarette when we’re on the phone, if that’s the addiction we’re working on
  • we could continue the list ad infinitum.

The other — perhaps the biggest — secret, isn’t really a secret at all.  It’s bounced around the rooms all the time, but somehow some of us manage not to hear it.  That’s to keep an open mind!  If we don’t like what we’re hearing, we need to remember two things:

  • there are no rules in the 12-step rooms, only suggestions; no right and wrong way to do it, only ways that we have found — through 70-odd years of experience — work for most people; and
  • use common sense.

The common sense part is obviously open to interpretation.  For example, the “no romantic relationships in the first year” suggestion is a good one.  A new relationship is about the most distracting thing that can happen to anyone, and we don’t need distractions.  On the other hand, if we’re already in a relationship that hasn’t soured completely, that suggestion obviously doesn’t apply.   However, if we used with our partner, (or used them as an excuse to use) maybe we need to re-think that, too.

Another example would be the “Higher Power Issue.”  If you want the god of a particular religion as your higher power, that’s fine.  If you don’t, that’s fine too.  The thing is, we need to admit that we can’t do it alone, and surrendering to a higher power has terrific symbolism.  It works for a lot of people.

If it doesn’t work for you, great.  Just remember that part about not doing it alone.  It’s nearly impossible to recover without the support of other recovering people.  We need to remember, too, as long as we’re on the subject, that just as we have a right to choose what we believe is right for us, so do others.  So if they want to talk about their god, that’s OK.  It isn’t catching.  If we can’t be that flexible, we’re in trouble already.  After all, tolerance is the first step toward a spiritual life.

Ask yourself these questions: Do I really want to get clean and sober?  Do I want to have a full, satisfying life?  Do I want to improve my self-esteem, clean up some of the wreckage, and generally become a productive human being — or do I want to die in my active addiction?

That, my friend, is the most important question you will ever ask yourself.  Don’t answer too hastily.